Impromptus

The Gift of a Book, Part I

by Jay Nordlinger

I’ve just had one of the best reading experiences of my life — Mark Helprin’s latest novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow. The author, you may know from journalism. He writes about politics, foreign policy, defense policy, and other things. But he is primarily, I think, a novelist.

A Soldier of the Great War is some people’s favorite book. A musician friend of mine once told me, “I believe A Soldier of the Great War is the best novel of the last half-century.” He was kind of astonished to hear I knew Mark. I confess to enjoying his astonishment.

Winter’s Tale is some other people’s favorite book. I understand it has sold more than a million copies, worldwide. It is being made into a movie, or has already been made into a movie. My hotshot cousin worked on it.

Mark is also a writer of short stories, and, for a period of years, The Pacific and Other Stories was my most frequently given gift. It’s hard to give books now, except through the mail. So many bookstores have shut down.

I should mention that Mark Helprin — our novelist, our writer — is not to be confused with Mark Halperin, the journalist who works for Time magazine. These are two versions of the same name, coming out of the Old World.

Thinking about Helprin and his two worlds — journalism for the Wall Street Journal and other publications and then the novels and short stories — I think of an episode involving William F. Buckley Jr. I was about to leave Washington, D.C., to go to New York to work for National Review. Explaining this to another musician friend of mine — a soprano — I mentioned WFB.

She said, “Not the spy novelist.” I said, “One and the same.” She had no idea that Bill had anything to do with a magazine or journalism or politics.

Bill enjoyed hearing this story, and was not at all surprised. He explained that his various audiences barely overlapped — his audiences being readers of his column, readers of National Review, readers of his spy novels, readers of his sailing books, watchers of his television show . . .

Me, I wanted to inhale it all.

So, In Sunlight and in Shadow. What is it? It’s a love story, and just about the most intense love story you could ever read. I know Romeo and Juliet had the hots for each other, but like these two? Yet Helprin’s book is more than a love story. Its themes include honor, duty, religion, war, peace, the theater (yes), sacrifice, justice. Maybe justice above all. This is a big book, and unapologetically so. It’s not just long, it’s big in scope.

I am still living in the atmosphere of the book, and don’t want to leave it. I’m not sure it would be easy to leave, at this juncture, even if I wanted to. I’m going to do a series of notes on the book — regular readers are well acquainted with this drill. I’m not going to write a proper review. Rather, I will give you some quotations, reactions, thoughts.

I have no hope of doing justice to this great book — and when I say “great,” I don’t mean “great” as in, “Gee, Mrs. McAllister, this chicken casserole is just great.” I mean great-great. Still, I want to scribble some notes.

In Sunlight and in Shadow has a couple of epigrams. One of them is from Dante: “Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare.” “Love moved me, and makes me speak.” This was the motto, I believe, of Helprin’s very first book, A Dove of the East and Other Stories. And it answers the general question of why he does what he does — why he writes.

The novel begins with a prologue, proceeds with 47 chapters — all titled — then closes with an epilogue. The prologue and the epilogue are bookends, although I could cut my fingers off for typing that trite word. I mean, they match, searingly. There’s another trite word: “searingly.”

Good thing Helprin doesn’t write like this . . .

He told me once that he doesn’t mind if readers have to take some of his sentences slowly. If they have to work on them a little. Some of the sentences in the new novel, you do indeed have to take slowly. Some go by like the wind. Whole pages or chapters go by like the wind. And then, you need to slow down a bit.

I like this. I admire the pacing of the book, a great deal. Not everything need be beach reading — although you could read In Sunlight and in Shadow anywhere (and there are outings at the beach in it).

Is Helprin writing prose or poetry? Sometimes they blend. And physical descriptions lead to, or blend with, spiritual meditations.

He is very, very good at physical description (as well as the other things). I think I notice this especially, and admire it especially, because I am poor at it. I find it a strain to describe things physically. For Helprin, it seems like falling out of bed.

Incidentally, he could describe falling out of bed as a physicist would describe it, as a psychologist or shaman would describe it — whatever.

Early on, we meet Central Park — a central place in this story. In Sunlight and in Shadow is possibly the New Yorkiest book ever written. And there have been many of them. In graduate school, I took a whole class on the literature of New York (and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t been there at that point).

Several years ago, I went up to the apartment of a tycoon friend of mine. It was on the 79th floor, in Columbus Circle. Central Park was a strip. It looked like a dollar bill — a perfect dollar bill. That size, that shape.

And, looking all around me — way up the Hudson, then beyond Long Island, or so it seemed — I realized as never before just how watery the New York area is. In Sunlight and in Shadow is very watery, as well as New Yorky.

If you read the prologue, you have to keep reading — you can’t help it. And you know the prologue will come clear by the end. You suspect you will not like the ending. You fear it will not be a happy one. But you know things will be clear, one way or the other.

Chapter 1 begins, “If a New York doorman is not contemplative by nature, he becomes so as he stands all day dressed like an Albanian general and doing mostly nothing.” I don’t know if Mark knows this — I don’t think he’s lived in New York for a long while — but many, many doormen in New York are of Albanian origin. Some come from Montenegro, or their parents do. But these are Albanian-speaking Montenegrins.

Hell, Mark probably knows this perfectly well.

His main character is named Harry — Harry Copeland.

His formal name was Harris, and though it was his grandfather’s he didn’t like it, and didn’t like Harry much either. Harry was a name, as in Henry V, or Childe Harold, that, sounding unlike Yiddish, Hebrew, or any Eastern European language, was appropriated on a mass scale by Jewish immigrants and thus became the name of tailors, wholesalers, rabbis, and doctors.

Funny how the classic English names became, in America, Jewish names: Norman, Irving, Seymour, Milton, Walter, Howard, etc. Jewish parents wanted their kids to be strictly Anglo, at least in name. And they turned those names “Jewish.”

Today, of course, every Gentile boy is named Joshua.

Anyway, Mark continues,

Harry was one’s uncle. Harry could get it at a reduced price. Harry had made it into the Ivy League, sometimes. Harry could be found at Pimlico and Hialeah, or cutting diamonds, or making movies in Hollywood, or most anywhere in America where there were either palm trees or pastrami — not so much leading armies at Agincourt, although that was not out of the question, and there was redemption too in that the president was named Harry and had been in the clothing business.

(In Sunlight and in Shadow begins in May 1946.)

Now, some may write as well as Helprin. Some may write better (though this is a stretch). But no one writes like that — no one, but Mark. You may not like that writing, which is fine. But no one writes like that, except Mark. One could recognize it at 300 yards.

Harry, writes Mark, “could replay with such precision and intensity what he had seen, heard, or felt that these things simply did not lapse from existence and pass on.”

Ladies and gentlemen, that is Mark — trust me.

“The last swimmer had left the water ten or fifteen minutes earlier, but it was still moving in barely perceptible waves repelled by the walls and silently rocking, lifting, and depressing the surface, though only a keen eye could tell.”

Uh-huh — an eye like Mark’s.

One more quotation, before I knock off for the day. Harry, fresh from the war, had learned that “civilization, luxury, safety, and justice could be swept away in the blink of an eye; and that no matter how apparently certain and sweet were the ways of peace, they were not permanent.”

That is a running theme of Mark’s books, stories, and articles, and that should be a fact plain as day to all. But is it?

Thanks and see you tomorrow. 

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