The Perfectly Just City: Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” (1983)

Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is my very favorite book. I first read it when I was 12 years old, at an age I now admit was perhaps a bit too young to fully grasp all of the nuances and complexities of this rich and cavernous novel. Or perhaps not. What first truly swept me away into its kaleidoscopic, mystifying world were the words. The back cover of my edition quotes a book review from Newsday, proclaiming the novel “a gifted writer’s love affair with the language.” I could not describe it better myself. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

The upper Hudson was as different from New York and its expansive baylands as China was different from Italy, and it would have taken a Marco Polo to introduce one to the other. If the Hudson were likened to a serpent, then the city was the head, in which was found the senses, expressions, brain, and fangs. The upper river was milder, stronger, the muscular neck and smoothly elongated body. There was no rattle to this snake. Albany sometimes tried to rattle, but failed to emit an audible sound.

I wish to God I could write that mellifluously. Not only does the prose poetically flow in a manner extremely soothing to the ear in meter and tone, but the metaphors are strong, carried through in surprising ways, and are even funny. This is what keeps the book from ever sinking into pretension: Helprin’s sense of humor and heart. Upon first reading the book, I was struck by just how big Helprin’s heart seems to be. There is a rich love of life, writing, New York, and love in this book; there is also a palpable sense of literal and metaphorical flight in the prose. Reading the prologue and epilogue to the novel, the reader feels as if he or she is descending (and later ascending) on the back of the flying, white horse, Athansor, to take in all that life has to offer before us.

One of the book’s strongest points lies in its imagery. Even long after all of the mechanics of the plot had escaped me, years after reading it for the first time, many images of the novel left indelible marks on me. For example, the scene of the young girl, standing alone outside her father’s hotel and watching a white horse attempting to (and finally succeeding in) gliding in the air over the water; the murderous, villainous (and ironically named) Pearly Soames, whose love of cutting throats and robbing banks is eclipsed only by his remarkable love of color, and who schemes to actually capture sunlight in a room of pure gold; the thick cloud wall drifting over the Hudson that eclipses both time and memory; the stack of girlie magazines hidden under a young boy’s bed, which sears a hole in the floor beneath it and falls onto the lap of the boy’s unsuspecting father, eating in the dining room underneath the room, due to the boy’s Tell-Tale Heart levels of guilt alone; the two Pyramus and Thisbe-like lovers separated by a wall throughout the long winter; the dying girl, lying in her small tent above the city, communing with the stars; the winter village that exists outside of all boundaries of time and forward movement, hard to leave and even harder still to find; the bridge whose roadway is made of nothing but pure rainbow light; and above all, the image of a thief stumbling across the owner of the house he is robbing and falling instantly in love with her, and even more significantly, having this love be instantaneously reciprocal.

No mistake about it, this story is a fairy tale. Despite its ostensibly realistic setting, the book courses with magic, from the flying horse to its protagonist Peter Lake’s gradually developing powers, and perhaps most remarkable, the magic of first love. At the age of 12, and even now, I find how easily characters fall and stay in love in this book life-affirmingly beautiful, specifically because it never comes across as coincidence or foolhardiness. Whenever two people who are right for each other meet in Winter’s Tale, it is a meeting of two minds, two souls that were created for each other; fate deemed that one day they would meet, and in each case they finally do. And why does this happen? The answer, I believe lies in this passage:

Their throats tightened, and they shuddered the way one does when one discovers or reconfirms higher and purposeful forces brazenly and unconvincingly masquerading as coincidence.

By denying the existence of coincidence, Helprin strips bare the fabric of the universe and reveals that, yes, everything is connected. A dying child in an abandoned tenement can finally be saved nearly a hundred years later; a shiny salver given to a young man by his dying father can help bring about the rebirth of an entire city; an out-of-place figure in a photograph or painting from the 1900s can stumble down the street across from you, having not aged a single day. Helprin’s novel is Dickensian in sprawl and characterization, but it convinces in its coincidences where Dickens sometimes does not by completely disqualifying the notion. In Winter’s Tale, these connections are as real as a bracing arctic chill (he captures winter on the page with such an uncanny grasp, I always half-expect thick white clouds of water vapor to float out of my mouth as I read it) and as elusive as a dream.

Author: Robert Berg

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  1. Excellent description! “Winter’s Tale” is my favorite novel, and I came across this old post of your while doing a quick search for the “perfectly just city” phrasing. I agree that this is a novel that is nearly a collection of novellas. (And one of my favorite sections is the romance of Asbury and Christiana.) If you see this comment, you may be interested to know there is a Facebook page for fans for Winter’s Tale. Readers share thoughts about the book and old photos of New York at the turn of the 20th century, and more.

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