In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 720 pp., $28)
The phrase “All you need is love” dates back to the Summer of Love in 1967. It is typically dismissed as the wishful thinking of the young and callow, but it has also supplied the theme of Mark Helprin’s most recent novel, which is a major American work of fiction.
Helprin, of course, is anything but a figure of the counterculture — unless, that is, one now takes the word to mean standing athwart the inexorable “progress” of culture and unashamedly championing the old, all-but-abandoned things. Helprin is (in)famous in literary circles for his non-belletristic occupations: writing a speech for Bob Dole, for example, and making the case in various venues (including this one) for a dominant American military. Helprin believes that his “coming out” as a conservative — in 1983, he wrote a piece in The New York Times Magazine arguing for missile deployment in Europe — is the reason his novels stopped being nominated for major prizes. But it’s hard not to suspect that the 65-year-old novelist would still have ended up an outsider had his pen never ventured outside the novel. While the country’s newspaper of record chose as one of last year’s five best works of fiction a board-game-like graphic “novel/installation,” Helprin continues to write sprawling, old-fashioned novels about good and evil, virtue and heroism, and truth and beauty that never doubt that such things have an objective reality — and that they profoundly matter.
Yet it would not be entirely inaccurate to summarize Helprin’s latest work as a hippie hymn; Helprin is every bit as earnest as John Lennon, who wrote the ditty whose first verse is simply “love” repeated nine times. In Sunlight and in Shadow has, of course, a much older antecedent as well: “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” And the author indicates that he found inspiration somewhere in between. The book opens with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno: “Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare” (“Love moved me, and makes me speak”). Helprin’s first published book, A Dove of the East and Other Stories (1975), began with the very same line of poetic Italian, and one might say that this imposing novel is the culmination of Helprin’s career. It weaves together so many threads from his previous work: the significance of a single human life, which carries within it all who came before and all who will come after; the tradition that is at once our birthright and our burden; the brutality required to protect all that is tender; the albatross of privilege; and the consolation of that which we first fear — the eternal.
The author hasn’t just put all of himself into this book — he’s thrown in everything but the kitchen sink. Helprin has not, alas, given us a masterpiece to supersede his 1991 novel A Soldier of the Great War. In Sunlight and in Shadow is an undisciplined piece of work that can be, at times, preposterous, overwrought, self-indulgent, even amateurish, and finally infuriating; this last, because the book is also, at times, extraordinarily lovely. Helprin himself pinpoints, in just two sentences, why his book is inadequate yet impossible to put down. Writes the novelist who prefers the phenomena of God’s creation to the accomplishments that originate in the noumena of man: “The trees in their raggedness and imperfect perfection are far more beautiful than the precise columns of a temple. They lean over the center, the branches on high reaching one for the other and sometimes succeeding, like clasped hands soon to be pulled apart.” This intensely idiosyncratic book — Helprin has said he based the protagonist on his father, but anyone who’s spent a few hours talking with Helprin (I interviewed him once) will recognize the author himself in that character — is like one of those trees whose moment of unexpected perfection is breathtaking expressly because of its rarity.
Through five previous novels and three short-story collections, Helprin has been obsessed, more than any other living writer, with beauty. Here, however, it’s love whose incandescence burns from nearly every page. Many reviewers have called In Sunlight and in Shadow a love letter to New York, the city of Helprin’s birth. But it’s better thought of as a love letter to love itself, or, more specifically, a billet-doux from one man to all of womankind. Helprin is continuing to explore the obsessions of his past: Love is, after all, the tribute paid to beauty. Or, as our narrator says of the hero: “For him, beauty was something far more powerful than what fashion dictates and consensus decrees. It was both what creates love and what love creates. For Harry, because his sight was clear, the world was filled with beautiful women, whether the world called them that or not.”
Harry Copeland would be a singular character if he weren’t so much like his creator. He’s a brave, sometimes foolhardy man with a thirst for adventure who can find equal contentment sitting silently for hours. He runs twelve miles a day, keeping prepared should he need to return to the battlefield, though “he wanted never to hold a rifle again.” His sight was clear not because his vision, metaphorically or otherwise, was in any way special, but because he’d endured what most men of his station had endured: the clarifying fires of war.
World War II, the catastrophe that plunged the West into the dark hole of modernity that World War I had exposed, is another preoccupation of the novelist. Harry returns to Manhattan in 1946, after distinguishing himself in the 82nd Airborne in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. His mother died when he was a child, and his father died while the son fought in Europe; the 32-year-old now owns an apartment on Central Park West and a business, Copeland Leather, that produces high-quality goods purchased by the elite. But Harry isn’t interested in his inheritance — or anything else, really. Having done for four years only what he was told to do, in freedom he finds himself lost, with nothing he wants to do. But he passionately resists pressure from the intelligentsia he aimed to join before the war sabotaged his studies. “People like that always want to show you that they’re wise and worldly, having been disillusioned, and they mock things that humanity has come to love, things that people like me — who have spent years watching soldiers blown apart and incinerated, cities razed, and women and children wailing — have learned to love like nothing else: tenderness, ceremony, courtesy, sacrifice, love, form, regard,” Harry says with a raw eloquence. “The deeper I fell, the more I suffered, and the more I saw . . . the more I knew that women are the embodiment of love and the hope of all time.”
“This is what I learned and what I managed to bring out with me from hell,” he affirms. “Love of God, love of a woman, love of a child — what else is there? Everything pales, and I’ll stake what I know against what your professors imagine, to the death, as I have.” But as a Helprin hero, he must grasp this truth concretely, not merely abstractly. And so he falls in love, immediately and irretrievably, barely at first sight, with a girl he glimpses on the Staten Island Ferry. It turns out he hadn’t gone to war just for the 24-year-old Catherine Thomas Hale and everything she represents — he’ll go to war for her and them again. The smaller-scale injustices perpetrated by the newly powerful New York Mafia pale next to those of the Nazis, but they’re both attacks on the civilization Harry has sworn to defend. (Reading this novel, one might think that civilization was all that was on anyone’s mind the year after its survival was secured: Within moments of meeting, strangers engage in colloquies on such subjects as love, honor, and suffering.)
The book brims with contradictions. Harry insists that his appearance — he looks like a young Clark Gable — has nothing to do with his deepest self. Yet the physical charms of the heiress with whom he falls in love send him into flights of wordy fancy. He cares nothing for the niceties of social distinctions, yet believes he’s superior to the man who has already claimed Catherine because that lunkhead went to Yale, while Harry graduated from Harvard.
More important is Harry’s complicated relationship with — and the author’s complicated conception of — war. We can’t begin to understand the returning soldier until we get a sense of what he went through on the battlefield. Helprin makes us wait until a third of the way through the book to hear Harry’s first war story. The painful details of the brutality and beauty he witnessed as he made his way across Europe constitute the best part of the book.
War destroys the things we hold most dear — but it also grants us the understanding of what’s most dear. Helprin constantly uses the metaphors of battle to describe the quotidian struggles of peacetime life, but he also suggests that the soldier must become a civilian if he is to reassemble and rebuild. Human beings can’t be at war with the world indefinitely. They must surrender their detachment — much as Helprin has eschewed the cool detachment of contemporary letters — if they are to find the only thing worth finding. As Helprin writes of Harry: “Though he had never stated it, he had felt from early childhood that life was magnificently intense, in splendor overwhelming, in sight demanding, and in time very short. And that therefore the only worthwhile thing other than a noble showing in the face of its dangers was the ravishing connection of one heart to another.”
But this insight, strangely enough, leads Harry to reject, not embrace, most human contact. Harry has his creator’s horror of social gatherings: “Making small talk and holding cocktails was somewhat like being burned at the stake.” One doesn’t expect the sensitive to enjoy the dissimulation of the dinner party, but Harry is practically terror-stricken by the thought of other people. Helprin doesn’t say that salvation is to be found in love severed from the world of action, the sole place we can display the courage that makes us worthy of the gift. To know love — and thus to grasp the holy — one must connect with other people, “one heart to another.”
But can one simultaneously believe such a thing and that, as Sartre had it, “hell is other people”? It’s a question too difficult for the romantic who tends to misanthropy to answer. Helprin has avoided it by keeping one element of the fantastical in this otherwise realist novel: his characters. The people at the center of In Sunlight and in Shadow aren’t really people at all, because they’re all sunlight and no shadow. What makes that connection of human heart to human heart so special, like the tree whose branches momentarily and miraculously touch “like clasped hands soon to be pulled apart,” is the near-impossibility of it. None of us is as brave and beautiful as Harry and Catherine; there’s something unlovable in every real human being. We’re a maddening lot — as maddening as an artist who gives us just a glimpse of the transcendent before bringing us back down to the imperfect but remarkable earth.
– Kelly Jane Torrance is the assistant managing editor of The Weekly Standard and a film critic of the Washington Examiner.