Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin

Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale works as a philosophical contemplation of hard-to-grasp ephemeral things as: time, winter, the growth of cities, love, death, progress, language, machines. It is also a story about New York, at the turn of two centuries (and the turn of one millennium). It is about the anxiety and upheaval of time, and how a culture may react, spontaneously, and as one, to such invisible mainly unfelt markers in a universal clock. And on the ground level, Winter’s Tale gives us ranks of unforgettable characters, people I will never forget: Peter Lake, the orphan boy grown up to be a burglar in Belle Epoque-era New York City. Pearly Soames, the sociopathic leader of the Short Tails Gang, who steals things only because he is obsessed with colors: gold, peacock, gilded feathers, he is dazzled by them all. Beverly Penn, the consumptive teenage daughter of a newspaper mogul, who falls in love with Peter Lake, after catching him trying to rob their mansion. Mrs. Gamely, a homespun woman, a good cook, who also has an impenetrably complex vocabulary, who lives in a cottage in a mysterious frozen town called Lake of the Coheeries, north of New York City. The white horse, Athansor, whose episode of escaping from his stable in Brooklyn opens the book. Athansor is the key to it all. His connection is with Peter Lake, and through that connection, all are connected – no matter what era. There are evil political bosses, and cranky op-ed columnists and managing editors of the two rival papers in New York City, there is a mayoral race which ends up being definitive in terms of the future of the bright city, and meanwhile, the winters are apocalyptic, shutting everything down. Everyone wonders if it has to do with the mysterious whirling white cloud wall that surrounds the city. Nobody knows what the cloud wall is. It sometimes picks up the sun, glinting with gold, and the wall reaches up into the atmosphere. Sometimes it sweeps over New York City, and when that happens, chaos breaks loose. But for the most part, the white cloud wall surrounds the city, a barricade, and people often forget its existence. In the 20th century section of the book, people have become so accustomed to the cloud wall, that they don’t “believe” in it anymore. Nobody even sees it. But maybe the cloud wall is a clue? To why the winters are so bad? To why the city is in turmoil?

Helprin writes in sometimes a lush prose about New York City, making it seem like a Never-Never-Land of beauty and possibility. His writing reminds me so much of Walt Whitman’s, with its sweeping observations about things like crowds, and sunrise, and bridges. Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” has to be an enormous influence on Helprin, with not only its everyday images of commuters on the ferry, staring at the city, but also its vision of time and the future, Walt Whitman squinting into the space-time continuum for those who will follow him.

Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you – I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

Starting this book was a daunting experience. First of all, it is almost 800 pages long. Second of all, it comes so highly recommended by my friends Ted and Mitchell (and everyone who has read it also says stuff like, “It’s one of my favorite books of all time”) that it’s intimidating to leap in. Thirdly, I have owned it for YEARS, so it’s one of those “perpetually unread” books on my shelves that end up kind of haunting me, looking at me like, “So. You ever gonna deal with me or what?” And fourthly: I haven’t read a novel since 2008. Fiction has been really challenging for me. Reading itself has been challenging for me, since my nervous breakdown last year. But fiction has seemed self-indulgent (for the first time in my life). It held no appeal. Well, thankfully, that is all over now. I’m back. Sheila’s back!!

My taste in literature has always been towards the books that challenge. I’ve written about “beach reads” before, and how it is assumed that people want to read “easy” books on the beach, and while that may be true for the general population (it must be!), it is not true for me (and for many other people I know). When I have time (as I did in January on the Island), I gravitate towards the big, the difficult. Only the difficult truly engages me in a type of forgetfulness and fantasy that I look for in fiction. Winter’s Tale is not challenging in the same way that, oh, Ulysses is, but it is challenging in the way that War and Peace is. It’s big. It’s comprehensive. It’s deeply thoughtful. You cannot skim it. It demands things OF you. YOU must succumb to IT. There are probably a hundred main characters, and you leap around, from one to the other, and slowly, as each page turns, you start to feel the tapestry of the book, the interconnections, and it’s one of the most exhilirating reads I have had in a long time, for that reason. It’s rare that a book gives me actual goosebumps. This one did. It’s similar to the last page of The Shipping News, which slayed me and left me in a puddle on the ground the first time I read it. I resisted even reading it, because I didn’t want the book to end, and it’s one of those moments in literature which is rare nowadays, when the style is much more ironic, with writers resisting the grand gesture. The scope of the book expanded, the scope of its emotional impact, Proulx did not let me off the hook, she forced me to go there. She forced me to realize what it was I had REALLY been reading, in that quirky weird story of Newfoundland and wind and misfits and miscreants. She forced me to see the theme. She was brave enough to state her theme, and to do so in the last page of the book? Balls. True balls.

Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones, he laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcabs on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burkes’ house. A wedding present from the bride’s father.

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.

That’s an ending that you need to earn. Annie Proulx does.

Helprin does as well.

In the beginning chapters in the book, he tosses all of the balls into the air. It takes almost 800 pages for all of them to land. What ends up happening, as a reader, is that you get sucked in, here, there, you get captivated by the scenes you are presented with, and from time to time, you remember: “Oh yes. This is in reference to the gold carriers from chapter 3.” “Oh yes. This is about the horse again.” “Oh yes. Now we go back to the Penn family.” Helprin doesn’t miss a beat. There is no episode that drags, no character that jars. I was thinking a bit of Don Delillo’s failed masterpiece Underworld, and how he must have been thinking (on some subconscious level perhaps) of Winter’s Tale, and that that was the kind of story he wanted to tell. Multiple characters and times, huge span, and, underlying it, a deeply thought-out rumination on America, New York, and the time in which we live. There are times when Delillo is deeply successful, but overall the book did not work for me. The opening sequence, the baseball game, is as good as it gets, in terms of writing, and the book never quite lives up to that opening, which was a disappointment to me (I love Don Delillo). I believe he was going for the same effect as Helprin, and Delillo is an incredible writer, which just goes to show you how difficult the task Helprin set before him, and how 100% successful he is on every count. It is not self-indulgent, it does not overly complicate things, it does not go off on tangents: each episode dovetails back into the whole, and although the whirling white cloud wall may not be mentioned for pages at a time, you always feel its smothering presence. You never stop wondering about it. What is it?? And what might be out there, in the world, that is working on me, without me even realizing it? Don’t we all have a whirling cloud wall, to some degree? Helprin makes the bold move of having it be an actual physical phemonenon, not some collective unconscious fantasy, but the real deal. There IS a cloud wall around Manhattan. There always has been. Sometimes it recedes, sometimes it surges forth (usually around the turn of centuries and millennia, apparently), but it is always there. Why?

What are we, as a culture, not paying attention to?

Winter’s Tale examines those questions. To Mark Helprin, the universe is a place of wonder and pain, where things make sense. Not in a neat tied-up kind of way, but in Vaclav Havel’s sense of it, when he said:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

It is a redemptive view, but difficult. Everything happens for a reason, or so the idiots say, but what is the reason? Could it be bigger than anything we had ever imagined? Helprin believes that nothing goes away. In a classical sense, his is a conservative viewpoint (strip the current-day meaning of that word, if possible, although that means basically going back to Edmund Burke to get what I mean when I say that word). Things may be destroyed, and that is a shame, but nothing goes away. The fact that two forgotten people at the end of the 19th century met and fell in love is not nothing, even if nobody remembers them at the end of the 20th century. Such an emotion, such an experience, is like matter, which cannot be destroyed. It affects us today. Love cannot be destroyed. It exists, in between the molecules, in the atmosphere, adding to the collective experience of the human race. THIS is what Mark Helprin is about. In the same way that certain landscapes hold the memory of what happened there, wars, battles, fires, even if there is no record of the cataclysm, the human race holds the memory of all who have managed to love, connect, grow, live well, transcend, even in the midst of the worst horrors. It is not nothing. In Mark Helprin’s world, these things, events, past history, don’t just live in a metaphorical way, as in “she will live on forever in our hearts” – no, it is much more literal than that. They ACTUALLY live.

He takes as his canvas New York City, and one of the greatest gifts of the book is that it has made me see where I live in a new way. Now I am one of those people who loves history, and is always looking for evidence of the city that once was here, and now is no longer. I even remember some of it, because the changes have been so drastic in the last 20 years. I love the ghost-signs on the sides of old buildings, the old-fashioned signage which is quickly disappearing from the landscape, the beauty of the buildings built a century ago, and how our gleaming skyscrapers may be awe-inspiring, but they can’t hold a candle to those old buildings, in their ornate glamour and poetry. There is a world running alongside the current world, even in New York where things are torn down and built up repeatedly, where you can get glimpses, where it is not just as though you are looking through a glass at another era, but where the other era seems to swim up from the depths towards you, and stands side by side with the modern world. Sorta like Kate & Leopold, if you will. Winter’s Tale takes place in a space where such things are possible.

Like I mentioned, Helprin’s vision of the world (at least in this book) is, ultimately, redemptive, but not without a price. The book was written in 1983, so the “1999” section was about the, at that time, near-future. It’s not a futuristic book, it doesn’t read that way, and much of the world in 1999 resembles the world in 1899, although the “towers” are mentioned (not by name). There are a couple of interesting moments when you realize, wow, 1983 … For example: in one of the sections about the major newspaper rivalry going on in Manhattan, one of the papers is described as having offices in all of these major countries, including “The Soviet Union”. Who could have predicted that a mere six years after Winter’s Tale was written there would be no “Soviet Union” anymore? Additionally, the 1999 in Winter’s Tale is curiously devoid of computers, although one is mentioned, except that it is more of a giant government-owned information database, and you have to drive to Connecticut to access it, and it costs millions of dollars to operate it. None of this anachronizes the book, however, because it all does seem to take place in a sort of time-out-of-time, or, more accurately, a river of time, where you dip into one era, dip into another, and it’s not so important to recognize your own time, or what Helprin “got right” or “didn’t”, because that’s not where the power of the book lies.

One of the best parts of Winter’s Tale is that it gave me “scenes” unlike anything I have ever seen in any book, in life, in theatre, movies. So specific, so fantastical, that they could only have come from the expansive imagination of one man. Here are some of the things I have never seen before, but now I have, thanks to the magic of Mark Helprin’s pen:

— a white whirling cloud wall around Manhattan, with waves breaking against it
— Peter Lake sleeping in a little compartment above the Grand Central Station green ceiling of stars
— Meeting of thieves in the underground water tunnels of New York City
— A white stallion galloping through a vaudeville burlesque theatre
— Handmade human-catapult contraption made to vault two people over a raging river in Yellowstone
— Train frozen in the snow
— Drift of snow spanning the Hudson River, 1000 feet high. People have to climb up and over the drift, like an ice-climber on Everest, just to get through. On the top of the wall, New York can be seen in the distance
— The Hudson River frozen over completely, with thousands, hundreds of thousands, of tents pitched across the ice
— The Short Tails Gang, terrifying, murderous, all on ice skates, chasing Peter Lake, down the frozen Hudson River
— Legions of consumptive people, all sleeping on their rooftops, trying to freeze the disease out of their lungs

These are just a few examples. Each section of the book had some indelible image to implant in my brain forevermore. I will never forget the “Lake of the Coheeries”, the frozen (in terms of it being winter, and in terms of it being frozen in time) town north of New York. I will never forget the raucous “oyster bar”, populated by thieves and prostitutes, in an underground cavern somewhere beneath the streets of Manhattan. I will never forget the image of the “machine display” in Madison Square Garden, the pistons and gears and mechanical motions that catapulted Peter Lake into the knowledge that he was a mechanic. I will never forget the stone bathtub at the Penn mansion where Peter Lake and Beverly would embrace and swim, before the fever overtook her and she was done for the night. I am forever grateful to Mark Helprin for showing me these things from his beautiful dreamspace, because now they are mine. Forever.

They are not nothing. Nothing goes away. Even things of the mind, the imagination, the dream, are important information to have as we try to navigate our way through the world.

There is more to say. The prophetic nature of the book, in terms of September 11th, has not really been addressed, and I don’t remember it being mentioned in the wake of that awful day, at least not in the same way that E.B. White’s essay was, repeatedly, with its dread-making phrases of vision and prophesy:

The city, for the first time, in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island of fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

E.B. White wrote those chilling words in 1948.

In the wake of September 11th, I heard them quoted again and again. He was right. He was right. Mark Helprin was right, too, in more ways than one (he got the destruction wrong by one year – he put it in 2000, not 2001), but I didn’t see his book bandied about in the same way as E.B. White’s essay. For whatever reason, his deeply beautiful and haunting poem to New York City escaped resurrrection.

But it remains indestructible.

As the city does. Which appears to me to be one of Helprin’s messages. Burn it down, go ahead. You will not destroy what is here. You can destroy the buildings but ultimately New York, like all cities, is an idea before it is a place, and ideas, like matter, cannot be destroyed. As a New Yorker, as someone who loves this place, his book brought me to tears of love, which is a very strange thing, and a very beautiful thing. It is not every day that a writer comes along who reminds you to love your home. To look around and value not just what it is, but what it has been, what it started out as, and what it will always be.

Manhattan, a high narrow kingdom as hopeful as any that ever was, burst upon him full force, a great and imperfect steel-tressed palace of a hundred million chambers, many-tiered gardens, pools, passages, and ramparts above its rivers. Built upon an island from which bridges stretched to other islands and to the mainland, the palace of a thousand tall towers was undefended. It took in nearly all who wished to enter, being so much larger than anything else that it could not ever be conquered but only visited by force. Newcomers, invaders, and the inhabitants themselves were so confused by its multiplicity, variety, vanity, size, brutality, and grace, that they lost sight of what it was. It was, for some, one simple structure, busily divided, lovely and pleasing, an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built.

A masterpiece of the 20th century.

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24 Responses to Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin

  1. Dan says:

    Whoa. This book has been sitting on my shelves for quite some time, but you may have inspired me to try and tackle it soon.

  2. melissa says:

    These posts are the ones that make my To Be Read pile grow, and grow, and grow…

  3. red says:

    Dan – I’m with you, I have owned this book for years, with the voices of my friends in my head – “read it!!” I am eternally grateful that I did pick it up. Life is short, you can’t read EVERYTHING, but you should definitely read THIS.


  4. Anne says:

    A beautiful post. But I have to say, my favorite line was, “Sorta like Kate & Leopold.”

  5. red says:

    Anne – hahahaha. The book really did remind me (at points) of Kate & Leopold. Same era-transfer, same sort of gobsmacked response of the 19th century man to 20th century New York.

    My ridiculous frames of reference!!

  6. jim crawford says:

    I read this beautiful in 1985 and fell in love with it. Since then I’ve read it 12 more times, each being just as emotionally renewing as the first. Helprin writes of the wonderfully bitter cold and we MUST know it dwells within us, our own knowing of ourselves, the release of life and the span of ages where we continue.

  7. sheila says:

    Jim – I’ve only read it once, but even as I was reading it, I knew I would have to read it again. Incredible book. Powerful and important. The images will stay with me always.

    “Emotionally renewing”. I really like that.

    • Michelle says:

      Wow! I’m thrilled to find other people are as enthralled as I am with this book! I read it first about 20 years ago, probably shortly after it came out as book of the month in some book club. At the time, I borrowed it from a friend. Then a few years ago, I thought about it and wanted to read it again so I looked for it at the bookstore but it was out of print. I waited a few years and, finally after many patient inquiries, I was told they could order it for me. And so I read it again… These last few weeks, with the air turning pretty cold up here in Montreal, I got into the habit of leaving my windows wide open to let in as much fresh air as I could and somehow, I got thinking of Beverly so I took the book out of the bookshelf and, looking for a description of Beverly on her rooftop, I fell on the passage when they first meet… Ah! I love this book! Of all the books I’ve read, this is the book that has left me with the longest lasting impression.

  8. alittleowl14 says:

    This is another eerily prophetic quote that often comes to my mind:

    “I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? And then people tell me about pilgrimages to some dank pesthole in a jungle where they go to do homage to a crumbling temple, to a leering stone monster with a pot belly, created by some leprous savage. Is it beauty and genius they want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see the city from my window–no, I don’t feel how small I am–but I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would like to throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.”

    Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

  9. sheila says:

    Yeah, I know that one. In my opinion, Mark Helprin said it better. So did E.B. White.

  10. Pingback: Winter’s tale | Susan Hated Literature

  11. Peter Basta Brightbill says:

    Sheila – a lovely review of Mark’s book, which I attempted, years ago, to adapt for the screen when I was a student at Juilliard. In this, I failed (I was a young playwright then, and daunted by the challenge of devising multiple (inner, spiritual, interpersonal, societal) levels of conflict necessary to make a dramatic (as opposed to narrative) work of fiction succeed. Apparently, Akiva Goldsman has succeeded where I failed, and more power to him.

    Regardless of whether Goldsman’s film succeeds (if, indeed, it even gets made… nothing is certain in Hollywood until a film starts production) or not, Mark’s novel will stand apart, as a work of great fiction, which owes a debt to Joyce’s “The Dead,” among other works.

  12. sheila says:

    Peter – Even thinking about writing a screenplay for this is daunting. What on earth could you leave out, you know?? So many set pieces, so many memorable scenes.

    I can see the debt to Joyce and the book certainly had a similar impact on me.

    I first read it in 2010 and already feel the need to read it again. I live on the Hudson River (can see it out my window) and from time to time I think of that giant ice-snow wall that blocks off the mysterious town – and having to climb up and over it, with the giant vista of the frozen river below. Unforgettable. The book really made me see New York in a different way.

    Have you seen Hugo yet? I loved it – there were sections that reminded me of Winter’s Tale – especially the little boy living behind the ceiling in the train station.

  13. James says:

    Shiela – I read it when it was first published and knew it was one of the most amazing and
    wonderful books I would ever read , something that would stay with one forever.
    And I have beeen returning to it ever since. You have described it so perfectly, in
    a way I have never encountered before . Thanks!

  14. Daniel Hornberger says:

    If what some are saying is true…that WT will be adapted for the screen, let’s hope the screenwriter/director has enough sense to develop it into several films. Better yet, HBO would gain many (thousands?) new subscribers if they created a two or three season adaptation of the novel. This approach would surely mean a closer rendering than, say, Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (I’m specifically referring to the final film where Jackson simply cut the last two chapters–a sin!). I’m also hoping that one day, Helprin relents and allows WT to become an ebook. Yes, I know that’s unlikely…but to know that I can access it at any time would bring me much happiness. Thanks for the great review!

  15. sheila says:

    Daniel – how wonderful it would be if it was developed into a long in-depth mini series on HBO. There is no way it could be done in a 2 hour film.

    God, what a book!!

  16. Daniel Hornberger says:

    Oh, the irony! A friend just sent me a link to imdb, hinting that Will Smith and Russell Crowe (as Pearly Soames) will be the stars of WT. Will Smith as Peter Lake? Say it ain’t so, Mark!

  17. sheila says:

    Oh dear. No, that’s not a good sign.

  18. Elliott says:

    “Winter’s Tale” is one of the few books I have read several times. I read it in 1984, when I was fifteen, and it almost completely informed my idea of literature for years. The book is full of both concrete images and possibilities in such close proximity, which captivated me as a reader. Consider the first scene: Peter Lake flees from pursuers through a snowy field, and he runs zigzagging, but loses ground because they pursue along the hypotenuse of his turns. Science, right? Anyway, he hops on a horse, which flies him away, because it’s a flying horse, that’s what it is. The sentences are easy to parse, but the matter-of-fact language is saturated with the most absurd magic. What the book conveys is a deep conviction in a force or a power coursing though the most ordinary things, always obvious and always invisible.

    I do not have an easy time evaluating “Winter’s Tale” as literature. I held it, the story and the mass-market paperback, very close to me through difficult times while I fought doggedly against what could have been a great secondary education. They could try to teach me literature. I could try to convince them I had read their books. Even now I resist considering “Winter’s Tale” critically.

    • sheila says:

      Elliot – what a beautiful comment.

      // Even now I resist considering “Winter’s Tale” critically. //

      I know just what you mean.

      • Elliott says:

        Did you bring your shock pancakes to the movie?

        • sheila says:

          Ha. I had a feeling it would be bad, I was geared up. It’s hard to see something so magical and so perfect completely ruined. How on earth does one justify leaving out the whirling cloud-wall?

          That suggests to me that Goldsman did not understand the book at ALL.

          And I didn’t mention the voiceover – which is dreadful. Beverly narrates the film and it sounds like it could have been written by a low-rent Richard Bach. You know, love is light, and we are all parts of the stars, and love is timeless …

          and sure, the book is about that – but Jesus God, use Helprin’s prose, why don’t you, don’t just make up this God-awful New Age claptrap. BAH HUMBUG.

          • Elliott says:

            Yeah. A film adaptation would have to give up on the mystery (new colors, new paint) just by showing it, which doesn’t leave much. Wrapping it in first-person narration, though? That reeks of desperation. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a very dramatic novel, and GCI wings on some Hollywood nag are just not going to cut it for the magic. They just should have made “Money” by Martin Amis instead. It would be a lot easier.

            “Winter’s Tale” must be a siren’s song to a filmmaker: so visual, so straightforward, so epic. What could go wrong?

          • sheila says:

            Yeah, the voiceover was very desperate. It also had that overly literal “we are connected” New Age bull shit feel to it – so general, it was a Hallmark card.

            Oh and the horse. Ugh! Lou Lumenick at the NY Post said in his review that it looked like the Tristar logo, or a poor man’s version thereof, and that’s pretty spot on.

            You’re right: visual, straightforward, epic. It needed a grand touch. It needed to understand the scope. It may very well be un-film-able. I’m trying to think of a director who could take it on. Michel Gondry, maybe. His “Eternal Sunshine” touched on some of the same themes, and had a very BIG impact – for such a small romantic story. And he was inventive and gritty with his “special effects” giving an overall effect that seemed truly eerie and otherworldly, while always clearly being real. I don’t know. Maybe.

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