Mark Helprin’s Ellis Island & Other Stories

by Jess

I hope you’re in the mood to read because this post has, like, dozens of words.  I quote Proust for goodness sake!  You are astonished at my erudition!

So anyway, this lovely collection of 10 stories and a novella was the winner of the National Jewish Book Award and a nominee for both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Book Award.

The fabulous opening story, “The Schreuderspitze,” begins like this:

In Munich are many men who look like weasels. … Remarkably, they accentuate this unfortunate tendency by wearing mustaches, Alpine hats, and tweed.  A man who resembles a rodent should never wear tweed.

I love it.  Another sparkling moment is found in the opening paragraph of “Palais de Justice”: “For quite a while the room must have been doing whatever rooms do when they are completely empty.”  But aside from the humor, Helprin’s prose is quite beautiful.  Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times observed that Helprin’s work is marked by language “more classical than conversational”; his language does add some density, but it doesn’t make it difficult to read by any means.

A reviewer once wrote that Helprin writes as though he grew up everywhere, and his stories span from Israel to Germany to Long Island to London to Boston (in truth he was raised on the Hudson and in the British West Indies; did postgraduate work at the University of Oxford, Princeton, and Columbia; and served in the British Merchant Navy, the Israeli infantry, and the Israeli Air Force).

“A Vermont Tale” struck me as positively Proustian.  A young boy and his sister are sent to stay with their grandparents in Vermont one snowy winter.

Our room was in the attic.  It had a big window through which we could see mountain ranges and clouds beyond the meadows.  At night, a vast portion of sky was visible from our bed.  When I opened my eyes after being asleep, the stars were so ferociously bright that I had to squint.  They were not passive and mute as they sometimes are, but they shone out and burned like white fire.  I have never fallen asleep without thinking of them.  They made me imagine white lions, perhaps because the phosphorescent burning was like a roar of light.  A fireplace was in the room; a picture of Melville (the handsomest man I have ever seen, surely not so much for what he looked like but for what he was); wooden pegs on which to hang out goose vests and Christmas hats; shelves and shelves of illustrated books.  Most remarkably, the ceiling was painted a deep luminous blue.

Compare that to this excerpt from Proust’s Swann’s Way:

At Combray, as every afternoon ended, long before the time when I should have to go up to bed, and to lie there, unsleeping, far from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom became the fixed point on which my melancholy and anxious thoughts were centred. Some one had had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come: in the manner of the master-builders and glass-painters of gothic days it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted, as on a shifting and transitory window.

And then, just as Proust meditates on memory (“The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object…And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.”), Helprin shifts the perspective of the story just slightly, so we get this magnificent image:

As the days became calibrated into wide periods of light and dark, we lost track even of the weeks, much less the hours.  Later, when I was wounded in war, they shot me full of morphine.  The slow bodiless breathing was just like the way time passed that crystalline January.

One Amazon reviewer of this collection found the stories uneven.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say uneven, but I did get the sense that these stories really function at their best together, that is, if one story left me feeling a bit puzzled, the next one would set me aright again.  In this way, the collection functions properly as a complete work of art.

By far, my favorite piece was the titular novella.  In her review of the collection, Rhoda Koeing praised the novella and then said, “Some of Helprin’s other stories, long on mood and short on plot, seem like watercolor sketches for more finished work, but the majority of them shimmer with the bright and lavish metaphors of this most accomplished artist.”  The novella shimmers.  It’s a fun romp through turn of the century New York through the eyes of a rabbinically trained goofball.  I don’t know that we ever find out his real name, though he gives it as Guido da Montefeltro, Hershey Moshelies, and Whiting Tatoon to different people.

In the opening, a ship is crossing the Atlantic for America.  The sea is wild and fractious, and the people are terrified.

I was offered money to read prayers, but I refused.  The Talmud and the body of prayer, by their own decree, must not be used as a spade to dig in the ground, and, besides, when the ship swayed in storms, reading made me dizzy.

“If you won’t read prayers for money,” some of the passengers asked, “will you read them for free?”

I told them that I never ask God for anything whatsoever, since I assume He will give me exactly what He sees fit.

“Isn’t there a prayer for those who are lost at sea?” they wanted to know.

“Certainly,” I answered.  “There are scores.  I myself know about a dozen.”

“Well then say them!” they screamed.

“No,” I said, “I won’t.”  And I didn’t.

And so it goes on, in this very fun and rather fantastical way, to a satisfying ending, both for the novella and the collection as a whole.

According to the illustrious Wikipedia, in 2006, the New York Times Book Review came up with a list of American novels, based on responses to “a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify ‘the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.'” Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale was one of the books that received multiple votes.  I haven’t read it, but that’s pretty high regard, although the book receive mixed reviews when it was published.  If you’re interested in getting into Helprin’s work (his fiction, I mean, because he’s also published many nonfiction essays on art, culture, and politics), it might be a good starting point.

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