The Gift of a Book, Part IV

Lisa Kennedy Helprin, snapped by her husband, Mark Helprin


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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