Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Must the Winter End So Soon?

I have been reading Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, an epic novel that pays homage to New York City and is inhabited by characters who come in and out of the narrative much as do the characters in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. I have made it a slow read on purpose, savoring the wit and wisdom of an author who is deeply immersed in this city by the sea, and understands it even more than Pete Hamill. Pete Hamill's Forever is an epic novel of New York City, an impressive achievement that left me breathless. Even now as I write about it, I want to read it again.

But Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale rises to an even higher level. Somehow he has managed to merge realism and fantasy, creating characters whose essence is ultimately shaped by the crucible of the city that challenges and nourishes their existence. It is a perfect read for celebrating the delight and destructive power of winter. The frigid air of winter brings clarity, etching the city and the surrounding Hudson countryside in crystalline perfection, enabling us to see further and deeper into the soul of an energy that binds us together as one.

Outside, as I write, temperatures are moderating. The days are getting longer, and I feel compelled to speed up my reading of Helprin's masterpiece, for it is a book to be savored in the deepest chill of winter. I came across a review by Bobby Matherne written in 2003, who apparently felt that the book should be read in summer:
Actually most of the scenes take place in winter, not just one winter, but many winters. All the action outdoors takes place in the middle of extreme cold -- the Hudson River is frozen solid all the way from the ocean to its source. Helprin has written a paean to New York City and a love song to winter. Not the bitter cold, desolate winters when everyone huddles inside for warmth, but a vibrant, active winter full of evocative scenes of festive block parties on ice, ice-boating on large lakes, ice skating on frozen rivers, and midnight silvery sleigh rides bouncing over snowy hillocks or gliding silently over glassy smooth ice surrounded by quaint candle-lit Dutch villages along the fictional Lake of the Coheeries near the headwaters of the Hudson. This novel makes great summer reading as it will keep you in a perpetual chill as you read it.
On the contrary, a winter read takes you through the chill of winter as though you were on the greatest adventure of your life. It is a book for winter, for celebrating both its magical and destructive powers, and while reading it you experience a different season, one that whisks you away on the winds of winter as though you could fly through the storms and blizzards with those whose warmth wraps you in a cocoon of imagination, rich safe-havens rescuing you from the oblivion that lurks on the other side of this frigid realm. If you haven't read it, set it aside for next winter, and begin reading it in a tavern, drinking a tankard of ale as you savor the warmth within, while watching the snow blowing into drifts outside your window.

I was both amazed and distressed that Mr. Matherne describes the flaw of the novel as celebrating criminals and criminality:
If the book has a flaw, it's the constant thievery motif. Peter is a criminal, Pearly is a criminal, most of the people Peter meets are criminals or began as one. ... The author treats criminality as if it adds light to the city, when in truth it adds only darkness, as does every form of immorality. The polishing of the lights that criminals do is with dirty rags that obscure and obstruct the light; the red flashes they create are from burning down other people's property, and the lightning flashes are flashes from the muzzles of their murder weapons. In 1983 Helprin was creating celebrities out of criminals while it seems that the world today is creating criminals out of celebrities. Neither process brightens the world, but only darkens it with its immorality.

Suddenly Mr. Matherne, rather than reviewing a novel, is lecturing us with depressingly moralizing drivel. The truth is that Helprin's understanding of the dark side of human activities illuminates the moments of liberation, when an underlying moral sense comes to the fore, transforming characters, redeeming them, or helping us understand their presence in the larger scheme of things. At least the reviewer in the New York Times got it right:
Is it not astonishing that a work so rooted in fantasy, filled with narrative high jinks, and comic flights, stands forth centrally as a moral discourse? It is indeed... I find myself nervous, to a degree. I don't recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.
I hear by the grapevine that we are due for another blast of Arctic air this weekend, perhaps a final fling of winter. I am halfway through the book, and I will have to hole up somewhere as this last surge of winter returns, fueling my attention and hurling me to the end of a book that I wish would never end, but must ...and too soon at that.

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