In defense of Helprin’s Winter’s Tale.

I blogged before about the Mark Helprin piece from 2blowhards, which you should read now if you haven’t already. The blowhards talk about Helprin’s politics, and how his right-wing leanings caused him to fall out of favor with the New York literati—and this is a topic in and of itself but I’m not going to talk about it. Instead, I’m going to delve into the novel they use to introduce Helprin: Winter’s Tale.
I first started reading Winter’s Tale on a (rather surreal) trip to Costa Rica, and it made me want to go back to the Northeast with a desperation that sent me hurtling to the MFA the day after I flew back to Boston. I loved the book, and read it again that January, and again this past winter. But I am not a blind devotee. I’d be the first to admit that Winter’s Tale is flawed in many ways. For starters, it’s clearly Helprin’s most ambitious book—a difficult task—and it’s been criticized for its length, which, at 673 pages, is a bit intimidating. It tends to lose readers after part one due to an abrupt cast-of-characters shift that throws readers for a loop. I’ve had friends who I’ve encouraged to read the book tell me that they loved the first section, but when the cast of characters changed entirely in part two, they felt betrayed and put the book down, despite my assurances that the characters they loved from the beginning would indeed return. I may not be the best critic of this book, since I seem to be the statistical outlier in that I had no trouble whatsoever blowing straight through the whole thing with rabid joy, but I will agree that Helprin doesn’t get it quite right. But—there’s another but—I love the book because I know what he’s trying to say—I sense it as strongly as he does, and he articulates it better than I or anyone else ever has.
Winter’s Tale is different from Helprin’s other novels, which by and large follow this template: A young man has an amazing childhood filled with hearty pleasures, wholesome mischief, aesthetically uplifting surroundings, and morally fortifying experiences. He grows up, falls in love repeatedly with unbelievably beautiful women, goes to war, is changed, but his deeply held beliefs about beauty in the world are never shaken. He retains his mischievous side, and has many adventures as a result. His wartime experiences fortify and affirm his convictions, and, though he sufffers greatly, in the end he finds himself at peace—he suffers, and he rises. Before his death, he shares his wisdom with a younger man.
As far as I can tell, this is a vague template of Helprin’s own life, and the novel-writing is his wisdom-sharing. The majority of his novels are, then, about him: Refiner’s Fire, A Soldier of the Great War, and Memoir from Antproof Case all follow this pattern. All three also have a hint of the fantastic in them, that magical realism he’s so deftly good at, perhaps because his sensibilities about what it’s like to live in this world are so spot-on. It’s probably to Helprin’s credit that he can write the same story three times and have it stay so marvelously compelling and moving; but, that said, at their core, Refiner’s, Soldier, and Memoir are essentially the same book.
Winter’s Tale, however, is something completely different. To begin with, it is not simply one man’s journey: though it centers around the figure of Peter Lake, its cast of characters is enormous, and the feeling is one of journeying with a multitude, the multitudes of New York City, or perhaps more accurately the city itself. It does not take place in one generation, but extends across several, spanning the twentieth century in its entirety and attempting to make sense of it. Perhaps most notably, there is no war—in fact, for a book so concerned with the twentieth century, the World Wars get surprisingly little mention, especially for a Helprin novel, where character-forged-in-wartime is an inevitable theme. For the first time, he’s trying to articulate something even bigger than the (arguably big) things he’s learned through his own life experiences: he’s putting his theories in a larger context, tackling not just the twentieth century but its place in human history. If Refiner’s Fire, A Soldier of the Great War, and Memoir from Antpoof Case (the latter being perhaps his “best” novel in terms of sheer tightness—it’s the Helprin template through and through, and utterly hilarious and lovely) are his attempts to describe his life and outlook to his readers, Winter’s Tale is his attempt to articulate his theory of everything. You have to give the man credit for even trying to do something so vast and complex. Perhaps this is what I love most about Winter’s Tale: the clarity of Helprin’s vision, if not of its execution. Reading the book, you are certain he understands precisely what it is he’s trying to pin down in words: he feels it pointedly, to the quick, and he’s utterly devoted to communicate it or die trying.
Helprin throws himself unabashedly and unadornedly into the task of describing the world he sees— and not just the world, but life, and love, and death, and justice, and good, and beauty, and art, and probably God, and definitely time and space. He gets a bit heady, but I think Helprin being heady is Helprin being honest, and in this sense the book is his most open and naked work. His theories are not couched in a straightforward story the way they are in his “template” novels: Winter’s Tale is almost manic in its pursuit of something Big and High and Great. It’s a breathless, monstrous work, unlike pretty much anything I’ve ever read. It is at once history, romance, adventure, STS text, social commentary, political statement, moral discourse, and prediction of the future, wrapped in one of the most brilliant love letters to New York ever written.
Make no mistake about it: Helprin is trying to do something enormous in Winter’s Tale, and he almost gets it. It is a glorious book in spite of its flaws, and anyone with the patience and interest to stick it out will discover what I’m talking about—and, more importantly, what he’s talking about. It’s a novel that gives you the feeling of having caught a glimpse behind the curtain: Helprin’s seen it, and he’s pulling it back just a bit more for us to see.

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4 thoughts on “In defense of Helprin’s Winter’s Tale.

  1. RE “I seem to be the statistical outlier in that I had no trouble whatsoever blowing straight through the whole thing with rabid joy”
    This is one measure you can take of whether or not you are “too rigid” or have some kind of iron band wound around your head (or tongue) — such as I feel occasionally criticized for.
    We two are actually (despite individual flaws and frailties) among the least rigid or too-tightly-bound: we are able to blow straight through disjunctures to the place of discovery where they make sense … like TA’s claim that there is a rhythmn in the room, a pulse in the universe, and order to things. (You’ll be amused to learn that, probably owing to WH’s servitude unto them and articulate advocacy of it, I have been lending an ear to Phish of late, mostly on that CD you made available, and MAY be becoming something of a neophyte devotee. Nah…never happen, but just ‘maybe.’)
    Nib to plane: Here’s where we begin.

  2. Nicely put comments on Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale,” as well as on his oeuvre in general. As you say, he has a tendency to rewrite the same coming-of-age novel over and over, and most critics are far more forgiving of him for that than I am. To be honest, the only Helprin novel I really enjoy is “Winter’s Tale”, and I enjoy it so much more than the rest of his work — and so much more than most other books — that it’s almost as if it was written by an altogether different writer. It is more deft, funnier, more accidentally sagacious, less self-conscious, less doggedly philosophical, less arch, loopier, loonier, sadder, and so on, generally a pell-mell mess — but a fine mess indeed.

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