The Gift of a Book, Part IV

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: This week, Jay Nordlinger is writing about Mark Helprin’s latest novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow. The preceding parts are at the following links: I, II, III.

I know this sounds hard to believe, but some people — I’ve met them — don’t think that rich people have problems. I mean, beyond with the help. Some people think that the rich simply glide through life, immunized from sorrow. If you prick them, they won’t bleed.

Here’s Mark: “It is for some reason incomprehensible to many that owning a fair Persian carpet or a mahogany table is no compensation for the death of a child, a life without love, or a failure of ambition.”

Mark says something interesting about audiences — he’s talking about theater audiences, but I know it applies to concert and opera audiences as well:

Audiences are cruel but understanding, as half the tension and excitement when the curtain rises comes from their imagination of themselves onstage doing the difficult and wonderful thing they know they cannot do. Looking upon the performers, they fear every potential slip, miscue, or mistake, so that when actors or actresses are lifted up and out of themselves, the audience, empathetic to the point of physical pain, rides with them on the same wings.

The two most painful things in music, in my experience, are a French horn’s cracking and (even more) a tenor’s cracking. A memory lapse too — that is almost unbearable.

I think I told you that Mark Helprin loves a pun. Here’s one: Melancholy — a dog that likes fruit?

Among all Americans, who best survives the “rigors of war”? Plains Indians and New Yorkers. The former are “tough as snow-crusted buffalo,” and the latter are “wily and indomitable as rats.”

This novel, as you know, begins after the war — November 1946. But, about midway through, it flashes back to the war. Well, it does more than flash back: There are about a hundred pages of war. And Helprin is famous for his war-writing.

What do our boys headed to France fear, if they fear anything? That they will become “wed to safety” and forget that “to carry themselves properly in combat so as to stay alive” they have to “forgo hope of living.”

Rings very true, to me. I’ll let combat veterans tell me.

A particular woman “had thick, soft black hair and an expression that was simultaneously randy and sweet.”

You have seen this expression, I trust.

Listen to this, as Harry lies hidden in the woods or brush, waiting to attack some chosen Germans:

The sun climbed, and when it was white above the trees it hit him blindingly, which meant that he had to stay still and, while thusly illuminated, could not use his monocular to examine the target. The minute flash of a watch crystal, wedding ring, glasses, or polished button or buckle had probably, in the twentieth century alone, led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of young fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers.

There’s something you don’t read every day (or I don’t).

“Which was more true, that France, though ravishingly beautiful, was burning before his eyes, or that France, though burning before his eyes, was ravishingly beautiful?”

France is that, yes (and, as I type these words, I happen to be in this country).

In this war portion of the book, Helprin has a chapter headed “Snow,” à la Mann. (Lovers of puns might note that this is close to “alemán,” the Spanish word for German.)

Helprin: “Snow muffled the sounds of soldiers who fought across it or waited in it; it sent them messages in its glistening whirlwinds; and like a wrestler who need not expend energy or breath, it effortlessly pinned them to earth.”

I thought this description of Holland — almost an offhand remark — was uncanny, by which I mean, uncannily good: “[I]t had a definitive character that everyone knew, and a mild, waterlogged landscape.”

The following passage rang painfully — almost bitterly — true to me:

The closer they came to war’s end and the surer they were of victory, the more pointless both seemed. If by spring Berlin would fall and if in a year the armies dissolve, why die now? Worse than dying before one knew the outcome, was dying when one did.

I further think of our guys in Afghanistan, fighting right today. There is a date certain for withdrawal (I gather). So . . .

Check this out, about crows: “Thousands were in the sky or on the ground — flying in tightening circles, breaking off to glide down, running to take off, or walking like old people trying to dance.”


In Part I of this series, I believe, I mentioned that the impermanence of peace is a recurrent Helprin theme. So is the fragility of peace. (Same thing, I guess.) Peace can seem a mere interlude between wars, with all their mayhem and hell.

A slice of the new novel:

In the fall of 1946, the war had been won, and the great landscape [Harry] saw before him — including West Point, clinging to the hillsides on the opposite bank of the Hudson — was at peace. But shortly after the train passed, the faint notes of reveille drifting across the water suggested that although war might sleep, it would never fail to wake.

There’s a scene at the Oyster Bar, in Grand Central Station. In fact, there are a couple of scenes there, I think. I’ve been at the Oyster Bar with Mark. And let me state something obvious: He notices much, much more than I do. He is evidently aware of myriad things taking place around the counter. Me, I’m just stuffing my face.

The world seems a lot more interesting, through the eyes of a real novelist, a real noticer.

Several times, as I was reading In Sunlight and in Shadow, with its minute and loving descriptions of New York, I thought, “I must sleepwalk, as I move through the city. I never notice any of this sh**. But it’s all there.”

Since reading the book, I’ve been noticing more. But that will wear off, inevitably. (Of course, you can’t be a perpetual noticer in your own city — the city of your habitation. When you go to a strange place, your senses come alive. The first days are filled with the new and remarkable. And then, normality sets in, and you see less . . .)

Mark is a great, great believer in books — I mean, as physical objects, in contrast with what appears on the Internet. (See, for example, his 2009 work, Digital Barbarism.) Catherine, our heroine, spends some time in libraries. And “[h]ere were books that had not been opened in a hundred years and yet had not died and would not die even if no one would ever open them again.”

This statement is so true, I almost want to bellow it: “She [Catherine, a Broadway performer] understood that no matter what audiences might feel directly, they could be made to ignore their own convictions. Such was the social power and that of the press.”

I have seen unmistakable evidence of this in my years as a music critic. And I have written about it many times. People don’t trust their own opinion until they see it validated. And I have seen their opinion crumble in a second, when a contrary word is voiced.

My fellow critic Martin Bernheimer has a standard reply, when asked, at intermission, “What do you think?” He says, “I don’t know. I haven’t read the review.”

Not long ago, I recommended a book to someone. She wrinkled her nose and said “I don’t know, the Times didn’t like it.”

Yup. Typical. There are people who would rather commit suicide than be out of step with the Times. In fact, being out of step with the Times — or received opinion generally — is the equivalent of death.

All of a sudden, Mark is talking about art, in a learned and, of course, beautiful way. Who does he think he is, E. H. Gombrich?

Someone, in her innocence, asks what a nudnik is. Mark and Harry provide the answer:

A nudnik is a person — male, usually below middle age — who is simultaneously annoying, demanding, irritating, preposterous, cloying, deeply limited, insistent, energetic, needy, innocent, crafty, amusing, clueless, destructive, distractive, disconnected, monomaniacal, totally without self-awareness, off-putting, magnetic, haunting, whiny, horrible, exasperating, and, most of the time, Jewish. That’s the short definition.

There you have, ladies and gentlemen, a definition and a half (short or not). Frankly, I’m a little surprised by the “magnetic.”

I don’t think we’ve had anything on women in a while. I give you the following:

Very beautiful women — whether mainly from the physical attributes that can radiate even over a distance, or from some combination of body and spirit in proportions decided not quite here on earth — sometimes soften their overwhelming presences by adopting imperfections: a slight stammer, a dipping of the head, a deferential lowering of the gaze, like someone who is very tall accommodating someone who is short by bending forward to greet him.

But not Catherine. No,

[h]er full effect, amplified by her lack of ameliorative gestures, was almost cruel, the very silence and stillness of their absence allowing the shock of her beauty to penetrate like infrared.

This is so true: “Have you ever noticed that the vigorous young talk to old people as if they were dogs?”

In the margin next to the below sentence, I wrote, “The whole enchilada”:

She had to embrace the song until it almost broke her heart, to devote herself solely to what was true, and to ignore the judgment of the world in favor of the judgment of heaven.

Thanks, guys, and I’ll see you tomorrow, for our finale.

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