Tuesday, October 16, 2012


"...essentially it's a love song to my family."

Okay, I set Byron aside long enough to read the new Mark Helprin novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow, this past Friday and Saturday.  I love my beautiful signed first edition, ordered from the author's website, and it was worth waiting for.  I will start by saying that I am ridiculously pleased that Helprin mentions Childe Harold (I mean, who mentions Childe Harold, like, ever) and not only does he mention him, but he mentions him on page one, along with Henry V and Harry Truman, to explicate his main character's name, Harry.  So right away we know we are on a quest of sorts, a deeply romantic and possibly doomed quest.  There is so much I could quote upon this theme, in fact I copied four pages of quotes into my commonplace book, but I will keep this relatively short and settle for one sample sentence (pp.400-401):

"Though he had never stated it, he had felt from early childhood that life was magnificently intense, in splendor overwhelming, in sight demanding, and in time very short.  And that therefore the only worthwhile thing other than a noble showing in the face of its dangers was the ravishing connection of one heart to another."

Examine the describers within that passage, because the entire novel is indicated within them:  magnificent, intense, a thing of overwhelming splendor, demanding, noble, dangerous, worthwhile, ravishing.  Not short (over 700 pages)! but I gladly give him all else, and would add authentic, and sincere (the opposite of ironic).  Almost all of his fiction feels like elegy and this is no exception, although this novel cuts an even wider swath over his particular terrain than he usually does.  I mean, the book can barely contain its own cinematic sweep.  It would make an incredible movie, but it is already so close to being one that I think it is better to have it unfold within the mind and heart.  We don't need the big screen to attempt to make the ineffable real.  Because the words and what they evoke become more than real.  In short, I cried, I laughed, I loved it, I'm glad I read it, and I will read it again.  

I waited to finish the novel itself and form my own opinions before I read any of the reviews, including what turned out to be one of the most painful book reviews I have ever read.  This novel is so not her thing, as we can all tell.  I mean, holy God, did we read the same book?  Another review in the same paper of record was not harsh, but still not exactly good.  Interestingly, being panned by newspaper critics happens to be a key plot device in the novel, so I took it with a grain of salt and moved on.  But still.  In my mind I am sending hothouse flowers to Helprin preceded with multiple telegrams saying Don't listen to her!  Keep writing whatever you most want to write! 

But, I won't defend him because Mark Helprin doesn't need defending.  He can and does defend himself ably, not least through the obvious strengths of his fiction-writing abilities.  But speaking as a reader, for other readers I know are out there, I must just say that some of us do want to view the world through "the author's romance-colored glasses" (which, since we are talking of movies, made me think of nothing so much as an overblown, wonderful song, glorious technicolor, breathtaking cinemascope, and stereophonic sound - thank you, Cole Porter), especially in, um, our romantic fiction, to illuminate our inner worlds, and bring to life redolent evocations of the past.  And by romantic I mean ROMANTIC in all senses of the word.  As in that formerly-mentioned old-fashioned romantic quest, with a real hero, as in a specific romance between two achingly worthy people, as in sublime and terrible and beautiful and... and... but certainly not romantic as if it were an insult to be so.  Some of us want to feel deeply and cry during novels and have our hearts broken over things that should break our hearts.  This novel is full of such things - angels, heroic deeds, trials by water, beautiful descriptions of what souls might be like and might be capable of, classic representations of good and evil.  Even a passionate defense of courtly love in case we harbor any doubts about what side of the fence this novel sits on.

I remember recommending his novel Memoir from Antproof Case to a good friend who was looking for something to get lost in.  I love this novel.  My friend hated this novel!  So I do understand that different tastes exist, of course.  But I myself love grandiloquence when it is tempered by humor and recognition of and deference to what really matters in life, namely love.     

Enough.  I am picking up Byron again, and continuing with Don Juan, and his Letters and Journals.  He only has a few years left to live, and the romance and pathos contained therein will surely hold more than enough heartbreak to keep me in that emotional state I love, a cross between melancholy and happiness.

One last note about Mark Helprin.  The NPR interview is so lovely (and ends with the quote that comprises the title of this post), and their review is very fine.  Thank you, NPR. 

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