The Gift of a Book, Part V


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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