Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Winter's Tale: My take on Mark Helprin's novel


I've finally finished the 637 paged Winter's Tale, the 1983 novel that inspired the movie. I continued reading Mark Helprin's book long after I realized that the movie was going to be a critical and box office bust; Winter's Tale was so beautifully written I couldn't stop. How director Akiva Goldman ever thought he could fashion a film from a book this big - as immense in ideas as it is in size - is beyond me. Martin Scorsese was interested early on but abandoned the idea saying the book was un-filmable. Well of course it is. I've never read anything like Mark Helprin's almost magical prose, as my son can attest to, based on the number of times I interrupted him to read stunning passage after passage. I couldn't possibly sum up the storyline in a neat paragraph or two but here's how the pros do it at Barnes and Noble -
"Mark Helprin’s masterpiece will transport you to New York of the Belle Epoque, to a city clarified by a siege of unprecedented snows. One winter night, Peter Lake – master mechanic and second-storey man – attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks it is empty, the daughter of the house is home. Thus begins the affair between a middle-aged Irish burglar and Beverly Penn, a young girl dying of consumption. It is a love so powerful that Peter Lake, a simple and uneducated man, will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead. His great struggle is one of the most beautiful and extraordinary stories of American literature.
But the book is so much more than that! Themes of truth, justice, beauty, pain, life, death, redemption and love - everlasting love - run rampant in this remarkable novel. As Mark Flanagan puts it in his About.com review-
"Winter's Tale is a powerful and magical book, an epic story of love, beauty and justice, and the ability - or more accurately - the necessity for these qualities to exist within each us and across all of time. 
Know what I mean? No. Because Winter's Tale was not meant to be summed up in a sentence or even a book review. Helprin plumbs the depths of language as he masterfully unravels his century-spanning human drama. Even the blurb written for the novel's back cover falls terribly short, and if you think the movie version of Winter's Tale (starring Colin Farrell as Peter Lake) will do this story justice, you're mistaken. Don't sell yourself short. Read this book."

I've highlighted so many passages in my nook, they've become a blur. This extract should give you a sense of both style and substance, Helprin is a master at creating ethereal imagery and marrying it to meaning.
 "... and the icicle covered trees outside began to ring like a thousand sleigh bells. Then the hands of the clock started to race like the tortoise and the hare, and both reached midnight at the same time. The clock struck along with every other clock in New York, and church bells, fireworks, and ship whistles sounded all at once, turning the entire city in a giant hurdy-gurdy. 
It soon got so cold that the men rushed to close the doors. When they had shut them and the room was again silent, they saw that several women had begun to cry. The women said it was because of the numbing air that had washed over their bare shoulders, but even strangers embraced sadly as they coasted in the new year and felt its strength commencing. They cried because of magic and the contradictions; because time had passed and time was left; because they saw themselves as if they were in a photograph that had winked fast enough to contradict their mortality; because the city around them had conspired to break a hundred thousand hearts; and because they and everyone else had to float upon this sea of troubles, watertight."
If you didn't feel yourself there, sensing that rush of cold sweeping over your skin, the cold as sharp and bitter as the realization that life is both everlasting and over in a blink, then Helprin's brand of writing doesn't work for you. I found it charming, hypnotic and at many times, mystifying.  Biblical, Shakespearean, and mythical references abound, from Peter Lake's beginnings - his Irish immigrant parents quarantined at the port and forced to return to Ireland are so desperate for their son to live in America, that they take the perfect model replica of the ship they find on display, and tucking their baby into its bowels send him, Moses-like, into the water to be safely found gently bouncing in the bay to more than a century later - and many pages later in the novel - Lake is called on to raise a young girl from the dead, while all around the city burns at the turn of the apocalyptic millennium. There is even a mythical flying horse, Athansor, a beautiful white horse who acts as Peter Lake's guardian angel.

In Benjamin DeMoot's 1983 review for the New York Times -
"THERE'S far more that I would wish to say about the book - so much more that I find myself nervous, to a degree I don't recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance. The canniness of the balancing of fantasy and realism, the capacity of these Dickensian presences to bring to mind, subtly, contemporaries and near-contemporaries from Rupert Murdoch to Howard Hughes to Thomas Pynchon, the excitement scholars will find in interpreting Mr. Helprin's extension of the line of American imaginers who have grappled for longer than a century with the meanings of technology. . . . Not for some time have I read a work as funny, thoughtful, passionate or large-souled."
I may still see the movie to satisfy my curiosity but knowing how shallow an abbreviation of this exquisite and entrancing book it can only be, I hold out little hope except for the obviously glorious cinematography from Caleb Deschanel. 
UPDATE: Here's my take on the movie but surprise; even Deschanel's camera work left me a little cold!

1 comment:

  1. This sounds beautiful. I'm putting it on my list.

    ReplyDelete

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