A Dove of the East, and Other Stories, 1975
Ellis Island, and Other Stories, 1981
“Last Tea with the Armorers,” 1995
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
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
Swan Lake, 1989
A City in Winter: The Queen’s Tale, 1996
The Veil of Snows, 1997
“In the tunnels of contemporary American fiction,” Mark Helprin noted in 1988, “the moles are singing. They are singing in unison, they are singing to each other, and they are singing of darkness.” Against these literary moles, with their darkened vision, defeated characters, and bleakly ironic minimalist style, Helprin stands apart and largely alone: a writer wildly extravagant and overwhelmingly affirmative, a true believer in an art that is “consequential” and, as John Gardner has claimed, essentially “moral.”
Helprin, the son of immigrant parents, is remarkably reticent about his personal life, and his politics and his whimsical treatment of interviewers have led to some doubt about the veracity of his autobiographical statements. Yet he incorporates many details from his life–such as his childhood in New York’s Hudson River Valley, his brief residence in the British West Indies, his service in the British Merchant Navy, his Harvard education (he received a B.A. in 1969 and an M.A. in Middle Eastern studies in 1972), and a two-year stint in the Israeli military from 1972 to 1973–in his fantastic and oddly autobiographical fiction. Although Helprin is Jewish by birth and belief, if not in actual practice, his fictions rarely feature Jewish characters and do not take their central themes from Jewish life and philosophy.
Helprin sold his first short story to The New Yorker when he was twenty-one years old. Reviewers greeted his subsequent work with considerable praise, but academic critics largely ignored it. Variously set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and in places as different as the American West, Sicily, Russia, and Israel, and dealing with a diverse cast of characters (pacifists, soldiers, fishermen, clerks), the twenty stories collected in A Dove of the East, and Other Stories display the singleness of purpose and intensity of vision built upon an intuitive sense of right and wrong and, above all, on love and loss. Even the shortest of these stories possess an expansiveness out of all proportion to their length but commensurate with the vastness of Helprin’s vision of a world whose harshness is matched by a compensatory majesty. As in all his work, Helprin’s language in these stories equals his vision: opulent, “ravishing,” excessive, concerned not with the probable but instead with the possible or even the impossible, not with what does happen but with what one believes should happen in stories “full of lies that [are] true.”
A Dove of the East, and Other Stories deals largely with death; Refiner’s Fire deals with resurrection. In the stories, the soul is tempered and refined by the crucible of loss; in the novel, war serves the same purpose. Subtitled The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling, Refiner’s Fire is a long, loosely autobiographical, picaresque work in which the action of the opening pages is not completed until the very last; the gap comprises all that has transpired in (and even before) the hero’s life to bring him to the point at which the narrative begins. Given Helprin’s belief in the transcendental connectedness of all life, his use of this framing device as well as the episodic structuring of the framed tale suits his larger purpose as the hero rises above self, race, even his own human nature “to see the bold arrangement in things.”
In the eleven stories collected in Ellis Island, and Other Stories, which was awarded the 1982 National Jewish Book Award, Helprin revisits most important themes while evidencing greater narrative development and experimentation (as seen, for example, in the epistolary “Letters from the Samantha,” one of Helprin’s most thematically understated stories). Although “A Vermont Tale” and“Palais de Justice” reveal just how clichéd Helprin’s ideas and prose occasionally are, at least two other stories exemplify the strengths of his art and its continuing evolution. In “The Schauerspitze,” the hero uses one self-chosen ordeal (mountain climbing) to overcome an externally inflicted one (the deaths of his wife and son) and achieves a vision and a faith that free him of his grief and restore him to his world spiritually as well as physically whole. “Ellis Island” is a lengthy first-person account of a newly arrived immigrant’s misadventures in a fogbound, dreamlike America. The comic picaresque shifts near story’s end to the sobering reality of death and the narrator-protagonist’s redemption through love and acceptance of personal responsibility.
Helprin’s second novel-length romance appears to be the natural extension of “Ellis Island.” Winter’s Tale is vast, sprawling, yet immensely readable, and ambitious to a fault. Set largely in a New York City composed in equal parts of fantasy and reality and spanning an entire century (from the late nineteenth century to the year 2000), it is a surprisingly apocalyptic work yet also a prophetic prose poem in the tradition of Walt Whitman. It is Helprin’s goal to build in fiction, if not in fact, a “city of justice,” “a bridge of light without a discernible end.” Mixing mechanics with metaphysics, he fashions a densely woven narrative of authorial and cosmic patterns in an effort to defeat time and prove that nothing and no one is ever truly lost.
An immense labor of love and faith, Winter’s Tale makes its best argument to the heart, where the audacity of Helprin’s prose and of his imagination compels belief. Some critics, however, found the novel to be unconvincing, composed as it is of brilliant set pieces forced into the semblance of a plot. Helprin’s time shifts and muddled “bridge of justice” dilute the fierce power of the opening scenes, and his inability to depict evil renders his villain oddly impotent.
Re-examined by the light of Helprin’s third novel, A Soldier of the Great War, Winter’s Tale takes on a faintly unreal and precious quality. A Soldier of the Great War, which tells the story of a young Italian aristocrat’s misadventures during World War I, shines with an inner luminescence, and is considered by many to be not only Helprin’s finest work but one of the finest novels of the 1990’s. The novel’s brilliance derives from a sophisticated use of coincidence that plunges the protagonist ever deeper into danger. For the first time Helprin’s heart is grounded firmly in his head, with the youthful zeal of Refiner’s Fire and the awkward mysticism of Winter’s Tale tempered by humanism and a buoyant sense of the absurd. Often overlooked, Helprin’s ability to write both low and high humor leavens and strengthens what is in essence a tragedy.
Helprin’s next work, Memoir from Antproof Case, with its old man narrator railing about the evils of coffee, falls back on the weaknesses of Winter’s Tale, without that novel’s saving lyricism. Beginning in 1989, Helprin also began writing children’s fiction, much of which has been well reviewed for its magical realism and fantasy. It may well be that Helprin’s talents are better appreciated in the realm of juvenile rather than literary fiction.