Winter’s Tale

“There were fires blazing on every corner, mortal arguments on each block, robberies in commission, buildings attacked by squads of devilish wreckers, and buildings assembled by constructions workers who rode single cables until they disappeared into the sky. Hardesty found it difficult to get downtown and stay the same. The city wanted fuel for its fires, and it reached out with leaping tongues of gravity and flame to pull people in, size them up, dance with them a little, sell them a suit- and then devour them.”

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin is nearly impossible to describe. Indeed, it would take the author himself to give the right words, for to convey his standard of the English language, to show and convince you of his ability to manipulate the senses while turning you on your head- it would lead to self defeat. You would trip and stumble, desperately trying to give words to things that only Helprin can, envious of his powers. For to praise the author, you would want to do so in his own language.

A ‘Winter’s Tale’ is like nothing I’ve read before. Sometimes confusing and always quirky, you forget that you’re reading about a real place. It’s not the dangerous and inventive abstract art pitting itself against a classical precedent. It’s simply taking basic tools and mixing them together in ways that show entirely new colors. Helprin doesn’t just tell you that the sky is blue, that the ocean tasted of salt or that the ice was cold. He tells you that the frozen lake was ‘endless glass like an astronomer’s mirror, the monster’s sealed in tight…’ Even the most inanimate object or thing is alive, from the clouds to the earth beneath the city.

Helprin weaves you through the lives of many characters over the span of a single person’s lifetime, all threads slowly coming together in the way that gives creed to the phrase “It’s a small world.” The setting, indeed the heart of the story, is New York city. It’s about a New York city that breathes, kills, purrs, glows, and most importantly, molds. It can change you constantly, call to you, spit you out and welcome you back with open arms. It’s a city that you can hate and love, love then hate. The story seems to blend reality with fantasy, yet is simply hyper-realism. Helprin describes things and certain truths so eloquently that they appear too fantastical for reality but upon further inspection, is truth defined beyond it’s standard parameters.

With a normal book, to convince a friend to read it you would give away the first 3/4ths of the plot. This story is beyond plot and can be made testament to with a single sentence alone. Below are some of my favorite quotes from the first 1/2 of the book. Hopefully their poignancy isn’t lost when taken out of context. I believe that their universal message can stand alone. A man of the navy and Israeli Air force, Mark Helprin, much like Ernest Hemingway and countless others who are veterans, seem to have a unique grasp on life and language.

The city was like war- battles raged all around, desperate men were on the street in crawling legions. He had heard the baymen tell of war, but they had never said it could be harnessed, its head held down, and made to run in place.

When Peter Lake danced by the night fountain in the dark green square, and was given coins for his dancing, he became a thief.  Though it would take a long time for him to understand the principle, it was that to be paid for one’s joy is to steal.

“What’s money?” asked Peter lake.
“Money is what you give the monkey, or the monkey pee on you.” replied the organ-grinder.

Those who decided such things decided that whoever had seen the map has only imagined it, and the entire matter was forgotten, treated as if it were a dream, and ignored. This, of course, freed it to live forever.

The upper Hudson was as different from New York and its expensive baylands as China was from Italy, and it would have taken Marco Polo to introduce one to the other. If the Hudson were likened to a serpent, then the city was the head, in which were found the senses, expressions, brain and fangs. The upper river was milder, stronger, the muscular neck and smoothly elongated body. There was no rattle to this snake. Albany sometimes tried to rattle, but failed to emit an audible sounds. First of all, the Hudson landscape was a landscape of love. To reach it by sea, one had to have a series of  glorious weddings, crossing the sparkling bands that were the high bridges. The one sailed into tranquil, capacious, womanly bays, the banks of which were spread as wide and trusting as any pair of legs that ever were. Thus began an infinity of  pleasant convolutions.

“Despite their incapacities, these touching, persistent, third-rate-seventh-rate- theatrical people strove to excel. They thought they were artists: they said so on their tax forms and in bus stations in northeastern Delaware, and they almost had it right, for they were not artists, but art. They were in themselves like sad songs, or revealing portraits.”


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