Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Tolle Lege: Winter’s Tale

This is an introduction to Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale that I wrote some time back. It was written to go with copies of the book that I gave to a couple of people, including my then headmaster. At the point where I tell the recipients to turn to a particular page, you can jump down to the previous post, where I’ve pasted in that whole chapter (it’s a page long) and a quotation from an Image interview with Helprin. My apologies for the awkwardness of jumping back and forth. Enjoy anyway.


~~~Begin Quotation~~~
Churchmen... burn themselves up in seeking, and they find nothing. If your faith is genuine, then you will meet your responsibilities, fulfill your obligations, and wait until you are found. It will come. If not to you, then to your children, and if not to them, then to their children.
-- from Mark Helprin’s A Winters Tale (italics mine)

X and Y,

I got suckered into Classics and into teaching in large part through my love of reading. Every now and again I come across a book that reminds me why I do what I do.

You are holding in your hands one of the most luminous novels I've ever read. When people ask why I teach, I want to hand them this book and say, “because books like this exist.” I even once used a chapter as part of devotions here at Trinity. It was the short chapter entitled “Nothing is Random” that stands at the beginning of section three. It’s about a page long and starts on p. 359. Go ahead and turn to it now and give it a read.

[cf. previous post]


All done? Is it not a fine attempt at reconciling free will and predestination? And that final line, “...justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.”

Now, you will have noticed that I underlined a few words in your copy of that chapter. My one complaint about this book as an object is that the editor and publisher really should have sprung for italics in a few places where the emphasis makes the reading clear on a first pass. Be that as it may, while I was reading this novel for the first time, I never put my pencil down, but marked passages left and right and kept running indices of particular themes and great quotations. Be warned and keep a pencil handy.

Why do I like this novel so much? Normally, I need good characters to hook me into a story. But here, I didn't really care about the characters and yet I read on avidly. I think perhaps it was the story itself that carried me along.

If that’s the case, if this is a plot-driven novel with (what seem to me to be) broadly drawn characters without a lot of depth, in fact a sort of sideshow of stock characters and off-stock characters who’ve been languishing on a shelf waiting for a story they could actually work in... If that’s the way this novel is put together, it may be that my background makes me a bit more receptive to it than most people are. I spend a fair bit of time in ancient literature, where it is the plot and the language that carry things along, rather than the psychology of the characters.

I suppose that what I’m trying to avoid saying is that I found this to be an ancient epic of a story.

One of the main things I love about this novel is its sense of language. The prose is quite nice, and at times nearly breathtaking. Take the sections where the winter scenes are evoked with such beauty that you can almost see the cheesy Currier & Ives (or even Norman Rockwell) illustrations trying to capture the stark beauty of a time gone by. Into the midst of at least two of those scenes, the story tosses in a simile that breaks the illusion, makes me remember that the setting is not from some Capra film, but from the post-atomic age.

For example, on p. 542, in a long description of the spontaneous street fairs that arise on the ice, you can almost see the skaters trailing their scarves, stopping at the stands for quaint snacks, behaving like a pre-television community. Listen:

The nine-year-old boys seemed to be the fastest and the most daring. They were as skinny as elastic bands, knew no danger, and stopped only long enough to shovel fruit pastries into their mouths. Then they were off at a hundred miles an hour, dodging, darting, and continually raving in squeaky voices for everyone to move out of their way.

Can’t you see them? Can’t you hear them? And what are they dressed in when you see them? Lots of wool; no nylon or synthetics in bright colors, just natural fabrics and earth-tones. Even they velocity is evoked with a the rather old-fashioned hyperbole a hundred miles an hour. But this illusion is shattered with the very next sentence:

“As speedy as pions, muons, and charmed quarks, they were all places at once, the possessors of pure boundless energy.”

And we are jerked forward into our turn-of-the-millennium era. But I can’t help but notice that those bygone boys who zip ahead so post-atomically aren’t simply like quarks; they're like charmed quarks. And what sort better.

And of course, in a novel so propelled by language, there are the characters who are tied up in language. There’s Craig Binky, editor of the Ghost, and his riotous malapropisms. There is Hugh Close, a virtual throwaway, but still a man far overqualified to be a rewrite editor: “Words were all he knew; they possessed and overwhelmed him, as if they were a thousand white cats with whom he shared a one-room apartment. (In fact, he did not like cats, because the could not talk and would not listen.)” (229-30).

And there is Mrs. Gamely, my favorite -- an illiterate with an extraordinarily fine command of precise usage, a woman who welcomes foreigners so she can soak up their words and who requires a team of lexicographers to keep up with her vocabulary. Read pp. 201-204, right down to the hysterically incongruous and jarring “Who knows? The point is, he thought he was a cat.”

Another thing I really liked about this novel is its sense of humor. There are the ironic touches like those above, the screwball touches like the telegrams fired back and forth on pp. 141-2 (cf. Mrs. Gamely's advice on finding someone in NY, p. 288). There’s even the profoundly stupid, like world’s worst outdoor guide, Jesse, who seems to be whittling himself to death -- “But he never thought that he would die in a bark suit, strapped to a shock pancake, next to an incompetent midget.” (267).

And the humor and language combine in some brilliant descriptions. In the ice scene I refer to above, with the squeaky nine-year-old pions, is a description I will probably always remember, especially since I’m so fond of hard-boiled eggs. -- “Above innumerable fireboxes, caldrons steamed and boiled, lobsters tumbled, and many grosses of eggs jigged in the hysterical dances of the legless bald.” (542)

For the language and the humor alone, I would love this novel. But I think there’s some meat to chew on as well. For example, most of those notes that I scribbled were on such themes as bridges, justice, balance, loss, and rebirth. But rather than give you a run through one or the other of the themes of Winter’s Tale, I’ll give you a quick taste of the meat of it through those stock characters. This will also allow me to give you a question to mull over as you read.

One way to discover whether a person has understood what they’ve read is via a diagnostic question. I was delighted to discover that Walker Percy held this same view, and that he had a diagnostic question for the readers of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, a book for which I, too, have a question. If you’ve read CfL, then perhaps you’ll recognize the value of these two questions.

Percy’s: Who or what is Rachel? (the second head on the woman at the end of the book)

Mine: Is this book fundamentally optimistic or fundamentally pessimistic?

My diagnostic question for WT is more like Percy’s character question for CfL:

Who or what is Peter Lake?

It will give away nothing to warn you about another character, Jackson Mead. Who is Jackson Mead? It becomes clear that he’s trying to bridge heaven and earth, trying to make heaven accessible on earth, and this is nearly always assumed within the novel to be a laudable goal. Yet in the epilogue, I read “But Jackson Mead was convinced, as always, that the next time, a new means at his disposal would allow him to return from the high place from which he had been cast.” Cast from a high place, trying to get back, plenty of time to bide... Now who could this be? And if my suspicion is supportable, what does this do to the notion of the bridge and Mead’s stated goals, always presented in a favorable light within the novel?

So as you read, pencil in hand, ask yourself: Who or what is Peter Lake?

Pax Christi vobiscum vestrisque,

1 comment:

Steve Lewis said...

I wasn't sure what to make of two heads in CfL. I think it's his way of signifying that it's an alien and non-human. Something out there and weird.