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.