Mark Helprin: The Gates to the City

Every city has its gates, which need not be of stone. Nor need soldiers be upon them or watchers before them At first, when cities were jewels in a dark and mysterious world, they tended to be round and they had protective walls. To enter, one had to pass through gates, the reward for which was shelter from the overwhelming forests and seas, the merciless and taxing expanse of greens, whites and blues — wild and free — that stopped at the city walls. In time, the ramparts became higher and the gates more massive, until they simply disappeared and were replaced by barriers, subtler than stone, that girded every city like a crown and held in its spirit. Some claim that the barriers do not exist, and disparage them. Although they themselves can penetrate the new walls with no effort, their spirits (which, also, they claim do not exist) cannot, and are left like orphans around the periphery. To enter a city intact it is necessary to pass through one of the new gates. They are far more difficult to find than their solid predecessors, for they are tests, mechanisms, divides, and implementations of justice. There once was a map, now long gone, one of the ancient charts upon which colorful animals sleep or rage. Those who saw it said that in its illuminations were figures and symbols of the gates. The east gate was that of acceptance of responsibility, the south gate that of the desire to explore, the west gate that of devotion to beauty, and the north gate that of selfless love. But they were not believed. It was said that a city with entryways like these could not exist, because it would be too wonderful. Those who decide such things decided that whoever had seen the map had only imagined it, and the entire matter was forgotten, treated as if it were a dream and ignored. This, of course, freed it to live forever.

Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale

Do not expect me to explain here why I’m writing about Mark Helprin’s work. If you’ve read his three great novels, Winter’s Tale, A Soldier of the Great War, and Memoir from Antproof Case, or even his sharp, crisp editorials for the Wall Street Journal, you know why. If you haven’t, the hope is that you will, and soon. My goal here is to illustrate certain recurring themes in his novels, themes that are best explicated by the passage quoted above.

The East Gate: Acceptance of Responsibility

In A Soldier of the Great War, Helprin deals with (among many other things) the collapse of the WWI Italian front described by Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms. Guaraglia, a Roman harness-maker, deserts through no fault of his own after the conclusion of a doomed secret mission. He returns to his home and family in Rome, which is full of deserters and is full of soldiers trying to capture them. The deserters are hiding out in the catacombs, but Guaraglia knows he must protect his family, must continue to earn a living. In a desperate and painful act of sacrifice, he saws off his own leg so that he can pass as a wounded veteran. The ruse does not work, and he dies in prison with one prayer, “God protect my children.”

The narrator of Memoir from Antproof Case accepts the responsibility of protection as well, and understands that the first person you have to protect is yourself, which, as he says, “was my sole responsibility from an early age.” Moreover, after his parents die, he assumes the responsibility of protecting them, because they no longer have the capacity to protect themselves. After years of misdirected effort, he finally identifies the culprit in their murders, his elderly, wealthy employer. He confronts the tycoon in his room, resulting in a confession and a plea for forgiveness that cannot be answered.

In Helprin’s world, accepting responsibility is, well, a gateway, rather than a destination. Accepting responsibility means accepting and welcoming the ordeals that go along with that responsibility. Helprin characters are always undertaking ordeals, from the protagonist of the short story The Schreuderspitze, who climbs (or does he?) an immense Alpine peak with no training or experience, to the unlikely and positively hilarious catapult that’s built in Winter’s Tale to the gold robbery that provides the spine of Memoir from Antproof Case. And they’re not simple ordeals, either, but immensely complicated tests of character, perseverance, and planning.

The flip side of the gate is in the occasional characters that are totally, gleefully irresponsible. The old order scribe, Orfeo, from A Soldier of the Great War is the best example. Orfeo is similar to nothing in literature save Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, except that Orfeo is small where Reilly is gargantuan. Orfeo is a humble, pathetic little man whose career has gone the way of the buggy whip, until the Great War places him in a Godlike position to dispense chaos and trouble by making nonsense of all the Italian military orders. Orfeo, the “fount of all chaos.” symbolizes every insane impulse from Higher Up that sends brave soldiers on the ordeals I talked about a second ago.

The South Gate: Desire to Explore

This is mostly covered by the nameless protagonist in Memoir from Antproof Case, who is an adventurer at heart in the body of a bank executive. (Antproof Case starts off with one of the best riffs on Melville ever; “Call me Oscar Progresso. Or, for that matter, call me anything you want, as Oscar Progresso is not my name.”) Antproof Case is a hilarious, picaresque journey through the life of a well-traveled rogue. It’s a novel that trips back and forth among New York, North Africa, Europe and Brazil with the same amazing speed that it lurches back and forth through the decades of the twentieth century. However, here, the spectacular travel and the offbeat humor and the long, meandering story are combined with writing of amazing insight. Here, Helprin tells us about horseback riding in the Rockies, switching from a traveler’s tale to a profound metaphor:

The way to cross fences was to cut the two upper wires and step the horses over the one that remained. Then you used six inches to a foot of the wire you carried (depending on the tension of the wire you cut) to mend the damage, and you went on. You did it as carefully as you could, out of respect and courtesy, and as the toll for crossing land not your own. We took a little lesson in how to do it properly, and the cuts we left behind were put back together with many more than the required twists, which is more or less what I wanted to do with my life and what I have not been able to do, but what I may do yet.

The West Gate: Devotion to Beauty

At this point, it is best to illustrate Helprin’s devotion to beauty by quoting an indefinably beautiful passage. You can find them anywhere you look, because no one transmits the shining beauty of language like Helprin. This is one I picked almost at random, from Winter’s Tale, about the great white horse Athansor and his journey, early in the book, from Brooklyn to Manhattan:

A thousand streets lay before him, silent but for the sound of the gemlike wind. Driven with snow, white, and empty, they were a maze for his delight as the newly arisen wind whistled across still untouched drifts and rills. He passed empty theaters, counting-houses, and forested wharves where the snow-lined spars looked like long black groves of pine. He passed dark factories and deserted parks, and rows of little houses where wood just fired filled the air with sweet reassurance. He passed the frightening common cellars full of ragpickers and men without limbs. The door of a market bar was flung open momentarily for a torrent of boiling water that splashed all over the street in a cloud of steam. He passed (and shied from) dead men lying in the round ragged coffins of their own frozen bodies… And he was seldom out of sight of the new bridges, which had married beautiful womanly Brooklyn to her rich uncle, Manhattan; had put the city’s hand out to the country; and were the end of the past because they spanned not only distance and deep water but dreams and time.

Here’s another one from Winter’s Tale, where Helprin finds beauty in words that aren’t even words:

“You see this oscillating slotted bar that’s rubbing up too close to the powl and ratchet of this here elliptic trammel? That, my friends, distorts the impact load on the second hobbing, up there, which is applied to that helical gear. But the trouble is, it isn’t. Without that little helical gear, the antiparallel linkage on the friction drive won’t disengage, and the wormwheeled pantograph can’t come into play. Clear so far?”

Of course, I could keep quoting passages like this forever. Helprin’s work is so consistently beautiful and amazingly precise that it’s a temptation just to let his work speak for itself. But “devotion to beauty” refers to much more than Helprin’s style; it’s the hallmark of his best characters. Alessandro Giuliani, the protagonist of A Soldier of the Great War is the best example. Growing up in a lovely garden (graced with the presence of the lovely Lia Bellati), he becomes a professor of aesthetics, and then must spend the rest of his life arguing with peons over whether aesthetics is necessary or useful, or so it seems.

After two and a half years on the front lines of the Great War in the 19th River Guard (Alessandro having enlisted in the Navy in the hopeful — but utterly wrong — assumption that he’d be safe from the infantry in the Navy), he is all but incarcerated in a naval base near Venice. He’s been away from beauty for what seems like two lifetimes, and is hungry for it, hungry to see Venice for just one hour before death. He steals an officer’s hat and dispatch bag and, disguised as a courier, heads into the city, knowing he could be shot as a deserter if discovered:

As he crossed the Grand Canal he greedily began to take in all things not military. His eye seized on every tendril on every plant, every curve or flute in iron or stone work, the most faded patches of color, women in clothes with sweeping lines, restaurant kitchens going full blast, and children, some of whom he picked up and kissed, for he had not seen a child in more than a year.

He knew Venice. A thousand places came back to him as he walked through the streets. Them he remembered that he was allowed to eat… Alessandro ate, and as he ate he sang and talked to himself. The waiter cleared his table and brought a plate of smoked salmon, a grilled filet mignon, and a portion of funghi porcini, along with another carafe of wine and a bottle of sparkling mineral water.

“Things still exist,” Alessandro said.

“Yes yes yes,” the waiter said.

There’s devotion to beauty for you.

The North Gate: Selfless Love

To keep your love alive, you must be willing to be obstinate, and irrational, and true, to fashion your entire life as a construct, a metaphor, a fiction, a device for the exercise of faith. Without this, you will live like a beast and have nothing but an aching heart. With it, your heart, although broken, will be full, and you will stay in the fight until the very last.

– Memoir from Antproof Case

There are two great love stories at the heart of the magical Winter’s Tale, a century-skipping tale of the rise and fall and rebirth of New York. (An eerily prophetic book it is, too.) There are several passionate love stories in Memoir from Antproof Case, as the narrator describes his life and passions. But for my money, the most beautiful is Alessandro Giuliani’s, as he searches Italy for the woman he thought he lost in battle. Alessandro falls blindly in love – literally – with a hospital nurse who he believes was killed in the bombing of a hospital. He finds that, miraculously, the nurse has survived but believes him to be dead. With the smallest of clues and the barest of hopes, he watches and waits for her by a fountain, where his infant son once sailed a boat playfully. He finds her, they are reunited, and married:

She wore a very simple wedding dress; we could afford nothing more. The ring was so thin that it looked like wire. She had no other jewelry, but her hair crowned her face, and through the front of the dress you could see the top of her chest, which was always so beautiful, especially when she blushed. Underneath the satin lace, it looked like a bed or roses. Just to think about her makes me happy. When I die, no one will think about her ever again, which is why I’ve been holding on. On the other hand, if they’ve all gone somewhere, should I not be delighted to join them, even if it means nothing except to be extinguished? At least I’ll have the knowledge, as I slip into the dark, that I’m following, and that I have been loyal in my devotions.

I encourage you to develop a devotion for the works of Mark Helprin. I can guarantee that your loyalty will be repaid in full.