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.
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.