Q&A with Mark Helprin
A. When I wrote Winter’s Tale, I’d often walk ten or twenty miles a day through New York, taking in overwhelming rafts of imagery, sounds, views. And when I wasn’t doing that, I virtually lived at The New York Historical Society, just as I had jeopardized my freshman year in college by sitting on the floor of the stacks at the New York section, mesmerized by one book after another.
The result of these obsessions was to live in the world of New York circa 1900 as if I were really there, as if it were still bustling invisibly right where it had been, and I could see and feel it. The book opens with, “I have been to another world, and come back. Listen to me.”
With In Sunlight and In Shadow, the effect is perhaps stronger, and, for me, easier. It takes place not in a world I had to seek but one – New York in the 40s – into which I was born. The density and accuracy of the images, the onrush of memory, the stunning recollections of sound, speech, song, dress, all came easily. The people in In Sunlight and In Shadow are, with great poetic liberty, people I knew and/or loved – even the gangsters, the financiers, the actresses, intellectuals, soldiers, and factory workers.
When I finished A Soldier of the Great War, I gave it to several Italians to see if the pitch was correct, but with In Sunlight and In Shadow I didn’t have to do that, because there is nothing I know better. The book is like Winter’s Tale in that I have made it as obsessively truthful and beautiful as I could, in the hope that a reader may feel that he is in the book rather than where he is, and perhaps even wish to remain for a while, as in waking from a dream.
It’s unlike Winter’s Tale and more like A Soldier of the Great War in that in it one doesn’t depart from the texture of reality, as exceptional and intense as that reality may be. When my father read Winter’s Tale, which I had dedicated to him shortly before he died, he said, now you’ve got to write a book as enchanting as this but in which every element is possible in the real world in which we live. Then you would have something really marvelous.
That’s what I’ve tried to do. Whether or not I’ve succeeded is not for me to judge, but I can say that writing the book gave me the same feeling, persistently over time, and always strongly, as falling in love. I’m not quite sure what that means except that it’s great to have a job that you would do even if you weren’t paid for it.
"In its storytelling heft, its moral rectitude, the solemn magnificence of its writing and the splendor of its hymns to New York City, the new novel is a spiritual pendant to "Winter's Tale," and every bit as extraordinary...Even the most stubbornly resistant readers will soon be disarmed by the nobility of the novel's sentiments and seduced by the pure music of its prose...The harmonization of the dual climaxes results in passages so gorgeous and stirring that I was moved to read them out loud. That is fitting, because the writing throughout "In Sunlight and in Shadow" sounds as though it were scored to some great choral symphony. Harry himself says it best: "My view is that literature should move beyond opinion, where music already is, and old age, if we're lucky, may lead." -- Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal"Helprin has written another expansive novel, as if no one has yet alerted him that the novel is dead. Here it is, a poetic and likely enduring rendering of New York just after the Second World War, a love story that pines for love but even more fervently for an industrious and ascendant America that is no more and maybe never was.…In Sunlight and In Shadow matters. It is a novel, with all of the presumption and ambition and sense of transport that that word once carried when it was the boss…If his latest novel is a book out of time, perhaps it holds clues as to where the novel ought to go from here." --Mark Warren, Esquire "New York, New York, it's a wonderful town! And Mark Helprin's new near-epic novel makes it all the more marvelous. It's got great polarized motifs — war and peace, heroism and cowardice, crime and civility, pleasure and business, love and hate, bias and acceptance — which the gifted novelist weaves into a grand, old-fashioned romance, a New York love story...Helprin does several things extraordinarily well: He fights for and wins our close sympathy for his characters, even as he delivers a full-throated rendering of life at war and life at peace (with a little of each in the other). He also pays wonderful attention to the natural world, such as that New York spring that opens the story, the changing of seasons, dawn in France and winter in Germany during the war, such domestic matters as 30 minutes of kisses, and the rue and wonder of a great love affair. I was desperately disappointed, though, by the end of this grandly charming and deeply affecting novel — but only because it ended." -- Alan Cheuse, NPR "Helprin’s delightful new novel is a 705-page mash note to Manhattan in the years immediately following World War II. Like Winter’s Tale, the 1983 bestseller that made his name, it’s a paean to women and their beauty – and above all to romantic love and its abiding power…Helprin paints a dazzling portrait of the city during a particular moment in history and evokes the universal, dizzy delight of falling head over heels in love…Wise, saturated with sensory detail and beautifully written, Sunlight celebrates the unquenchable bliss of existence." -- Robin Micheli, People Magazine "Passionate, earnest, nostalgic, and romantic…Throughout the novel he splashes down paeans to virtue and beauty you’d have to be heartless not to enjoy…" -- Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review "What I’ve read so far is glorious and golden, truly like reentering another world where another sensibility prevails and even the sunlight and shadow have a different weight; the 100,000-copy first printing seems right." -- Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Pre-pub Alert "IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW is every bit as terrific as you may have heard." -- Michael Cader in Publishers Lunch "A fine adult love story—not in the prurient sense, but in the sense of lovers elevated from smittenness to all the grownup problems that a relationship can bring." -- Kirkus, starred "In this prodigious, enfolding saga of exalted romance in corrupt, postwar New York, resplendent storyteller Helprin creates a supremely gifted and principled hero. Helprin’s suspenseful, many-stranded plot is unfailingly enthralling. The sumptuous settings are intoxicating." -- Booklist, starred Prose seems too mundane a term for Helprin’s extravagant way with words and emotions . . . . Post-World War II Manhattan isn’t merely the backdrop . . . it’s a magical urban landscape of "whitening sunrises . . .ferries that glide across the harbor trailing smoke. . . bridges diamond-lit and distant." . . . His penchant for providing an epiphany on nearly every page could become wearying. But just when you think "In Sunlight and in Shadow" might float away into the ether, lofted by the sheer beauty of his sentences, he brings it down to earth with a shrewd comment on the speech patterns of Catherine’s ultra-privileged social class, or a vividly specific account of the production process at the West 26th Street loft that houses Harry’s high-end leather goods business. . . . In Helprin’s rhapsodic rendering . . ."In Sunlight and in Shadow" is at heart a romance, not just the romance of two attractive young people but the romance of life itself. --Los Angeles Times Literary characters don’t get much more perfect than Harry and Catherine . . . poster-sized World War II archetypes of a vanished America. . . . "In Sunlight and in Shadow" is a sensational and perfectly gripping novel: a love story, a tribute to the fighting spirit of World War II, a hymn to the majesty of New York. --The Washington Post This flamboyantly anti-realistic novel is more symphonic prose poem than narrative. It is a paean to love, idealized, and also a love letter to New York City in all its rhythms, human and natural, its moods, weathers, changing colors of sky and water. The writing is so highly lyrical and lovely that sometimes my aesthetic receptors clogged with a surfeit of beautiful language. . . .I succumbed to its idiosyncratic spell. . . .There is a tragic climax, perhaps inevitably, since it is difficult to imagine a perfect love enduring unchanged by time. But the novel’s main theme is the loving embrace of small visions and actions that become extraordinary if we have the spirit and energy to notice their textures. --Minneapolis Star-Tribune Helprin is gifted at writing about war – not just combat, but the vastly complex and contradictory world that surrounds combat – and the passages describing Harry’s wartime experiences are . . . lyrical, thrilling and at times astonishing. . . . "In Sunlight and in Shadow," like all of Helprin’s novels, exists to remind us that. . . it is sometimes wiser and more fulfilling to cherish our deepest ideals than to mock them. --Chicago Tribune In the long sweep of his textured, absorbing look at life in New York City in the middle of the 20th century, Mark Helprin talks about many big issues, yet always gives them a human face. . . .Precise yet transcendent turns of phrase put readers right beside the couple as they deal with the circumstances . . . [of] a literary love story that rivals those celebrated in earlier classics. And Helprin has demonstrated once again the ability to make readers experience what Harry tells Catherine everyone must have: "the friction, the sparring with the world, that you need to feel alive." --St. Louis Post-Dispatch