I’ve been reading Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, and though not even half-way through this iceslab of a novel, I’ve been having some thoughts about style, substance, New York and winter. It helps to write these vague ideas out, to better understand the mish mash in my head.
Winter’s Tale, as a quick wiki search will tell you, is the story of Peter Lake, a former mechanic, burgler, petty thief and all-round dashing city-adventurer, who grows up in turn-of-the-20th-century/Belle Epoque New York, and who, one winter, falls in love with the beautiful, consumptive, mystic young woman who lives in a steampunky mansion on the fringes of central park. This is the story, but the true point of the book is the wondrous nature of New York.
Mythologised into city-island status – partly isolated by a vast, man-swallowing cloud bank that seems to possess magical properties,alight with the new industry of the mechanical age, mired in snow, in horrendous poverty, gang violence, oyster shells, beer, sumptuous wealth, New York is a fabulous jewel on the half dark flank of the continent, and I for one, find myself fidgeting and rolling my eyes. I love scenic description, and would happily read nothing but pages of the stuff, if well placed and relevant or exultant. And though I am enjoying reading this book, and often find the images beautiful and the action engaging, I cannot, after a time, keep at it.
This, I think, comes down to the pace of the language. To bring about a feeling of dazzling winter and crowded activity, the author has to pace themselves in their descriptions, choosing with the precision of a poet the exact, hard, glittering term to deploy, the length of the sentence, the placement of the comma and dash. Choosing when to pull back on the analogy, or wonder, is this correct? Or is this image a domestication of the wilds? Too many comparisons that don’t quite sing. Not all the time, just enough to throw me disgruntled out of the book and back on my bed or in the launderette where I read.
It’s personal bias too. For me, the American, east-coast winter is a very specific set of weathers and moods. Crystalline in a way that Scottish weather seldom is in the dark dreich months from November to April. Prone to icicles, high blue skies, thunder-snowstorms, vast tracks of untouched pathway, the gravy-slush of the roads. Even taking into account the distant, fantastical setting of Helprin’s novel, his New York is puffier, too quick to reveal, not the trudging business or stilled light of the winters I’ve known here. It has almost a tropical feel in its lithe swiftness, similar to a South American Magic Realist novel. Leaping too quickly for the cold to seep in.
Perhaps also in effect, the Scottish tendency to play down the beloved place, rather than push it as the best of all possible places ever anywhere.
I would say read Winter’s Tale though, for all my waffle. It is the right season after all, unless you are on the other hemisphere…