Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mark Helprin and his Fiction/Food



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      Mark Helprin (b. 1947, Manhattan, NY) is one of my favorite fiction writers. It's not just because he writes poetically from and about my home turf, the Hudson River Valley. It's not because his public persona is politically conservative. And it's certainly not because he is a "foodie writer" - not at all, but his plots are clearly punctuated with lively and meaningful food references that clarify, almost define his characters' style, tastes and values.

       Helprin rises from a life of international views and serous engagement. His father was a traveling merchant in Russia and elsewhere, and later, was involved with WW II intelligence circles. His mother, Eleanor Lynn, was a 1930s Broadway leading lady, with relations in Sinkiang Province, China and a leading role in Pearl Buck's The Good Earth.

     My first read and still my favorite novel is A Soldier of the Great War (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), which brings forth Helprin's familiarity and fluency of vigorous and fearless action, of dignity, poise and many unusual skills of a European upper class man. Like handling a large sail boat and steering blithely into a strong wind, superb horsemanship, scholarly achievement, being a mindful and devoted son, and an expert at climbing in the challenging peaks of Europe and especially during the Great War in northern Italy as part of the Alpini, the oldest active mountain infantry in the world, established in 1872.  These associations mark him as an elite, possibly aristocratic, certainly outstanding hero.
It's very much old school but without the bluster, false values, and chilling ineptitude.

     My second (and very close) nomination is A Winter's Tale (1983), which unfolds with his imaginative prose in what certainly may be a called "magical realism." Peter Blake, on a magical white horse, leaves the mysterious and wild Baymen of Bayonne's Jersey swamps for Manhattan, where he comes upon a winter festival celebrating  a burning ferry boat.

     Scenes of inventive feasting are numerous. As on pages 295-6 cured beef boiled in with sacks of carrots, onions and potatoes - garlic, ground pepper and wine are dumped into boiling brine.

     IMBd offers this comment about the film, based on Helprin's work, and its director: 

    A prolific screenwriter, responsible for the scripts for The Client, A Time to Kill, A Beautiful Mind, and The Da Vinci Code, Akiva Goldsman makes his directorial debut with A New York Winter's Tale, based on the acclaimed novel, Winter's Tale (the title for the movie in America), by Mark Helprin. A romantic fantasy spanning centuries, the story concerns Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), a burglar in 1900's New York who, on the run from demonic gangster Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), falls for Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). When tragedy strikes, Peter is thrust forward to present day, minus his memories, but knowing he has something important to fulfill. On paper, Winter's Tale is a modern day fairy tale that deserves every piece of praise heaped upon it. Sadly, this doesn't translate to the big screen, with A New York Winter's Tale falling at the first hurdle. The movie's heart is in the right place, »



    Among Helprin's other themes are the magic of the NYC skyline, horses, often flying over barriers or up the long channels of the Hudson River, and snow -  snow swirling and biting - it becomes an almost adversarial character or a suspportive ally, as the author wishes.

 Mark Helprin with Hank, his quarter horse


     In his latest novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), the food stops are rather different. Though his hero is well-born, noble and a born leader, he is also a bit of a straight shooter,... Helprin lavishes his attention on a New Yorker's love poem to Staten Island and its in the 1940-50s ferry, the dunes of the beaches, the Palisades and Manhattan in all its diversity, socially and ethnically. 

    Here is one of his eloquent lines about facing  nature: "And I went out to the ocean. Do you know what it was like? The waves broke, and each time they did, as they slapped against the sand, I could feel it all through my body. And each time they broke, and each time, they thudded down, they said, You have only one life, you have only one life.

    In Sunlight, Harris Copeland, called "Harry", the son of an upscale leather goods purveyor, who appropriated the name from the WASPS as a means of shedding Jewish and Eastern European identity and climbing toward success.  His lead characters clearly reflect Helprin's own life, wherein Helprin himself -monied, well- educated, well-connected, and experienced at length in the worlds of both war and peace, has become a an author of depth in American fiction.

    Harry's first  romantic encounter is takes the couple to a downtown automate for hotdogs. Subsequent meals are mentioned as served in upper class homes on Long Island, a smart lunch with a canny and generous auntie on Staten Island, and formal receptions or dinners at equally elegant homes.

   Dinner was over. - nine hundred carefully wrought calories of it, including a chocolate mousse in a cup the size of a half dollar -and the dancing was about to begin.

    Or: The village was called Nea Epidavros. There were some flimsy tables and chairs on the pier  He told me in Greek that the Germans has paid for my dinner. And the next ting he did was take off his shoes and shirt and dived into the water. I thought he was nuts. When he surfaced, he was holding an octopus, which he then spent half an hour tenderizing by smashing it (dead after the first blow) against the concrete...The rest of the afternoon, he marinated it, and by dark I had one of the best meals of my life.

     In the accounts of his experiences in WW II as a pathfinder paratrooper (certainly drawn from his father's wartime experiences), fear and endurance and sheer capability are described over and over, in a flow:

   And he understood that the next few moments might be his last. At some point, uncontrolled by either will or the prospects of success, something apart from oneself takes over (breeding?) , working alongside and flooding the body with grace, or perhaps failing to do so entirely.

     Of the female heroin on stage, he writes:

 All was at risk, all the time, and ever would be. Therein lay the greatness of her singing, eternally clarified by the oppression of mortality and the rebellion of love.

    Helprin remind us of the book's title in the passage that follows:  

    As brave as her husband, she sang into the darkness beyond blinding light, and time stood still. Evenly and steadily, with strength newborn within her, she carried the audience, through sunlight and shadow, effortlessly upon her song. (p. 674) 

   Helprin is a certain kind of artist-spokesman for Americans who happens to be Jewish, but his cosmopolitanism speaks for humans anywhere. He is neither Philip Roth nor Saul Bellow, Vera Casberry or Bernard Malamud. He is himself.

     A Fellow of the American Academy in Rome and a former Guggenheim Fellow, Helprin has been awarded the National Jewish Book Award and the Prix de Rome from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
     He is also a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. In 1996 he served as a foreign policy advisor and speechwriter to presidential candidate Bob Dole.
     In May 2006, the New York Times Book Review published a list of American novels, compiled from the responses to a short letter [from the NYT Book Review] to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages that asked them to identify 'the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.'" Among the 22 books to have received multiple votes was Helprin's Winter's Tale.
     In 2006 Helprin received the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award. This award is presented annually by the Tulsa Library Trust.
On November 8, 2010, in New York City, Helprin was awarded the 2010 Salvatori Prize in the American Founding by the Claremont Institute.

 

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