Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale”

by Jess

Where to begin? The 748-page novel itself? Or with Shakespeare, perhaps. I have only just finished reading a fascinating 1993 Paris Review interview with Helprin, and I can’t quite get it out of my mind, so I think I shall begin there.

I’ve been reading quite a few reviews of Winter’s Tale since I finished it several evenings ago, primarily in an attempt to make sense of the ending, which leaves the reader with more than a few questions. I found that many people adore the book, just as many deplore it, and a number of others find it beautiful but lacking. I think the interview with Helprin would be good reading for many of his detractors because he articulates himself in such a bizarrely unique way that I feel I understand why Winter’s Tale could not have been written any other way. He says, among other things, that he’d rather go to war than to a cocktail party, that he finds it dishonorable to give book readings, and that, during his long Sunday morning runs on the Upper West Side, he would…

pass thousands and thousands of people in restaurants eating . . . (I won’t say this word, because I hate it so much, but it rhymes with hunch, and it’s a disgusting meal that is supposed to be both breakfast and lunch). There they were—having slept for five hours while I was doing calisthenics and running—unshaven (the women too), bleary eyed, surrounded by newspapers scattered as if in a hamster cage, smoking noxious French cigarettes, and drinking Bloody Marys while they ate huge quantities of fat. They looked to me like a movie version of South American bandits. I would never want to be like that. I prefer to live like a British soldier.

Later in the interview, Helprin describes Winter’s Tale as an ode to New York City and explains how he spent years buying books about New York and reading obsessively in the New York Historical Society, working “to fathom the city—in a labor, actually, of love.” I would suggest that he succeeded in this aim, if there is indeed such a thing as fathoming a city such as NYC.

The novel begins with an epigraph: “I have been to another world, and come back. Listen to me.” I searched for this phrase online, but the only links that quote it are related to the novel itself, so I’m assuming it’s not a quote from another source but rather a character from the novel speaking to the reader. As such, my guess is that it is spoken by Peter Lake, the protag of the novel.

The prologue continues in italics (as does the epilogue, leading me to conclude this is all Peter Lake). It begins: “A great city is nothing more than a portrait of itself, and yet when all is said and done, its arsenals of scenes and images are part of a deeply moving plan. As a book in which to read this plan, New York is unsurpassed. For the whole world has poured its heart into the city by the Palisades, and made it far better than it ever had any right to be.”

Then the novel itself begins in earnest, setting us gently in New York at the end of the twentieth century, with Helprin’s characteristic gorgeous prose: “There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood.” Though I could not always precisely picture it, I love the many descriptions of color in this novel, in the beginning often dealing with cool winter colors but toward the end moving to hot, burning colors. In fact, one character, Pearly Soames, is obsessed with color and seems to fall into a trance whenever he encounters a particularly saturated one.

After the horse, named Athansor, who is actually one of the main characters, we meet Peter Lake. Helprin’s own website offers perhaps the best concise summary of Peter Lake (who is always called by both his names) and the basic storyline: “Though immensely complicated, the story is centered upon Peter Lake, a turn-of-the-century Irish burglar, and Beverly Penn, a young heiress whom he encounters in robbing her house, and who eventually will die young and in his arms. His love for her, and a gift of grace, will allow him after the most extraordinary and painful explorations and discoveries to stop time and bring back the dead.” As Benjamin De Mott said in his famous 1983 New York Times review of the novel, “We’re now scarcely more than a tenth of our way through ‘Winter’s Tale,’ and my plot summary is a tissue of (to me) painful omissions.” Simply put, too much happens in this novel to describe. The romance between Peter Lake and the lovely Beverly always gets top billing, but there are a number of other magical love stories later on: Hardesty Marratta and Virginia Gamely, for one: “The lovely woman in a white dress with violet borders, in a room that gave out beautifully on gardens and the bridge, had become for Hardesty a personification of the city rising. And besides, city or no city, he loved her.” My favorite may be Asbury Gunwillow and Christiana Friebourg, who live in adjoining apartments and fall in love talking through the wall without ever having met:

Sometimes they spent hours lying next to the wall, saying anything that came to mind, telling their histories, what they had thought, and what they had dreamed. In this way, they became so intimate that it was as if they were having a blistering love affair without anything like a wall between them. … Her voice was beautiful, and he knew that he loved her–that was enough. She agreed to marry him, and they decided to meet in the roof valley on the first fine day. …

First, her hand came over the edge while she climbed up on the balcony rail. Then she rose in one quick movement, and stood before the lover that she had never seen. She was more than pleased. And he was stunned.

“I knew it,” he said, in triumph, struggling to take her in all at once. “I knew that you would be the most beautiful woman in the world. And goddammit,” he said, stepping back a pace so as not to be overwhelmed, “you are.”

I would have loved the novel as a simple twentieth century tale, but of course, the story is not simple, and it involves time travel and dead characters brought back to life (a la Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale) and downright Dickensian plot twists and interconnections. De Mott says in his review, “Is it not astonishing that a work so rooted in fantasy, filled with narrative high jinks and comic flights, stands forth centrally as a moral discourse? It is indeed. And although I would insist that it’s the vividness of the ideal in this book that’s the source of its moral weight, and although it’s clearly the fantasies that carry the ideal, I do not pretend to know why or how the marvelous concord of discords in Mr. Helprin’s ”Winter’s Tale” is achieved. I can testify only to the force of the book’s summons to wider vision, to the strength of its command to see anew and to the pivotal significance of the author’s reflections on the city itself in driving us toward awareness of his fundamental seriousness.”

And he’s right: the novel is filled with fun and games, like Hardesty’s strange travels with Jesse Honey or his insane mathematics in the pool hall or any of the scenes set in the faery-land Lake of the Coheeries town, but it is primarily concerned with big ideas. The intro to Part II describes the four gates to enter a city, gates that are not made of stone but are “implementations of justice.” They are 1.) acceptance of responsibility, 2.) desire to explore, 3.) devotion to beauty, and 4.) selfless love. Toward the end of the novel, Peter Lake is rushing through the burning city and sees the unfolding of the city he once knew in a lovely litany of scenes (“the horses straining at their wagons, the snow dumpers hard at work, the firemen and their urnlike engines,” etc.), and we read, “And Peter Lake knew that these things were nothing in themselves but the means by which to remember those he had loved, and to remind him that the power of the love he had known was repeated a million times over, from one soul to another–all worthy, all holy, none ever lost… and he was touched very deeply by the will of things to live in the light.”

The novel begins to lose some dramatic tension as it writhes and wriggles its way toward the end. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on as the city begins to burst into flames. I don’t pretend for a moment to understand what happened at the end. It seems the cloud wall is the secret to Peter Lake and Athansor’s immortality, along with Soames and the Short Tail gang, but I don’t understand what happened with Beverly Penn (whom I kept expecting to reappear), or, for that matter, Jackson Mead, Cecil Mature and the Rev. Mootfowl. I don’t understand how little Abby Marratta from the year 2000 was also the dying child in a tenement a century earlier. I don’t understand Hardesty’s attempt to climb into heaven at the top of the health club on Wall Street. And I don’t understand the deal with the spielers, Little Liza Jane, Dolly, and Bosca. But this book captured me so profoundly that I am dizzied by it. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review published a list of American novels that had been voted on by writers, critics, editors, etc., attempting to identify the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years. They ultimately crowned Toni Morrison’s Beloved as the winner (to date, I’ve not been able to wrap my head around Toni Morrison’s work, but I’ll have to give it another go), but Winter’s Tale was one that received multiple votes. That makes sense to me. This is a book that should be read.

And soon it will be a film that (I hope) should be watched! I don’t know its exact release date, but Akiva Goldsman is directing and Hans Zimmer is writing the score. According to wikipedia, the cast includes Will Smith, William Hurt, Russell Crowe, Colin Farrell, and Jessica Brown Findlay.

Seeing as how I was deeply moved though not always fully illuminated by this powerful novel, I’ll leave you with what seems like a fitting quote that I loved and that keeps playing in my mind. In the final epic scenes of the novel, Hardesty and Virginia attempt to save the life of their dying daughter, Abby. Hardesty says, “Miracles come to those who risk defeat in seeking them. They come to those who have exhausted themselves completely in a struggle to accomplish the impossible… [My father’s] last wish was that I save myself for a battle I would not understand. Do you know what he said? He said, ‘The greatest fight is when you are fighting in the smoke and cannot see with your eyes.’ “

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