The Gift of a Book, Part I


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).