Books by Mark Helprin discussed in this essay:
Mark Helprin is a spiritual aristocrat who believes life lived rightly to be high adventure and who writes novels in the manner of grand opera. He is a familiar figure to readers of the Claremont Review of Books, as a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and author of the "Parthian Shot" column that caps each issue of the magazine. Not only does he write fiction of uncommon grace and power, he is a policy intellectual, trained at Harvard and Oxford, with a particular expertise in military matters and the Middle East; he has been a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal and has written some 600 journalistic pieces in a 40-year career. Theodore Roosevelt is a hero of his, for his political outlook and his embrace of the strenuous life. Helprin has served in the British Merchant Navy and the Israeli infantry and Air Force. (A congenital spinal malformation disqualified him from the U.S. military.) Mountain climbing was a passion until he saw another climber fall to his death, when he decided this might be an imprudent pursuit for a happily married father of two. He now lives outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, and can see Monticello from his home. He has a thing about neatness, observes a serious fitness regimen, takes piano lessons, cannot stand coffee, and never goes to parties. He has written speeches for politicians he admires without accepting a fee, has lost lucrative magazine work because he would not stand for editorial interference, and passed up movie deals because he refused to relinquish copyright on his novels. One would not mistake him for anybody else.
His fiction is singular, in the beauty of its language and the loftiness of its themes. He has published three books of short stories: A Dove of the East (1975), Ellis Island(1981), and The Pacific (2004). He has written six novels: Refiner's Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling (1977), Winter's Tale (1983), A Soldier of the Great War (1991), Memoir from Antproof Case (1995), Freddy and Fredericka (2005), and In Sunlight and In Shadow (2012). He has also written a polemic against the movement to abolish copyright, Digital Barbarism (2009).
War and Peace
Helprin is a natural born storyteller; he sets events into motion that seem vital and true even when they are fantastic, and he creates characters who suffer and rejoice with the intensity that so rich a world deserves. He has declared that the novel—by rights a work of the imagination—has been infiltrated by intellectuals, much to its detriment, and he insists that he is not one of these idea-driven modern types. Yet he does appear quite clearly to be a moralist whose art subscribes to a teaching political in the largest sense. After all, to create characters who live in the reader's mind doesn't mean that a writer eschews shaping their lives in a moral order. His mind turns instinctively to war, and to the need to maintain warlike virtues even in time of peace, which is always precarious.
In "A Room of Frail Dancers," a story from Ellis Island, an Israeli soldier whose tour of duty is ending reflects on the difference between those who fight and those they are fighting for.
Tel Aviv appeared, spread out flat, white, and green. The people thought that times were tough, but what a luxury, Tel Aviv, a city of sex and palm-lined streets. They thought times were bad because prices in the supermarket had doubled. And what if they had tripled, quadrupled? If a watch cost 400 pounds, or 800, or 1,000, what difference did it make? This is why the soldiers laughed so hard. Their friends had had their heads severed from their bodies. The blood looked as if it were three inches thick on the ground in pools that quickly hardened. Many were incinerated in tanks, and the smell of seared flesh sometimes spread for miles. And yet, they had come through, on their train from the south.
The story ends on a note of grave poignancy, as the soldier on an evening walk looks in on a ballet class of young girls, who for all the freedom, discipline, and purity of their art leave him cold. "And yet he felt that it was purposeless." One of the ballerinas catches a glimpse of him as he passes, a pistol in his hand, "as if into clouds of darkness." Two worlds, two realities, of war and peace, mutually uncomprehending, failing to connect: Helprin's vision here is stark.
But then perhaps it is the fate of any writer of fiction who is a serious scholar of military matters and democratic politics, as well as a true believer in honor, courage, love, and beauty, to despair of reconciling the warlike with the peaceable. Especially in democratic times, one tends to be opaque and even hostile to the other. A novelist such as Helprin takes upon himself the obligation to make the reader see what might be worth killing or dying for. In doing so he must keep from trampling the kinder, gentler virtues even as he kindles righteous anger into a rampaging blaze. His art then approaches that of a first-rate democratic statesman moved to the eloquence of moral urgency. Few are capable of this subtle power. This is art in the service of what Friedrich Nietzsche called great politics.
Novelist and statesman alike address an audience so familiar with peace that it rarely thinks of war, and when it does think of it, considers it to be an aberration and certainly not an inevitable aspect of an everlasting order. Helprin's first novel, Refiner's Fire, opens with a description of tourists on Mount Carmel admiring the view while knowing there is war on the Syrian border to the north. As a jazz band of black New Orleans musicians plays at a Haifa hotel, helicopters fly in from the battle, bearing the wounded. "An apprentice butcher could have done better when drunk. They were slit open and burned. Their limbs were torn, disjointed, covered in brilliant red. The rotor blades' concussive bursts drowned their screaming. Some died in the air, others hoped not to die." The American soldier Marshall Pearl, "blown apart" by an artillery shell, is among those with a hope of surviving. The novel recounts the picaresque career that led him to this fateful place: his birth to a beautiful survivor of a Nazi death squad aboard a ship trying to run the British blockade of Palestine in 1947; his adoption by an American couple, and a Huckleberry-Finn-on-the-Hudson boyhood; his vow "to hold tight and hard to the greatness of the West, loyal like a monk in the Dark Ages"; a seizure at Harvard that vouchsafes a vision of the alluring Jewish East; a cross-country escapade that includes slaving in a phantasmagoric slaughterhouse; finding again the love of his boyhood, and marrying her straightaway; going to Israel in search of his father and his appointed fate; his conscription into the Israeli army.
Marshall is expected to die of his wounds. But in a vital surge of anger, Marshall rips out the tubes and needles from his broken body and declares, twice over, "By God, I'm not done yet." Whether he will live or die remains unsaid. Whether his tale is triumph or tragedy, however, may not depend on his survival. Facing catastrophe nobly means more than coming out alive. The desire to live fully may never be stronger than in the hour of one's death, and Marshall is ferociously alive in his outburst of the heroic warrior's rage against dying. The novel ends perfectly in this inconclusiveness.
Redeeming the World
Helprin has been remarkably inventive when it comes to character, plot, and style, even as he has rehearsed and made subtler the themes he came to early in his career. Winter's Tale, probably his best-known book, is a fantastic story that pits the moral squalor of New York City past and future against the noblest American aspirations.
On several score thousands miles of streets were many cataclysmic armies interacting without formation—ten thousand prostitutes on Broadway alone; half a million abandoned children; half a million of the lame and blind; scores of thousands of active criminals locked in perpetual combat with as many police; and the vast number of good citizens, who in their normal lives were as fierce and rapacious as other cities' wild dogs. They did not buy and sell, they made killings and beat each other out.
To redeem with love and beauty this savage world that God appears to have abandoned, to establish the "perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone," are the aims of Helprin's millenarian visionaries. After the city burns, the engineering wizard Jackson Mead, who understands instinctively that evil is to be overcome by human will and ingenuity, creates a spectacular bridge of light to inaugurate a new civic order; but the bridge buckles and dissolves. That one day a perfect supernatural order will be revealed and justify all the world's suffering is the hope of men who place their belief in God more than in human intellect and striving. Yet even such men risk all for the highest ends. The sometime burglar and heroic master mechanic Peter Lake, transported in time from the late 19th century to the early 21st, sacrifices himself at the hands of the criminal kingpin Pearly Soames, is borne heavenward by a magical horse, and ushers in an age of gold, in this great city "infinitely complex, holy, and alive."
Winter's Tale is a triumph of magical realism, superior to the trumpeted masterpiece of the genre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Garcia Marquez reiterates all the clichés of modern anti-war sentiment in a history of remorseless violence comic in its extravagance and tragic in its approximation to the truth; his magic amounts to a whimsical meringue in which he has left bloody teeth-marks. Helprin for his part rediscovers the magic in reality: the marvelous is not a miracle but a natural growth whose existence is not apparent to all, and the measure of a man or woman depends on his capacity for wonder and willingness to fight for his vision of the supreme good.
A Soldier of the Great War shows Helprin at his best, in narration of hair-raising action, reflection on beauty and courage, and comprehension of love that outlasts death. It is 1964, and the Italian septuagenarian Alessandro Giuliani recounts his life story to a callow companion on a 70-kilometer cross-country hike near Rome. Alessandro is a man of divided nature, a professor of aesthetics who loves the active life and is given to feats of daring. The First World War is the cataclysm that defines him. His war is far more variegated and exciting than that of most soldiers real or fictional, rich in terror, moral revulsion, camaraderie, noble adventure, romantic love and apparent devastating loss, personal vendetta, exquisite decency, ecstatic reunion. The Great War produced nothing else quite like this novel.
The literature of World War I—Erich Maria Remarque, Henri Barbusse, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves—describes mostly, in George Orwell's phrase, "something completely meaningless, a nightmare happening in a void." That was not the truth about the war, Orwell argues, but it was what the soldiers believed to be the truth. The physical horror of mass mayhem and slaughter overpowered the attempt to make sense of such carnage. Nihilism found its native home on the front lines. Helprin chooses this most senseless of wars precisely so that he might controvert this nihilism. Disputing the atheism of socialist fellow soldiers, Alessandro declares,
I want nothing more than what I have, for what I have is enough. I'm grateful for it. I foresee no reward, no eternal life. I expect only to leave further pieces of my heart in one place or another, but I love God nonetheless, with every atom of my being, and will love him until I fall into black oblivion.
Helprin is a religious writer inspired by a spirit of defiance toward unbelievers as well as by gratitude to God. The blankness of modern theorizing, the obdurate foolishness of his fellow men, move him to righteous anger and confirm his natural piety. To accept war as part of the eternal order is essential to his belief in a God of "splendor and terror." "What is war, that rolls through history and is more terrible than death, but in whose folds life is vitally compressed more than in the most glorious peace?" This thrill that Alessandro describes seems unlikely to be found in a mechanized war of attrition. Winston Churchill found T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922) his favorite book of the Great War because Lawrence and his Arab recruits embodied the chivalric ideals of the noble warrior, far removed from the pitiable victims of the Western Front. Although Alessandro knows the awfulness of modern warfare, and is even privy to the bureaucratic lunacy that decides arbitrarily who lives and who dies, his war, like Lawrence's, features some old-fashioned excitement and provides an incomparable adventure, and a deadly serious one. And yet the allure of peace—in the beauty of Giorgione's painting The Tempest, which Alessandro reads as the soldier's salvation by woman and child, in the love of family and friends, and above all in the love of the beautiful Ariane, who nursed him when he was wounded—is a countercurrent hard to resist. "‘I was born to be a soldier,' Alessandro said, ‘but love pulled me back.'" Alessandro knows the best of war and the best of peace, even as he experiences the worst of war and finds peace insufficient for his soul's needs. He is Helprin's most complete man, in one of the finest contemporary novels.
Helprin's most recent work, In Sunlight and In Shadow, has a hero shaped by war and compelled to remain a warrior even in peacetime. It is 1946, and Harry Copeland is a 32-year-old Harvard graduate and war veteran who has inherited a small New York City manufacturing firm of quality leather goods upon his father's death. On the job he dawdles, uncertain what he really wants to do with his life; but he maintains a rigorous physical discipline, swimming, running, rowing, should the fragile peace shatter and the need arise for a paratrooper's stamina and toughness. "He would not abandon until the day he died the self-discipline, alacrity, and resolution that would enable him to stretch to the limit in defending that which was delicate, transient, and vulnerable, that which and those whom he loved the most." Four years of battle have made him a lifelong warrior, without unfitting him for peace. They have in fact made him truly fit for peace, whose sweetness he savors even as he knows how suddenly it may be blighted.
Peace becomes incomparably sweet when he falls in love with a beautiful, wealthy, artistically gifted, emotionally complicated young woman he meets on the Staten Island ferry. But their idyll doesn't last for long. Harry confronts the gangster who is shaking down and threatening to ruin his business. Thugs beat Harry nearly to death on a Manhattan street as policemen turn their backs on the mayhem. The brutes murder one of his faithful employees soon afterward. Righteous anger carries an imperative to action. War has followed him to his door, and he cannot count on the so-called forces of law and order to put down the evildoers; the Mafia owns the police and the city government. Harry must fight or run. Helprin's description of the showdown and the aftermath is sterling: as Joseph Conrad says a writer must, he makes you see; seeing is believing, and what Helprin would have you believe—of love, of courage, of purity of heart—is exhilarating. All the more so for its rarity in modern fiction.
For most critically acclaimed contemporary novels are very different from Helprin's. The living American novelists most revered, the ones who get the great press and the prizes and a place in university English courses, include Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Price, Don DeLillo, and Jonathan Franzen. In their most celebrated works, all depict the way certain fundamental beliefs of the public life, by which they mean the traditional beliefs that ought to be eradicated, pervert the most intimate relations of the private life. They variously indict as a matter of course capitalism as unbridled avarice, freedom as selfishness and oppression of the weak, the so-called justice of war in the name of democracy as the lie told to conceal the monstrosity of imperialist power and elemental bloodlust, and middle-class respectability as a fossil relic at best, if in fact it ever really existed at all, except as the useful stick to beat the unruly poor and to remind them they deserve their inferior station.
Roth's American Pastoral (1997), a Pulitzer Prize winner, sneers at the good-natured mediocrity of the only apparently remarkable Seymour Levov, a burly blond blue-eyed Jew who became locally famous as the Swede, best three-sport star athlete Weequahic High had ever seen, husband of a beautiful shiksa who was Miss New Jersey 1949, prosperous owner of a glove factory handed down by his father, proud householder in a WASP enclave where he had wanted to live since he was a boy, the mildest of men who bends over backward not to offend anyone. He could not be more obviously set up for a tragic fall, and doom comes screaming in the form of his daughter Merry, who loathes everything he loves, especially the imperialist racist Amerika that he mistakes for a bastion of freedom and decency. In 1968, at the age of 16, she bombs Old Rimrock's grocery store-post office and kills the beloved town doctor; she becomes a fugitive on the most wanted list, kills three more people in Oregon, and years later resurfaces in a Newark slum as a religious fanatic protective of even microscopic forms of life, so that her ultimate ambition is to starve herself to death. By novel's end, as Thanksgiving dinner at the Levovs' is celebrated with adulterous gropings in the kitchen, demented drunkenness, and a stabbing, no vestige of moral order remains; a poisonous woman academic, champion of the transgressive, has the final say, beginning "to laugh and laugh and laugh at them all, pillars of a society that, much to her delight, was going rapidly under…." The hideous is here to stay because the good was never good enough to last.
In Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973), which the New Republic's reviewer called "the most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II"—an opinion that has become quite widely held—the good never really existed in the first place, and modern civilization is the preserve of morally blind technology, obscene unbridled sexuality, and rampaging lust for destruction, all of which are conjoined in the cartoonish escapades of Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, whose erotic assignations throughout London predict the impact sites of Nazi V-2 rockets. Pynchon earned his reputation for profundity by taking on the biggest big thinkers, such as Karl Marx, who tried to
make believe [imperialism] is nothing but Cheap Labor and Overseas Markets…. Oh, no. Colonies are much, much more. Colonies are the outhouses of the European soul, where a fellow can let his pants down and relax, enjoy the smell of his own shit. Where he can fall on his slender prey roaring as loud as he feels like, and guzzle her blood with open joy. Eh? Where he can just wallow and rut and let himself go in a softness, a receptive darkness of limbs, of hair as woolly as the hair on his own forbidden genitals.
Like the outposts of empire, modern warfare can be liberating, too. First blooded at the Battle of Passchendaele 40 years earlier, the octogenarian Brigadier General Ernest Pudding gets to savor again and again the seductive smell and taste of death, under the auspices of a Pavlovian stimulus-response experiment. The brigadier is treated to the pleasures of ritual coprophagy, described with the utmost exactitude and gusto, at the feet of a beautiful dominatrix. Pynchon gives him a one-liner obituary when he dies of a massive E. coli infection. War, science, technology, sexual perversion: all have their casualties, and all are good for a sardonic laugh. Pynchon's grinning death's head nihilism set the course for a generation of writers and intellectuals. This is what high seriousness looks like in our time and place.
How Best to Live
Richard Price's Clockers (1992) is a despondent treatment of the contemporary black American tragedy, in which the lawless rule the slums and even decent people striving to move up and out get mired in the hellishness. Crack cocaine is king; despair and depravity are its attendants. Such decency as there is in this world burns up fast. Victor Dunham, an earnest young man working two exhausting menial jobs to support his family, whom he barely sees because he works so hard, turns himself in for the murder of a drug dealer. The homicide detective Rocco Klein comes to believe the gunman was in fact Victor's brother Strike, who was obeying the orders of his boss, Rodney Little, to eliminate a business competitor. Rocco bends the law in several directions to try to nail Strike and Rodney, but it turns out that Victor indeed did the killing: he just couldn't stand any more the rampant viciousness of the projects, and the hamster-wheel futility of his own efforts to escape into the middle class. Price's is a fashionable nihilism, only enhanced by Rocco's flashes of tender feeling for some of the damned. The chance that anyone could lift himself by his own efforts from the dirt-end of American society is so slender as to be ludicrous; to encourage poor black people to dream of such a getaway amounts to unthinking cruelty.
Helprin sees the matter otherwise. In Freddy and Fredericka, the Prince and Princess of Wales—who have disgraced Britannic majesty by their boorish antics—are dropped by parachute in a New Jersey swamp, their mission to conquer the savage United States or lose the right of succession to the throne. Suddenly reduced to anonymous poverty, they find themselves by and by in a social services center among the defeated who are to be educated in the mysteries of work. The instructor chants inane rhyming exhortations in the Jesse Jackson mode, "blister[ing] the walls with oratory that, though it had a spectacular lilt, a seductive cadence, and tremendous emotional power, made no sense whatsoever." Freddy asks him what the point of this furious rodomontade might be, and he answers, "‘I want you to know, that you can take, pow-wah! Pow-wah! Pow-wah!'"
Freddy may have fouled his royal life, but he understands something about how best to live.
"How misleading," said Freddy, addressing his peers. "All you need do is refrain from smoking, drinking, and the use of drugs. Eat only wholesome, low-fat foods, with the emphasis on vegetables, grains, and fish. Seek work. Work hard. Show up on time. Do more than is expected. Think of ways to make the job efficient. Don't complain. Shave, bathe, and wear clean clothes. Be cheerful. Don't gamble. Live within your means. Save. And then, when you have all this in balance, study things of substance. Read to satisfy your curiosity. Don't father children out of wedlock or bear them as a single mother."
Freddy goes on at some length, sensible in every word. And the reaction? "They looked at him as if he were an armadillo that had just spoken to them in Chinese." That would also be the reaction of a writer such as Price. Although Price would dismiss as well the claptrap eloquence of the apostle of power through incantation, the blithe assurance with which Freddy numbers the steps from underclass penury to middle-class comfort and respectability would offend him more. How could Freddy understand? How could a novelist with the heart of a Wall Street Journal editorial understand? The gospel of work and the common sense of civility cannot possibly save a people ravaged economically and culturally like the immiserated blacks of every city in these United States. To offer them hope through self-improvement where the situation demands despair is the signal moral failure of Republican lift-yourself-by-your-own-bootstraps ideologues. Helprin's political inclination disqualifies him as a moralist and as a novelist. He lacks the requisite sympathetic imagination.
Clear-sighted despair is the necessary prelude to concerted and compassionate government action. Who understands this connection better than the black electorate? With 95% majorities they helped elect and re-elect a black Democratic president, the most liberal ever, who speaks with a spectacular lilt and a seductive cadence, who is steeped in compassion, who truly understands, and thus is disinclined to moralize about the 70% national black illegitimate birth rate or the 60% black high school graduation rate in major cities or the record numbers of black gangland murderers in his Chicago hometown, and who is only too eager to broadcast justice in the form of billions of dollars for the black community and others in despair.
So perhaps Mark Helprin in his moralizing simplicity is onto something essential that the literary and political powers in their profundity fail to comprehend. The fundamental tenet of liberal public policy assumes that if the poor are given enough money they will respect themselves and fly right; economic justice is the prerequisite for moral regeneration. (A less innocent observer might remark that moral regeneration is beside the point: the Democrats' generosity is really meant to secure an abjectly grateful and politically faithful clientele—and this it has actually achieved.) Helprin, through his mouthpiece Freddy, discerns the true connection between the moral rot of the underclass and its economic plight: the failure to adopt the mores of middle-class respectability has condemned millions of Americans to lifelong poverty, and with it self-pity, self-contempt, race hatred, resentment of the successful, crippling dependency on government hand-outs, and the unrelieved sorrow of confinement in the most desolate end of town among multitudes as broken as yourself, a good number of whom would kill you for presuming to look at them a split-second too long, or for your LeBron James sneakers. Only moderation, self-restraint, orderliness, sexual continence, devotion to a routine at home and at work that is bound to get boring sometimes, and acceptance of the unpleasant likelihood that advancement will be slower than they would wish give the unfortunate millions a chance to break out of their misfortune. But then, as Freddy sees, the common understanding has been so debased that the target audience doesn't know what such advice even means.
Freddy becomes an American political oracle—indeed, briefly, a possible presidential nominee by acclamation—who denounces the triviality of conventional politics and tells the cynical pols of their countrymen's genuine pressing need: "‘They are a spiritual people. They want love and greatness.'" This is Helprin's credo, or at least his hope. To make his countrymen believe it is a tall order. To reach the poorest of the poor, who need this knowledge the most, is currently an impossibility. They don't read Helprin in inner-city schools. They don't read him much in the elite universities either, where the moral taste and political coloring of the ruling class are largely determined.
An Indispensable Voice
Helprin's is a voice that must be heard. The prevailing murk, in literature, in public life, makes his clarity and courage indispensable. That goodness is as potent as evil, but that good men must be willing to kill and die so that evil will not prevail; that love at first sight may create a pact of true hearts that even death cannot dissolve; that a writer's language ought to aspire to a crystalline beauty unafraid of luxuriance; that life is a sacred mystery, in which God can be apprehended by human perception deeper than reason; that ordeal determines the order of rank among men, and those deserving the name of heroes know instinctively, or learn quickly, that hardship, pain, and loss constitute the inexorable terms of existence; that honor is not the ultimate end of valor, but is the means to something higher, which is love, of persons, of country, of civilization, of the force that sowed the stars: these are the truths that Mark Helprin swears by. They are unpopular, even scorned, in an age of irony and moral hideousness. He cleaves to them all the more for that. He is the best living conservative American writer, perhaps the best plain and simple, and one hopes he has marvels yet to show us.