122 of 133 people found the following review helpful
A Tale For All Seasons,
This review is from: In Sunlight and in Shadow (Hardcover)
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Let's start off with the fundamental bulwark of this opus: It is replete with powerful, masterfully wrought lyrical prose the like of which you won't find in any American novel published in the 21st Century. To give an example of the language that permeates this 700 page work, here's an excerpt from the first few pages:
"In the weeks before the solstice it was as if, moving at great speed toward maximum light, the world had a mind of its own. It clung to a reluctance that would slow it as the brightest days began to grow darker. It is perhaps this hesitation at the apogee that lightens the gravity of our sorrows, such as they are, in luminous June evenings and on clear blue days." Lovely, no?
But there are problems: The book, as Helprin never ceases to remind us, time and again throughout these 700 pages, is supposed to be a love story. But it simply fails to convey the love between our two protagonists, Harry and Catherine, in any meaningful, deep sense. The IDEA of love, yes, is conveyed with all the lyrical profundity for which one could wish. But the sense of actually being in love? I could find it nowhere in this book. There is a reason for this lack: The book is essentially about Harry (read Helprin himself, who is also Jewish and attended Harvard and Oxford and served in Israel with the IDF) and his philosophy, and what he omits is the obverse side of the state of being in love, the spiritual pain, the anxiety, all of what Yeats calls "the sorrow of love" is entirely absent from every page of this work.
Again, the reason is that what Helprin has chosen to write is not really a novel, but a Romance in the old sense of the word with Harry as Sir Launcelot, endlessly pursuing his Holy Grail of Guinevere or Catherine in the book, who always comes across as some alabaster Aphrodite rather than as a real woman, enwreathed by Helprin in silver, snowy sentences.
And so with the other characters, who sound so much alike Harry in voicing their opinions and inner thoughts that one begins to wonder why Helprin didn't simply write the book as a monologue of his 1947 knight-errant, Harry Copeland.
So, having recounted the book's shortcomings, or perhaps idiosyncrasies, let's move on to the strengths that stem from this puissant, masterful writing:
The chapter "Snow" is the finest piece of writing I've read in quite some time. In recounting the experiences his group of pathfinder airborne squadron holding the front lines, waiting for reinforcements in the Winter of 1944-45, Helprin has created a minor masterpiece of a short story or novella. If you start the book and decide that it's not for you and that you can't even consider finishing it - I imagine this will be the case for many readers. - please at least skip to this chapter and read it. It's worth the entire rest of the meandering opus.
I've stated above that this tome is actually about Harry or Helprin's philosophy. It would be amiss of me to end the review sans summary of what this philosophy consists: It's essentially a type of Platonism, more akin to that of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus, than to Plato's. It's a view of the world in which we have fallen, through many layers, from an eternal light to abide for a short span in this world. But this world is a good place, if not perfect, retaining reflections of that eternal light from which we have fallen and to which we shall return, and to which we can actually return, at least partially, in this life, if we give ourselves to the contemplation of the beautiful, which is merely another another way of saying, that on which the eternal light shines. All this you will find in both this book by Helprin and in the Enneads of Plotinus.
Be all this as it may: What do I think of the book as a whole? I think it's very powerful and a brave thing to have written amidst today's literary culture of darkness, gloom and Gnosticism. Helprin surely must have been full-aware, whilst composing it, of the sneers it would receive and, yet, like Launcelot, he soldiered on, following his own pole star. There are sections of this work that shine like stars in the firmament. I could give this book four, or even three stars, and sit back and sneer and nitpick along with many others. But the book, if nothing else, imparts true courage and a sense of the brevity of life; it offers hope, to those who would reach for it.
Goethe wrote: "Whosoever strives unceasingly upwards, him can we save."
The book encourages one to take risks, to be bold, even brazen, regardless of how many times, like Sir Launcelot, one is knocked from his/her horse. So, lest I fall short of Launcelot, and cease to strive toward the timeless beauty that all literature, at its best, offers us-----5 stars, and with them my neck.
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Showing 1-10 of 25 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 2, 2012 7:59:14 PM PDT
THAT is the best review I have ever read on Amazon. What's more, I'm just starting the book, which I got from Vine, and I'm going to have review it, too, and whatever will I be able to say now? Oh well.
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 3, 2012 5:41:23 AM PDT
Many thanks for your appreciation of my review. I don't know quite how to respond to such laud, save to say that I'm very humbled by it and that you too, if you read the book to the last syllable of recorded Helprin, will undoubtedly have your own original thoughts, feelings and impressions to record and no doubt catch many things that I missed in my own review, filtered through your own sensibility. I envy your embarkation on the book.
Thank you once again,
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2012 5:21:48 AM PDT
You're very welcome! I have spotted what I think is an error. On page 152 Helprin makes reference to steam engines in Penn Station. I'll give him steam engines in 1946, but not there; not at Grand Central Terminal either. The LIRR lines that needed steam then (diesel now) are put on at Jamaica; at Grand Central they changed at Croton Harmon or New Haven. The reason why? See the train tunnel scene in "Atlas Shrugged." No, I am not a Randian but I have read the book.
(Helprin made an awful error in "Soldier of the Great War" that I'm surprised nobody caught: he had a full moon rising at 2:00 a.m. Uh, no. What was even funnier as when I happened to mention to a fellow copyeditor--I'm retired now--how so many authors get their astronomy wrong and told her that full moons always rise at sunset, she cited "Soldier" as an example to prove me wrong.)
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 5, 2012 4:48:17 AM PDT
LOL-Once a a copy-editor always a copy-editor! But I'm a very close reader too and missed that erratum, due to the fact that I'm quite unfamiliar with NYT's transit system and its history. Well, as they say, "Even Homer nods."
Posted on Sep 7, 2012 10:47:24 AM PDT
M. Vanoss says:
Very pleased to see this review. I read this book in June and was thrilled with it. But at the time, I thought to myself that I have rarely encountered such an unashamedly Romantic (cap "R" intended) novel, certainly not a modern novel. So I encourage readers to give themselves over, totally, to the experience. This is a huge ocean of a book--why fight it?
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 8, 2012 6:01:59 AM PDT
Agreed. It goes completely against the tide of modern literary trends and is, as you say, one of those books that either sweeps one into its tides and currents....or does not. Indeed, why not take the plunge? The reader just may find himself/herself completely enraptured, a rare enough experience, in any of the arts, to warrant the risk.
Posted on Oct 1, 2012 6:56:40 PM PDT
P. Giorgio says:
I loved Winters Tale, but could not get into Freddy & Fredericka, so I am coming to In Sunlight & Shadow with great expectation and hope. After reading these reviews, all of which long to love the book, I will approach it with care. However, just from the reviews, I am wondering. Could Harry Copeland and Catherine Hale HC/CH -- could they be halves of a single person? I know that is really a juvenile supposition, but since so many of you who love Helprin are qualifying your reviews, I am looking for a way into the book. So, any possibility with those initials?
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 1, 2012 7:27:45 PM PDT
To P. Giorgio: I hadn't thought about that HC/CH connection. Thanks for bringing it up. And my answer is: Yes, I suppose it is possible. This is precisely the sort of question one would like to ask of Mr. Helprin if he ever does a book reading. Harry and Catherine do tend to think the same way, have the same goals, and the same reactions to things. They are presented as "made for each other."
As for how to approach the book, as I said in my own review: if you get exasperated at the length and/or the long descriptive passages, you can almost certainly skip the flashback to WWII. They're well done, but chances are you've seen this sort of thing before.
I hope this helps in some small way.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 2, 2012 5:36:50 AM PDT
It would certainly jibe with what I was pleased herein to call the Platonism underlying the work; particularly Plato's The Symposium wherein the soul is separated into two halves upon birth and each half is condemned to wandering in search of the other half whilst sojourning in the world.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 13, 2012 8:29:11 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 13, 2012 8:29:27 PM PDT
Roger Brunyate says:
A courageous review, Daniel. I am giving up after 300 pages, not that I thought it was bad, but basically escapist. But I I'll look out that chapter Snow as you suggest. Roger.