The Gift of a Book, Part V

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: This week, Jay Nordlinger has been writing about Mark Helprin’s new novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow. The series concludes today. The previous parts are at the following links: I, II, III, and IV.

As I neared the end of the book — I mean, as I got about a hundred pages from the end — I started to read very slowly. I wanted to stretch it out for as long as possible. But I could not really help gulping.

Regular readers of this column have heard me gripe about architecture — and a character in this novel shares my opinion. Architects are making “astoundingly ugly buildings,” he says. (This is just after the war. He had seen nothing yet.) “Really, they pollute the world. I mean, how much does it cost to have a peaked roof, for Chrissakes?”

Preach it, brother. For a couple of years now — three? — I have seen a building go up. Or rather, I have seen a great big hole in the ground, with lots of people and machines working. Just two weeks ago, I think, I saw the building — and it’s just a box. A metal box.

Why bother? All that labor, all that expense — why bother, if you’re going to erect something so unremarkable? It’s not even ugly. It’s too uninteresting to be ugly.

One character asks another whether he wants to exact revenge. The second character answers, “Symmetry.” That’s what he’s after, symmetry. “The universe not only consists of it, it demands it.”

Whole books could be written about that. And surely have.

I love this — and have always believed this sort of thing. You’ll see what I mean.

Talking about a place called Ratner’s, Harry tells a friend, “It’s a dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side, famous for its early breakfast, onion rolls, and sour cream, none of which I like, but you can appreciate them for being the best of what they are.”

On Broadway, Catherine “had to prove herself performance by performance. There was no coasting, the way some actors did, allowing reputation to outshine defects.”

What a wonderful sentence. I have written about this time after time, in music reviews and essays. Are we listening to reputation or are we really listening? Do you know what I mean by that? Are we hearing the legend or are we hearing the music-making actually going on?

Over the years, I’ve played a game with myself. Say a famous and beloved pianist is onstage. I think, “Okay, Jay, if someone sent you a recording of this playing and told you that the pianist was a student in the Iowa graduate program, what would you think?”

The answers are interesting.

Late in his career, and in a meaningless, late-season game, Joe DiMaggio made a daring play. A defensive play. He risked injury, if I’m recalling the story correctly.

Someone said to him later, “Why did you do that?” He answered, “Because there were people in the stands who had never seen me play before.”

Just as Helprin can describe New York like no one’s business, and England like no one’s business, he goes to town on California:

Harry had never been to California. [Catherine] would show it to him, having been there as a girl at an ideal age and in an ideal season, discovering a Garden of Eden in Pasadena, where from her parents’ capacious suite she could see the great expanse of a green valley splashed with the reds and saffrons of hibiscus and date palms and backed by a steep mountain range laden with shining snow. The light alone was a barrier to the sorrows of the Old World.

There’s a lot more where that came from.

We’ve been to Grand Central Station in this series, but let’s go back there one last time. I could give you whole paragraphs, but I’ll settle for this: “The stairs from Vanderbilt Avenue were like a waterfall down which people cascaded long before rush hour.”

In a margin, I wrote, “He doesn’t care — he writes raw and true.” He doesn’t care what people think. He doesn’t care how something will come off. He doesn’t care whether people snort or scoff — or approve or hail. He writes what he regards as true, reaction be damned.

That’s the impression I get.

Also, just for the record, Helprin writes pretty much like he talks. He doesn’t have a “writer’s voice”; he has a voice. He talks this way whether he’s talking to you or, I bet, talking to himself. Even the ornate stuff? Yeah, actually.

Chicago doesn’t come off very well in this novel, compared with New York. I hope Chicagoans will forgive me (and I love the city, in part because I’m a Midwesterner): Two characters “had thought Chicago the epitome of cities, but after an hour in New York they abandoned that belief, for Chicago can have all the tall buildings it wants and as many millions as it can hold: it’s still a suburb.”

Mark goes on to tell you why, in an amazing flight of writing. It ought to be in textbooks or something. Hell, I should just quote it (though the entire book is quotable, and we’re just doing breezy columns here):

If you take a cord of wood and lay it out evenly over half an acre of field, you have, in a pretty good stand-in for Chicago, something that will neither kindle nor light. Take the same cord of wood, stack it high into a structure with broad and intricate channels for the air to race through, and you have, in an approximation of New York, something that will easily take fire, burn, flame, whistle, roar, and wake up the world.

In due course, we get superb, finely detailed descriptions of clothes. I thought of something I heard about Theodore Dreiser, long ago: There are such descriptions of clothes in his novels, because he had worked for Butterick’s, writing about the patterns, and got really good at this sort of thing.

I loved this — I have seen it: “A very dry-looking old woman with the face of a starving coyote gave Billy a look that was supposed to make him wither, but which made him laugh.”

On being at a boxing match: “When it ended after seven rounds, everyone had sore muscles from following each punch and dodge. Pity and joy for loser and winner were balanced with exhaustion as people filed out . . .”

Sometimes, the doorman at the Harvard Club asks, “Are you a member, sir?” in tones “that could touchlessly dissect a frog.”

Listen: “If when she is aged you cannot see in the eyes of a woman the youth she was at eighteen, then it is not she that is old but you that are blind.”

Toward the end, the Holocaust comes in in a very interesting, deft way.

A philosophical sort says the following about “souls”: “For the short and difficult span when confounded by matter and time they are made unequal, they try to bind together as they always were and eventually will be. The impulse to do so is called love. The extent to which they succeed is called justice. And the energy lost in the effort is called sacrifice.”

This is funny: One law firm is “so white-shoe that its partners could walk in the snow and not leave tracks.”

Have you noticed this in life? “His laugh had changed. It was an old man’s laugh now, awkward, almost insincere, as if he were trying to pretend that he could still laugh.”

How about this? “[A]lthough she kept up to some degree with fashion . . . it was more and more the fashion of the previous decades, as with every advancing year she earned the privilege of paying no attention to the present.”

Mark is a master of simile: They “stepped as lightly as burglars in a house with dogs.”

Here, Mark is writing about Mafia goons, but what he has to say can apply to most any group of bullies, I think:

They were used to beating people, tossing Molotov cocktails through store windows, shooting bound captives, and raping helpless women. They didn’t really know how to fight, never having come up against anyone but those who were weaker than they were. Their power and their terror, when resisted with determination, evaporated. They were cowards, murderers, and easy to kill.

A character wishes he could build some memorial to the people and things he has loved. He wishes he could portray them, “make an echo” of them, “fix them in the light,” “halt them” before they rush off.

This, Helprin has done. This is what he does in all his books, I suppose.

This is so true — I mean, of everyone, right? “The maids walked half as fast as they might have had they been happy . . .”

Listen to what Mark has to say about the maids of the Upper East Side. How could it not be so?

They were shopping for foods of which they would eat the leftovers, and flowers that would not show up in their minute quarters until they had wilted. And . . . they bore the burden, entirely within themselves, of reconciling a true affection for the employers whom they knew so well and who treated them, almost, like family, and the natural desire to steal their jewels and slit their throats, or at least to walk out, slam the door, and run to children and families just as precious, just as holy, just as deserving, with whom they could not be, for the sake of others whom they were serving.

I ought to say something about words — but first, a passage, preparing the ground for this subject: “For a moment, she managed only the short gasps that come to small children after they have cried, a breathlessness that though it should have a name, does not.”

If it did, Mark would know it. Let me give you a list — just a partial list — of words in this novel that I either did not know or did not know well enough to use confidently: catenaries, luff, davit, corvette, architraved, smunk, dory, windrow, postilion, jacquard, uncleat, balaclava, travertine, Sarmatians, afterimage.

I’m sure there are people who would be able to control their emotions when reading the final paragraphs of this novel. But these people have to be so Spock-like — are they human? (I envy them, in a way.)

I would like to read In Sunlight and in Shadow again. It bears re-reading, believe me. But there is a certain amount of trauma involved. There is something that may hurt on every page, or every other page.

As I think I mentioned in our first installment, this novel is one that makes other novels, other books, look puny — not in size, but in scope, in purpose, in feeling. Mark writes about the fundamental and important things of life.

Not everyone is receptive to him — that’s obvious. No author, no person, enjoys universal receptivity. Mark is off-putting to a lot of people. As I’ve said, he is not quite with these times. Very few who are employed as book critics by magazines or newspapers would like him.

First, there’s the style. Mark is generally plump and rich — unabashedly so. Spare is king in our world, and long has been. Then there’s the substance (for lack of a better word). Mark is not outstanding for irony, cynicism, or irreverence. (Although he includes those qualities, as every complete person does.) He believes stuff. He believes in love and honor and truth and all that jazz.

Let me tell a story I’ve told before: Irving Berlin was a pretty old-fashioned guy. His favorite song, of the many he wrote, was “Always” — the waltz that goes, “I’ll be loving you, always.” George S. Kaufman, that king of the theater, thought this was absurd. He was not old-fashioned, far from it. “Oh, come on, Irving,” he said. “No one loves someone always. That’s unrealistic. The song should go, ‘I’ll be loving you, Thursday.’”

The world is full of Thursday people, but Mark leans toward always. He’s at least as worldly as George S. Kaufman. At least. But his soul, I believe, is closer to Berlin (not the German capital).

Furthermore, he’s a conservative — a political conservative and a man of Judeo-Christian civilization. He’s not a fan of relativism, multiculturalism, political correctness, and other orthodoxies of today. Also, he’s masculine, when metro is preferred. He is pre-Oprah, pre-Donahue. One could go on.

But let me tell just one more story: Long ago, I worked for a guy one of whose favorite putdown words was “earnest.” “So-and-so is earnest,” he would say, meaning that the poor fellow believed things and felt deeply and did not maintain, every moment of the day, perfect amused detachment.

Mark is earnest — not grim, as I’ve said before. He can be a full-fledged goofball, including in print. (There’s a lot of goofery in Freddy and Fredericka.) But he does hold that some things are important, serious, and true.

Reading In Sunlight and in Shadow, I had a question: Would a woman like it? Have they? I’m sure they have, and would. But it’s such a woman-worshiping book. I wonder . . .

I don’t wonder about this — I know it for a fact: In Sunlight and in Shadow is an ennobling book. It makes you want to be better, to think higher. It makes you want to be braver, even in a physical way. It is a humane book — a book filled with love. And it’s a great book, a gift. I’m so glad it came along.

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