Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Features

Literary Warrior

Mark Helprin's fictional marvels and political heterodoxies

May-June 2005

The study where Mark Helprin writes his novels and short stories, essays, speeches, letters, and Wall Street Journal columns is a spectacular room. Fifty feet long and nearly 30 feet wide, it holds two desks; there’s a fireplace at one end, and some fishing rods hang aloft on display. Everything is in immaculate order.

The ceiling stretches upward almost two stories; one towering wall is a mammoth bookcase that dominates the space with 19 vertical stacks, each one 15 shelves high and all of it patrolled by a rolling stepladder. The echelons of books dwarf the human figures below and almost seem to observe, perhaps even judge, them with the wisdom of the ages. These volumes aren’t ephemera—Helprin, a traditionalist, claims never to have read a work of popular fiction (or, for that matter, to have drunk a cup of coffee). He wrote about a quarter of the shelved books himself: there are multiple copies of the many English editions of his works, as well as translations in 15 languages.

Helprin in his study, backed by his impeccably organized wall of books
Photograph by Jim Harrison

The study looks out onto a rolling 56-acre farm in the Virginia countryside near Charlottesville, not far from Monticello. Bestselling novelist John Grisham resides nearby, but Helprin lives much closer to Thomas Jefferson than to Grisham. Most of the homestead and landscape would fit gracefully into the eighteenth century; Helprin (’69, A.M. ’72) would be comfortable in that time as well and, unlike many contemporary authors, would probably survive. His father and grandfather had farms before him and Helprin does much of the work on his land—“half the time, getting bloodied by the machinery,” he says—where he and his wife, Lisa (Kennedy) Helprin, grow hay and keep a horse and two goats. (Their two daughters—Alexandra is a Harvard sophomore and Olivia will matriculate this fall at Johns Hopkins—focus more on academics than agriculture.)

Rural self-sufficiency is a time hog, but Helprin considers it a good investment. It takes four and a half hours on a John Deere mower to cut his six acres of grass, followed by half an hour of machine maintenance. “I’ve always believed in doing things for myself—it has two advantages,” he says. “First, you save money. Second, you don’t insulate yourself from the world. And there’s the matter of self-reliance: you learn to sail a boat, chop down a tree, build a house, shoot a gun, make a campfire.” Indoors, says Helprin, he fixes everything, too—the washing machine, refrigerator, photocopier, and computer. “Until I was 33 I did lots of different jobs.” he recalls. “Dishwasher, surveyor, day laborer.”

Hence, consistent with his experiences and philosophy, he does not view writing fiction as anything more exalted than, say, felling trees. But many critics place Helprin’s oeuvre on a lofty perch indeed, comparing novels like Winter’s Tale (1983), A Soldier of the Great War (1991), and Memoir from Antproof Case (1995) to the likes of Kafka, Mann, Hemingway, and Tolstoy. In artistic terms, Helprin is the real thing: an immensely talented, dedicated author who aims for the highest literary goals.

His novels have a grand sweep. The magical, romantic Winter’s Tale, set in Manhattan during the Belle Époque, launches its love story when the protagonist, while burglarizing an Upper West Side mansion, discovers the family’s dying daughter at home. In Helprin’s favorite, A Soldier of the Great War, an elderly Italian looks back on his life, particularly his vivid experiences during World War I. Memoir from Antproof Case, told by an American octogenarian living in Brazil, draws us through much of the twentieth century on the wings of fascinating, improbable tales from the narrator’s extravagant life.

Critics have summoned rarely used superlatives for Helprin’s fiction. “I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer,” wrote Benjamin De Mott, “about failing the work [Winter’s Tale], inadequately displaying its brilliance.” Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally described A Soldier of the Great War as “Vast, ambitious, spiritually lusty, all-guzzling, all-encompassing...in the best traditions of Pasternak.” Readers have heaped comparable praise on Helprin’s short fiction, collected in A Dove of the East, & Other Stories (1975), Ellis Island, & Other Stories (1981), and last year’s The Pacific.

No living authors influence his writing, Helprin says. Instead, his lodestars include Dante, Shakespeare, Melville, Mark Twain. There are indeed echoes of Twain in his new novel, Freddy and Fredericka, due out this summer. It narrates the journey of a wayward British royal couple rusticated to America, where they travel incognito and survive hilarious adventures that read, as the dust jacket has it, “as if de Tocqueville had been rewritten by Mark Twain (with a deep bow to Harpo Marx).”

Helprin is a classicist. He believes in history, tradition, and eternal verities. He values aesthetic symmetries and the literary forms the centuries have passed down to us. To Helprin, the principles of modernism are fatal to art, and he has no truck with the avant-garde. “The avant-garde are frauds,” he bluntly declares. “Modern literature is all cool and detached, even though a lot of modern writers are passionate about their politics. To me, passion should be for literature, and reason and detachment for politics.

“A lot of people hate heroes,” he continues. “I was criticized for portraying people who are brave, honest, loving, intelligent. That was called weak and sentimental. People who dismiss all real emotion as sentimentality are cowards. They’re afraid to commit themselves, and so they remain ‘cool’ for the rest of their lives, until they’re dead—then they’re really cool.”

Literary creation, for Helprin, “always starts with something very small,” he explains. “I can sit down to write a story just by thinking of the first two words of a Scott Fitzgerald story: ‘This Jonquil’—it’s a woman’s name. This always gets me in the mood to write. We create nothing new—no one has ever imagined a new color—so what you are doing is revitalizing. You are remembering, then combining, altering. Artists who think they’re creating new worlds are simply creating tinny versions of this world.

“What comes to me is a diamond, found on the shore of a lake,” he continues. “Not a cut diamond, just the raw stone; it could be the last line of the story or the image of the last line. A poet might pick up that diamond and that will be his poem. But as a writer of prose I pick it up and throw it as far into the lake as possible. And then, perhaps in a zigzag course, go swimming toward it.”

Helprin at home with Hank, a 25-year-old quarterhorse, and a pair of goats
Photograph by Jim Harrison



Despite his stature in contemporary literature, the cultural mandarins have not honored Helprin. He is indifferent to awards, he says, but can volunteer a theory to explain their absence from his walls. “I try to determine the truth of a question and am not deterred by the damage that will be done to me by moving out of the herd,” he says. “I get into lots of trouble all the time.”

In 1983, for example, he published a piece in the New York Times Magazine arguing for the deployment of short-range nuclear missiles in Europe. This was a hot issue during the Reagan administration’s military buildup, amid calls for a nuclear freeze. “I was pilloried for that [article],” Helprin says. “People refused to talk to me. My agent told me, ‘You’ll never get another award in your life.’ And I never did—I’ve never even been nominated. [Prior to that, Ellis Island & Other Stories won the Prix de Rome and was nominated for a National Book Award.] Around political movements, if you go off the reservation, so many people want to punish you.”

Since 1985 the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has given Helprin a high-profile forum for his political opinions; he considers articulating his views a duty of citizenship. The novelist has held fellowships at right-of-center think tanks like the Hudson Institute and written for conservative magazines like The New Criterion, Commentary, and National Review. Yet, “I am extremely uninterested in politics,” he says. “All I care about is policy. What I know about is defense, international relations, strategy, and to some extent, defense economics.” He has amassed his knowledge through graduate study in history and political science at Oxford and Columbia, in addition to the master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies he took at Harvard, along with decades of writing about these topics and consulting with political leaders.

On September 12, 2001, Helprin characteristically set up his Wall Street Journal column with an historical reference. “The enemy we face today,” he wrote, “though barbaric and ingenious, is hardly comparable to the masters of the Third Reich, whose doubts about our ability to persevere we chose to dissuade in a Berlin that we had reduced to rubble.” He soon broached one of his themes, a warning that America takes military strength and preparedness too lightly. “Let this spectacular act of terrorism be the decisive repudiation of the mistaken assumptions that conventional warfare is a thing of the past...,” he declared, adding, “Short of a major rebuilding, we cannot now inflict upon Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden the great and instantaneous shock with which they should be afflicted....”

While critics of U.S. military spending note, for example, that America spends more on defense than the next 12 highest-spending nations combined, Helprin cites a different comparison. “In 1945 we spent close to 50 percent of our gross national product [GNP] on defense,” he says now. “If we did that now, we’d be spending $6 trillion, not $400 billion. If we spent our average amount for the peacetime years since 1940, 5.7 percent of the GNP, we would spend $650 billion annually now. We are trying to do it on the cheap; Humvees are not armored and the troops are the ones who suffer.”

In this vein, his September 12 column ended with an exhortation:

The course of such a war will bring us greater suffering than it has brought to date, and if we are to fight it as we must we will have less in material things. But if, as we have so many times before, we rise to the occasion, we will not enjoy merely the illusions of safety, victory, and honor, but those things themselves. In our history it is clear that never have they come cheap and often they have come late, but always, in the end, they come in flood, and always, in the end, the decision is ours.

Despite his distaste for politics, Helprin publicly demanded the impeachment of President Clinton, long before the Monica Lewinsky scandal; he says he was the first to do so. Helprin based his case primarily on Chinese officials’ donations to Clinton’s presidential campaign, and Clinton’s waiving of restrictions that limited China’s offensive military capacity. Helprin also worked as a speechwriter for Robert Dole for several months during the latter’s 1996 presidential campaign, but the Dole camp broke their agreements with him, he says, and froze him out of the Republican convention. “I’m deeply disillusioned politically, and have been for the past 10 years,” he admits. “I was involved, I was naive, and I was disappointed. In the Dole campaign, lots of people were more interested in their positions in the campaign than they were in winning.” Helprin has occasionally considered running for office himself, but quickly ticks off his liabilities: “I don’t remember people’s names; I hate to make small talk; I cannot tell a lie; and I don’t have money to spend. Plus, I was in the Israeli Army, I’m Jewish, and I’m short!”

 



Although his family has historically been Hasidic, Helprin’s parents were not. (“They were Democrats,” he deadpans.) His mother, stage actress Eleanor Lynn, was a 1930s-era Communist whom Ayn Rand ultimately convinced to leave the Party. The teenaged Helprin became a “sophomoric leftist” who opposed the Vietnam War and dodged the draft with 4-F status, a choice he later publicly regretted in a speech to the cadets at West Point: “primarily for allowing someone else to go in my place, someone who may not have returned.” During college, Helprin, an English concentrator, was also a “Scoop Jackson Democrat,” he says, adding, “When the Democrats lost the nerve to confront the Soviet Union, I became a Republican. I began to read history and strategic assessment, and the more I read, the more conservative I became.”

In his political philosophy, the most important principle, he says, is that “To maintain peace there has to be a balance. When there isn’t a balance, the side that has preponderance takes advantage of it. The view of the left is that being prepared for war causes war. I don’t think history supports that.

“Secondly, the free market has provided for people much better than planned economies,” he continues. “And with planned economies necessarily come various forms of dictatorship. In the twentieth century, they began to beat people into the shape of the plan, and when they were hammering people into the shape of the plan, they killed them.”

Helprin is no joiner; any kind of orthodoxy impels him toward the role of heretic. In his introductory editor’s essay to The Best American Short Stories 1988, he wrote, “One of the best things about writing and writers is the affinity of the profession and its adherents to anarchy and individualism.”

Of late, he says, he has even been ejected from the conservative camp, citing a scolding he received in Commentary from Norman Podhoretz. “I’m probably the leading critic of Bush on the right,” he notes. His views on national security are known and considered by those who planned the Iraq war, but Helprin has persistently assailed the way the war has been run. This January, for example, in a Wall Street Journal column titled “Our Blindness,” he wrote:

God help the army that must fight for an idea rather than an objective. After somehow failing to argue competently on behalf of a patently justifiable invasion, and as its more specious arguments were collapsing, the Bush administration then moved with breathtaking enthusiasm to nation building, something so Clinton-tinged that it had previously been held in contempt. The more that nation building in Iraq is in doubt, the more the mission creeps into a doubling of bets in hope of covering those that are lost. Now the goal is to reforge the politics, and perforce the culture, not merely of Iraq but of the billion-strong Islamic world from Morocco to the South Seas. That—evangelical democracy writ overwhelmingly large—is the manic idea for which the army must fight.

Disparaging the administration has made Helprin a heretic on the Journal’s ideologically conservative editorial page. But consistency presents its own problems, Helprin explains, drawing an analogy to driving a car: “If you’re consistent when the road curves, you’ll crash.”

"I am compelled to elaborate," says Helprin, here atop his library ladder.
Photograph by Jim Harrison



 

Several forces have shaped the novelist’s singular personality, as well as his powerful literary imagination. An only child, he was born two months early, spent his first few weeks in an incubator, and nearly failed to reach his first birthday. He had pneumonia a dozen times during a sickly, lonely, isolated childhood. “I was a mess,” he explains. “I had no companions, imaginary or otherwise.” The family lived in an undeveloped section of Ossining, New York, where his father, Morris Helprin, a film-company executive, and actress mother were semi-reclusive. “They were always turning down invitations to join things,” Helprin says. (He and Lisa have followed suit: during their seven years in Virginia, they have dined at someone else’s house exactly once.)

From a young age, his was an obsessive-compulsive personality, a disorder to which he freely admits. Inside his desk drawers, the pens, Post-It notes, and boxes of staples are all squared up in perfect symmetries. He owns a “paper jogger” of the type that copying centers use to align the edges of stacks of paper. At Harvard his compulsions served his academic work, if in a roundabout way: “I would have to check everything off the reading list, including both the required and recommended readings,” he explains. “I spent a lot of time reading in college.”

He is also subject to dystonia, a neurological syndrome that causes his grip on a pen, for example, to tighten progressively so that, even before finishing a single page, he says, “My hand gets so tight that it’s like an arthritic hand.” Since he writes his first drafts and early revisions in longhand, this is a problem—especially when writing novels as long as his (A Soldier of the Great War, for example, is nearly 800 pages in hardcover). Another neurological syndrome, possibly related, may have its literary upside; he says its effects are comparable to spilling a droplet of ink on a blotter. “Every drop spreads, in my brain,” he explains. “For every word I speak, I see a picture.”

From A Soldier of the Great War

The ground on which they halted was sheltered from the wind and littered with the dead. After the driver unpacked his lunch and sat on the lee running-board, Alessandro poured tea from his vacuum bottle, held the steaming cup in his hands, and drank. Then he put the cup on the hood of the tractor and replaced his gloves. He walked through a gentle wind into the middle of the field.

Some yellow stubble, like hay, was projecting out of the snow where the grass would have been high in summer. Uniformed corpses, not two weeks down, were scattered alone and in groups. They had been Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, and Italians. Some had died in close combat, but most had been either shot as they ran across the field toward the trenches on each side, or stopped by artillery. They rested unnaturally. Sleeping men would not have been able to hold the positions they held, with necks bent, shoulders hunched forward, and heads pushed into the snow. Even the ones on their backs did not look like they were sleeping, for those who still had faces stared at the sky with open eyes, their mouths fallen into expressions of astonishment.

Here were three hundred fathers, brothers, and sons. Their families had been told only that they were missing. Had the people who loved them known, each of the corpses would have been retrieved, each tenderly bathed, their dirty cheeks kissed, their hands caressed by parents, children, and wives. But they were to lie in the open air and decompose like branches.

This trait may have enhanced Helprin’s prodigious memory, a patrimony of sorts: his father had “total recall,” Helprin says. “My father could tell you what you would see looking south from, say, the corner of 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan—what was in every store window, and little things like cracks in the stucco.” Helprin recalls astonishing his secondary-school French teacher at Scarborough School in Scarborough, New York, by memorizing 300 French words on a page in one minute.

The striking memory may influence Helprin’s conversational style; he is articulate, precise, and tells stories with an abundance of concrete detail. “I am compelled to elaborate,” he says. There are many stories to tell, as he seems to have had a far wider and more unusual range of life experiences than most upper-middle-class Americans. For starters, he has lived in 45 places and six countries. (In A Dove of the East, the author “moves from character to character and from culture to culture,” wrote John Gardner, “as if he’d been born and raised everywhere.”) Now Helprin plans to stay in Virginia. “Another move would kill me,” he says; obsessive-compulsives do not take moving house lightly.

Consider the following collection of snapshots from Helprin’s unwritten memoirs. His godfather was the celebrated photographer Robert Capa; Helprin served briefly in the British Merchant Navy and the Israeli army and air force; he can voluntarily raise or lower his pulse, he says, by 20 beats per minute; he met Malcolm X twice, and Martin Luther King Jr. once—the latter at Christmastime, alongside an enormous bowl of shrimp (“We talked about shrimp,” Helprin says). In Copenhagen, a violent, screaming Judy Garland occupied the adjoining hotel room; in Montreux, his balcony was next to that of a gentlemanly Vladimir Nabokov. In 1987, Helprin was in Los Angeles to sign a motion-picture deal for Winter’s Tale with Columbia Pictures president David Puttnam. He let Jane Fonda go in before him and lost the deal because Puttnam was fired just as Fonda left the office. (Helprin has small esteem for the Hollywood business model, which he calls “equal parts wild animal, tyrant, agitated psychotic, and the kind of snake that is rumored to enter the house through the toilet.”) He saw the Queen Mother process down a seedy back street in Ossining; in 1973 he warned, through channels, of the impending war against Israel, but Moshe Dayan wasn’t listening to an enlisted man. He disarmed a huge, drunken, knife-wielding lout on the New York City subway. His languages include Latin, French, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic, and German. Helprin’s hero is Winston Churchill, and in 2001, when he and family traveled to London, within 15 minutes of arriving in South Kensington they found themselves waiting to cross a street alongside Winston S. Churchill III, the hero’s grandson and namesake. Helprin used to do dangerous things, like mountain climbing, parachute jumping, and running along the tops of moving freight trains. He once ran a double marathon of more than 50 miles. In addition, “He attracts madmen,” says his wife, Lisa. “If we were separated while shopping and there was a commotion somewhere in the store, it always involved Mark. Horses will rear up when they see him.”

“These things happen to me—they just do and they always have,” Helprin says. “I take great joy in these things, I love them. It’s not that I am touched by any kind of magical quality. I’m just willing to make these connections because I’m open and alert to them.”

What he is not open to is a life of luxury, in the celebrity-magazine sense. “If I’m in a limousine, I feel like I’ve got African termites crawling all over me,” he says. “I detest fancy restaurants and fancy hotel rooms.” He even prefers military aircraft and their tendency to shake passengers around in rough air to the comforts of a smooth commercial flight. “I feel safer because the aircraft are more basic,” he explains.

Helprin does not like it smooth, and never has. Ever since he was a small boy he has practiced what he calls “straight-line walking,” i.e., walking from one point to another as the crow flies, heedless of whatever obstacles may intervene—“through houses, ponds, and streams, trespassing, going through barns and places you shouldn’t be. I’d crawl through brambles and over rocks, slog through muddy, disgusting marshes and reeds, over railroad tracks and dams,” he says.

“Mostly people adjust their course to take the easy way,” he explains. “Something appealed to me to take the harder way. The reward would be that you have tremendous friction and texture; if you have to encounter all these things, you get wet, cold, muddy, and scraped. You learn, you feel, and you see —you do things you wouldn’t have done.” He says this straight-line walking may have given John Cheever, a neighbor in Ossining, the idea for his short story “The Swimmer,” in which a suburban husband returns to his house by swimming across the backyard pools of his neighbors.

 

Helprin enjoys fires, and likes building them in the fireplace of his grand study. “Fires take a lot of labor,” he says. “As a method of heating, it is inefficient. But it’s worth it. Fire engages the senses. The light is richer than artificial light, and heating systems don’t crackle or give off the scent of wood smoke.

“Tending a fire enforces a sense of patience and tranquility,” he continues. “In that way it is like sailing a boat. You’re engaged by it and trapped by it; fire is captivating. Your time is captured so you have enforced idleness. Like music, it somehow coordinates the rhythms in your brain, or in your soul. It clears the air. Enforced idleness is the way I want to live. I want to be a prisoner of things that make me stop still.”     

 

Craig A. Lambert ’69, Ph.D. ’78, is deputy editor of this magazine.