If someone had told me what Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale was about, I don’t think I would have read it.
Written in 1983, the plot is three parts Gangs of New York, two parts Age of Innocence, with a dash of Dickens and a pinch of Lord of the Rings.
A turn-of-century “period piece” set in and around the city of New York, with swash-buckling swamp dwellers and flying horses.
But Peter Lake is such a compelling character, who finds himself in such classical literary circumstances, that I could put aside (and eventually accept, if not embrace) the occasional departures from the laws of physics.
More than that, though, the book is extremely well-written.
Which caused me to put a lot more thought into what constitutes “well-written”.
Is it arbitrary? Simply a matter of taste? Trying to draw the line between “flowery” or “self-important” or “baroque” on the one hand, and writing which is fresh and imaginative and challenging, on the other?
This is a passage from Winter’s Tale:
“Perhaps instinctual knowledge of the Last Judgment is widespread because a life that leads to death is a perfect emblem for a history that at some time will be judged: both are stopped, stripped, and illuminated by the same powerful light. Or perhaps it is because, in living, one muddles through the years for the sake of one or two moments which are indisputably great. Though such moments can occur on the battlefield, in a cathedral, at the summit of a mountain, or during a storm at sea, they are experienced more frequently at a bedside, on the beach, in moldy courts of law, or while driving down sun-warmed macadam roads on inauspicious summer afternoons: for the castles of the modern age are divided into very small rooms. These room, nonetheless, are often crowded with large numbers of people, because history favors mass, and proffers greatness more readily when all the soldiers of an army are gathered on one field, when the cathedral is packed to the rafters, or when the mist lifts and the ships of an invasion fleet discover that, far from being alone, they are a breathtaking armada.”
I would often put down a book narrated from this perspective. Who is speaking here? What are the rules? These types of points should be dramatized, rather than presented in nice neat packages.
Yet this seems somehow different. The voice is not the voice of an imaginary narrator who sees things that he or she would never see or guesses about things that he or she would never know. It is a universal voice. Stripped of “personality”.
What the author is communicating, moreover, is something that can only be done in the high written form. Sure, it could be illustrated, or approximated. But it’s not something that would be credibly “spoken”, whether in dialogue or as described by a human narrator, in first or third person.
I remember learning about the Modern poets in school. Rebelling against the foolish Romantics, with their meter and rhyme, who thought that poetry could capture the beauty of a magical world. Life was fractured, they said. In fragments and pieces. Without purpose, or meaning, or order. Classical poetry, they said, was just a lie. It should reflect the world around them.
Maybe that’s true, I thought. Or at least part of me thought. But if that is true, and the only thing which can give beauty or meaning to the world is art, then don’t artists have all the more responsibility to make their works beautiful?
On that note, and turning to the language itself, the words Helprin uses seem somehow organic, and natural. I am not sure if I can explain how or why, but neither the passage itself, nor phrases, nor words, seem “added”. They seem integrally fused to their own meaning.
Perhaps because they communicate something in and of itself, as opposed to describing something which is incidental to plot, character, or setting.
For example, from Special Topics in Calamity Physics:
“To this day, I’m not sure how or why I said what I did. Perhaps it was one of those uncanny occasions when it really isn’t you speaking, but Fate, who intervenes every so often to make sure that, rather than your choosing the easy road, recently paved, with clearly labeled street signs and maple trees, she, with the cruelty of drill sergeants, dictators, and office personnel, makes certain you stick to the dark, thorny path she’s already laid out for you.”
While some might describe this passage as “well-written”, in my opinion, it says virtually nothing. The characters go to a party. Which proves to be “fateful”. But not because of anything that’s said here. The events speak for themselves. I don’t need the author to give me a sign that this is going to be a “fateful” decision. Nor do I really need to hear her opinion, or rationalization, or interpretation, of being seized by “drill sergeants, dictators, and office personnel” – which metaphor (if you can call it that) seems extremely strained. An “uncanny” occasion or “thorny” path is not so new or original as to make it interesting. Not to mention the fact that, although ostensibly told in the first person, no one actually speaks like this. When is the last time you were at a dinner party, and someone told you about how “Fate” “intervenes every so often to make sure that, rather than your choosing the easy road, recently paved, with clearly labeled street signs and maple trees”?
Or consider this passage from Ehud Havazelet’s Bearing the Body:
“It was a spring evening and he had come in too soon. Beyond the dining room window the catalpa tossed heavily, leaves grown huge this week, trailing seedpods comically like tassels. The light over the houses was a charged blue, not as in winter when it drained abruptly into night, but softer, a presence, almost liquid, an invitation, a tease. In the street, a car circled a second time, its radio up, and he leaned in to hear but caught only the thin edge of a melody before it turned the corner and faded.”
This sounds like a passage I might try to write. Simply because it “sounds better” than a more straight-forward form of description. But, in the end, it doesn’t seem to have any meaning. What do you take away from it? It was sunset and a car circled the street twice. The language is interesting. But ultimately transitory. The words in themselves do not seem to provide enough substance to match their form.
A reviewer, Susann Cokal, refers to “the pleasure of Chabon’s language” (from Gentleman of the Road):
“A hillside fortress burns ‘zealously, sending up rolling shafts of black smoke veined at their root with fire and moaning like the mouth of a cave.’”
It’s hard to tell whether this really adds anything, given the lack of context. But my generally reaction is: That’s nice; but, ultimately, so what?
And finally, from Michael Cunningham’s acclaimed Specimen Days:
“Simon breathed steadily beside her. She let herself stare at him as he grimaced over a dream. He was a true classic. Big, broad anchorman face, vigorous thatch of sable-colored hair beginning to be threaded, here and there, with strands of sterling silver. He could have been fresh off the assembly line at whatever corporation produced the Great American Beauties. The corporation would be somewhere in the Midwest, wouldn’t it? And yes, he came from Iowa, didn’t he? Great-great-grandson of immigrants who’d escaped New York for the prairie, he’d returned in triumph a hundred or so years later, the exiled prince restored to his true home by way of the Ivy League.”
Who is talking here? To whom is he or she speaking? And why? Does it really matter what color his hair is? Isn’t it clear, from the surrounding circumstances, whether he is or is not a “classic”? Or, is the narrator wrong? [I don’t know because I never read the book.] Is Simon not an “exiled prince” from the Midwest who has been restored to the prairie via the Ivy League? If he really isn’t, then I apologize. If he is, then so what?
Perhaps this is all just a matter of taste. Perhaps it is all arbitrary. Perhaps I am being overly-critical of these other works. Or one could level the same criticisms at Helprin. But, for whatever reason, and for whatever it’s worth, I see a difference. Compare, for example, with this description (and foreshadowing) fromWinter’s Tale:
“If human faces are an incentive to clairvoyance, then Praeger, at that moment, was the touchstone of the future. He looked over at Hardesty, and smiled. Hardesty saw in the cold blue eyes, the carefully cut blonde hair, the slightly chipped front teeth, and an expression that told of great strength, long-suffering, and everlasting humor, that Praeger had been taken up by the same thing that he himself was seeking. Though he did not know why, he believed him, and he was saddened to see that Praeger’s face told of a future battle as certainly as if it had been a memorial frieze.”
Or the following exposition:
“To be mad is to feel with excruciating intensity the sadness and joy of a time which has not arrived or has already been. And to protect their delicate vision of that other time, madmen will justify their condition with touching loyalty, and surround it with a thousand distractive schemes. These schemes, in turn, drive them deeper and deeper into darkness and light (which is their mortification and their reward), and confront them with a choice. They may either slacken and fall back, accepting the relief of a rational view and the approval of others, or they may push on, and, by falling, arise. When and if by their unforgivable stubbornness they finally burst through to worlds upon worlds of motionless light, they are no longer called afflicted or insane. They are called saints.”
That passage is not dependent upon context. While it fits within Winter’s Tale, it’s not tethered to a character, or the plot, or the setting. Which, perhaps, makes the language seem not merely “flowery” or “self-important” or “baroque”. The words seem to say something in and of themselves.
Which is, perhaps, superfluous to the novel.
But I would say that, in this particular case, they are only superfluous to the story. They are what I think the novel essentially is.
Full of wonder. Beauty. Moving. And, especially, well-written.