Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin — DNF (for now)

Sigh! I tried. This review perhaps captures best the ambiguity that I feel regarding this book. It has also made me decide to give Winter’s Tale, if not another go, then to at least to pick up from where I left after a couple of years:

Here is how the Beverly/Penn romance actually progresses:

Peter breaks into their house and watches Beverly take a bath.
Peter gets a quick approval from the Penn patriarch.
Beverly and Peter go to a dance.
Beverly dies offscreen.
You put the book down and go do something constructive.

There’s still 3/4ths of Winter’s Tale to go after this and author Mark Helprin isn’t done throwing page-long descriptions of snow drifts at you, so he starts over and suddenly we are following a single mother, an industrial heir, and a couple other people who I kept forgetting the purpose of, about a century later as the year 2000 approaches.

. . .

To honor the 500th straight description of winter, Winter’s Tale begins assembling the idea that every thread that has been precipitously dropped so far will come back into play, kicking off a chain reaction that will result in this near-magical NYC being transmuted into a literal heaven on Earth.

Helprin is a charismatic enough writer to pull this kind of metaphysical twist off. I joke that there are about 500 descriptions of winter in this book, and there are, but those descriptions are rich, varied, evocative descriptions nonetheless. Helprin’s visuals glimmer boundlessly and he’s possibly one of the few writers living whom you could trust to describe Heaven arriving on Earth.

(In case you’re wondering I finished about 2/3rd of the book. The problem is this—I can read this book only in spurts. And when I am in the middle of taking a break, I’m not that eager to return to it.)

Click for my earlier reactions.

Winter Reading–A Winter’s Tale, Tigana and some more

A Winter’s Tale

And so I would like to begin this new year with where I left off last—A Winter’s Tale. (Here’s my thoughts on part 1 by the way). Halfway through I’m still not entirely sure about the overarching theme of the novel. From the bits and pieces that Helprin drops here and there I get the feeling that he’s talking about the necessity of the existence of both good and evil for there to be any sort of equilibrium in this world. Then there’s the fact that the two lovers, Peter Lake and Beverly Penn whose lives we were following earlier have completely disappeared to be replaced by Hardesty Marratta and Virginia Gamely. In the middle there was a 50-60-page sequence between Hardesty and a giant dwarf called Jess that was hilarious. Of course Jess died and doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the rest of the story. Then again, the mysterious way in which almost all the previous characters have disappeared has made me pretty sure that they’re all going to turn up somewhere or the other. I’m impatient to know how and of course Helprin is in no hurry while he continues to frolic around in a lush prose that’s teeming with words that I frequently have to look up.

This far in the novel I also realize that Winter (yes, the season) and the Lake of Coheeries are central to the story. Both Hardesty and Virginia make their way to New York City on the heels of a winter that is unforgiving. And the Lake of Coheeries is a “place” that’s “not on the map, and [where] mail never gets through . . . It’s hard to explain.” It’s as if Lake of Coheeries is a living, breathing presence, one that condescends to allow only certain people into its folds.

I was also a bit bemused by the scenes of madness Hardesty encounters—

Bakery trucks raced on the main avenues at 125 miles per hour, assassinating bicyclists and pedestrians. Balkan pretzel vendors in two-foot-thick-padded clothing and fleecy aviator caps charged each other with their flame-holding wagons, bumping like buffalos, to lay claim to a corner.

They have me wondering whether Hardesty actually saw these. What if they were merely a product of an imagination that had taken a violent dislike to a city that we’re told “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.”

Helprin captures the beingness of New York City in all its beauty… and also its cruelty. I’m hooked and impatient to know how it all comes together.


This last month I also read my second Guy Gavirel Kay novel. He writes gripping stories that for some reason I just don’t find as satisfying as the rest of the world does. In Tigana the issue is a question of identity and how much of it stems from a shared past. What does it mean when nobody other than the people of your own country can recall the nation-state you’re from? What does it do to your sense of self to have that culture and history that you perhaps took for granted obliterated from the minds of the rest of the world? As I said Mr. Kay writes about interesting themes and packages it  in fast-moving action but for some reason both Tigana and A Song for Arbonne failed to capture my imagination. I’m thinking of reading one more of his books—Under the Stars—before making up my mind.

Other stuff

Some other books I’ve been occupied with included the second Earthsea book Tombs of Atuan, Sherry Thomas’s The Luckiest Lady in London and Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot. Aaronovitch’s book is very much like what would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the London police force.

I’ll leave you with this poem that I found while reading Adam Gopnik’s Winter:

The Winter Evening by William Cowper written in 1785

O winter, ruler of the inverted year,
Thy scatter’d hair with sleet like ashes fill’d, . . .
A leafless branch thy scepter, and thy throne
A sliding car, indebted to no wheels,
But urg’d by storms along its slippery way,
I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,
And dreaded as thou art! . . .
I crown thee king of intimate delights,
Fireside enjoyments, homeborn happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours
Of long uninterrupted evening, know.

Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale Part I

There is nothing simple about A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. It sprawls over 768 pages. It demands that you keel over and give yourself up completely to the story. It resists a breezy acquaintance and insists that you focus on each and every single word that adds up to its 768 pages. And as far as I am concerned, it’s a story that I just cannot complete in a single sitting—the sort of absolute attention that it requires is exhausting. And yet the deeper I move into it, the stronger becomes its allure.

The setting is turn of the century (the dawn of the 20th century that is) Manhattan. The main characters (from what I can ascertain by reading the first section of the book) are a thief, another thief, a horse that can virtually fly, an amorphous white wall composed chiefly of clouds that extends for miles both vertically and horizontally and that lurks off the shore of the island of Manhattan, perhaps a boy who was presumably dead, a girl who is definitely dead and the city of New York itself.

Here’s what Helprin has to say about Manhattan:

Manhattan, a high narrow kingdom as hopeful as any that ever was, burst upon him full force, a great and imperfect steel-tressed palace . . . [B]uilt upon an island from which bridges stretched to other islands and to the mainland . . . it took in nearly all who wished to enter . . . [I]t was, for sure, one simple structure, busily divided, lovely and pleasing, an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built.

Its forms and geometry entranced him . . . shoe-black horses trotting airily at the head of varnished carriages . . . the ballet of the crowds as they took stairs, turned corners, and forged across streets; the guttural noises of machinery . . . and acres of beautiful upright women.

I love how generous Helprin is with his words, piling them one on top of the other till I feel intoxicated. I think that I initially persevered with this book purely because of the sentences that make up its girth. Helprin is a master describer. My favourite chapter in this first section is an episode called, “Lake of the Coheeries.” Its setting is a winter landscape that is probably brutal and yet one that Helprin succeeds in making you yearn for with the utter beauty that he renders it.

Beyond the words there are the characters themselves. They’re quite unique and also not quite normal. Not normal not because this is a book filled with magical realism (1. I hope I used that term correctly 2. There is an incident where a pair of adolescent boys are very nervous because they’re afraid that magazine with the pictures of the almost naked women they’d been drooling over would burn a hole through the floor of the room right above them and drop down onto the table where everyone was having the family dinner. That the scene a sentence later alludes to there now being a hole in the floor above was quite funny). The characters are not normal because each of the characters has something going on that makes them appear slightly touched.

I’m pretty sure I haven’t ever come across a thief who steals because he’s held in thrall by colors. The greatest heist that he plans—to seize a cargo of gold so that he can build a room made entirely of gold—has nothing to do with greed or pride:

My plan . . . is to build a golden room in a high place, and post watchmen to watch the clouds. When they turn gold, and the light sprays upon the city, the room will open. The light will stuff the chamber. Then the doors will seal shut. And the goldenness will be trapped forever. . . . In the center, I will put a simple bed, and there I will repose in warmth and gold. . .  for eternity.

The book is divided into four sections and I finished the first one today. I’d become confused enough within the first few pages to want a sense of where all this led to and to see if it was worth investing my time into this story. I was careful though to not read anything spoilery about the ending, as it’s supposedly controversial. So I have a 30,000 feet overview of what probably happens. And yet I find myself bemused at this unusual tale. I don’t know what motifs, if any, form the backbone of this book. Given that I’ve finished just a quarter of this compendium that might not be surprising. I’ll be back as I find out more!

Edit: And here’s part 2