The Gift of a Book, Part V


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.”