Tag Archives: Mark Helprin

Briefly noted: ‘Refiner’s Fire’ by Mark Helprin

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While Kirkus Reviews called Mark Helprin’s first novel Refiner’s Fire (1978) “grandiose,” it received more positive reviews from other major media outlets. I first read it five years after it came out when, my excited reading of Winter’s Tale (1983), led me on a search for another Helprin book. Winter’s Tale remains my favorite, followed by A Soldier of the Great War (1991). While In Sunlight and Shadow (2012) seemed to be to be less successful than the others, it contains the same dazzling images, imagination, and prose I loved in Winter’s Tale and Refiner’s Fire. In rereading Refiner’ Fire this past week, I believe it still holds up as a compelling novel about a man whose diverse experience refine and purify him as surely as a refiner’s fire purifies silver.

Publisher’s Description: “Born on an illegal immigrant ship off the coast of Palestine, Marshall Pearl is immediately orphaned and soon brought to America, where he grows up amidst fascinating and idiosyncratic privilege that is, however, not nearly as influential in regard to his formation as the pull of his origins though they are unknown to him. A cross between Fielding´s Tom Jones and the story of Moses, Refiner´s Fire is a great and colorful adventure that ends in a crucible of battle, suffering, and death, from which Marshall Pearl rises purely by the grace of God. Addressing the holy and the profane, but never heavy handedly, it is not so much a meditation on the fate of the Jews after the Holocaust, the rise of Israel, and the spirit of America, as it is an elegy and a song in which the powers of life and regeneration are shown to gorgeous effect.”

From the Reviews: 

  • “Mark Helprin, who must be legend to his friends, risks more than most novelists dare in ten years. Helprin writes like a saint, plots like a demon, and has an imagination that would be felonious in all but the larger democracies . . . . The sound that drowns all others in this novel is that of kingdom-come ignition.” (The Village Voice)
  • “Marvelous . . . . A brilliantly sinuous tale that sets an Augie March-like young man into a Gabriel Garcia Marquez universe . . . There are so many things to admire in Mark Helprin’s first novel that one’s problem is where to begin.” (Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Times Book Review)

From the Novel: “You know,” said Al in a daze of hunger and cold, “when you see this, you realize that despite all the crap that goes on in the cities, despite all the words and accusations, the country has balance and momentum. The whole thing is symmetrical and beautiful; it works. The cities are like bulbs on a Christmas tree. They may bum, swell, and shatter, but the green stays green. Look at it,” he said, eyes fixed on the horizon, not unmoved by the motion of the train. “Look at it. It’s alive.”

There is a lot of magic in Helprin’s writing, though I believe he doesn’t care for the term “magical realism” and doesn’t see his work in that way. However, the fact that much of this novel is told in flashbacks dreamt by protagonist Matther Pearl, allows Helprin a lot of flexibility in his use of dazzling images and exuberant language. I’m glad I experienced the story again.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two, magical realism “conjure and crime” novels, “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

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Magical Realism: betwixt and between

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MRbloghop2015In folklore, mythology and fantasy, and real or acted-out rites of passage, the boundaries where worlds meet are variously considered volatile, dangerous and rich in possibilities. Why is a bride carried over the threshold? Yes, it’s traditional, but it harkens back to the notion that a doorway was a dangerous boundary.

Myths and superstitions have flourished around the doorways, thresholds, crossroads, the littoral between ocean and beach, the lines where forests and meadows meet, dusk and dawn, and other dividing lines between realities.

You’ll find these “uncertain places”—as Lisa Goldstein calls them in her fantasy by that name—referred to as “neither here nor there” and “betwixt and between.”

herothousandfacesIn his groundbreaking The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes that in the hero’s journey, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Strategic points in this journey occur where worlds and realities meet.

Even in a contemporary fantasy such as the Harry Potter series, the magic of Hogwarts is distinguished from the unknown and potentially darker magic of the forest. However, as Luke in Star Wars and Harry in Rowling’s series learn, the hero doesn’t grow within, much less advance on the physical part of his/her journey without going into the swamp, the dark forest, or the unknown world outside the city gates.

Magical Realism

Magical realism usually focuses upon the boundaries between the worlds of the known and the unknown. The stories combine the natural and the supernatural in a straightforward manner and without commentary or judgement as equally real. Characters dance back and forth across the “uncertain places” as the stories progress.

In a fantasy novel, the characters approach and enter supernatural worlds while noting they’re stepping into realms that are acknowledged as magical, different or strange. In a magical realism novel, events or places that readers may consider supernatural are, by contrast, accepted by the characters as no more or less real than the everyday science and technology world in place at the time when the novel is set.

MamaDayGloria Naylor’s novel “Mama Day” is a perfect example of the juxtaposition of realms. Her first novels, The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills took a realistic approach. However, in writing Mama Day, Naylor said, “I needed to find a way structurally to have you walk a thin line between that which is real and that which is not real.”

New York City in this novel represents the real. The fictional Willow Springs, on an island near the Georgia and South Carolina border represents what—in our consensual everyday reality—is not real. Writing in Challenging Realities: Magical Realism in Contemporary American Women’s Fiction, Maria Ruth Noriega Sanchez says that Naylor’s novel is an “extraordinary exploration of the intangible and the power of belief that brings into question the limits or reality and truth.”

Naylor’s approach to magic in Mama Day can be seen in my favorite passage from the novel: “She could walk through a lightning storm without being touched; grab a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; use the heat of lightning to start the kindling going under her medicine pot. She turned the moon into salve, the stars into swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four.”

If this were written in a realistic novel, Naylor would have produced something more like this: “She could purportedly walk through a lightning storm without being touched; imagine grabbing a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; or appear to use the heat of lightning to start the kindling going under her medicine pot. In her dreams, she turned the moon into salve, the stars into swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four in her mind’s eye.”

waterforchocolateRealism demands the qualifying words and phrases. Magic realism omits them and keeps the reader guessing and unsettled about what is really happening in the uncertain realms that are betwixt and between.

In this passage from Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, “Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to split and burst into flame,” the reader finds no “as if,” “as though,” or other qualifiers to indicate the event is figurative—because it isn’t. How you react to that as a reader depends on how you see the world and/or on how well the author has enchanted you to see things differently while reading the book.

In Mark Helprin’a Winter’s Tale, Peter Lake is riding Athansor, a guardian angel in the form of a horse: “They got up steam and proceeded calmly to the north – where there seemed to be no people, but only mountains, lakes, reedy winterstalecoversnow-filled steppes, and winter gods who played with storms and stars.” Here again, the winter gods are mentioned as matter of factly as the mountains and lakes.

When initiates go through a ritual, they begin with the everyday world and end up transformed in some way. The place where these two stages meet is often called “liminality.” Here the initiate is not quite who s/he was and not quite who s/he will become.

Early studies in this area were done by Arnold van Gennep, who coined the word, in his 1909 book Rites de Passage. Folklore, myth, fairytales and stories following the “hero’s journey” typically involve plots ritesofpassageand scenes that are similar to rites of passage. The protagonist is buffeted by storms, monsters, magic forces, conscious landscapes and other dangers during his/her physical and inner journey to the intended destination.

Magical realism lives at that liminal point, leaving the reader with one foot over the threshold and one foot in the comfortable world s/he knows. Unsettling as this can be, that’s the genre’s greatest strength—a cauldron of worlds where stories simmer and readers become part of the spell.

You may also like: Just starting out? Beware of Magical Realism

–Malcolm

This post is part of the Magical Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magical realism. Please take the time to click on the button above to visit sit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.The button should go live on or after 12:01 a.m. July 29th.

 

KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a magical realism novella folk magic in the Jim Crow era of the Florida Panhandle where granny and her cat take on the Klan.

Got book lovers? Here are three Christmas ideas

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If you still have some holiday shopping to do, here are a few of my favorites this year that might make for some very nice gifts:

goatsong “Goatsong” by Patricia Damery, il piccolo editions Fisher King Press (November 1, 2012), ISBN-13: 978-1926715766 – A wise view of the world through the eyes of a child, homeless women, a goats.

  • From my review: When you read Goatsong, you are breathing in fresh air off the Pacific ocean, smelling the sweet scent of the bay laurel, and cooling your tired feet in sacred streams flowing through old redwoods in the company of wise women who, without agenda, may well change you as they changed the ten-year-old Sophie in those old family stories about the town of Huckleberry on the Russian River.

sunlightshadow“In Sunlight and Shadow” by Mark Helprin, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (October 2, 2012), 978-0547819235 – A combat veteran whose business is threatened by the mob falls in love with a young woman from a rich and influential family. Readers will discover a poetic view of New York  City played off  against the Mafia’s protection racket and the protagonist’s combat experiences as a behind-enemy-lines pathfinder.

  • From my review: Mark Helprin recalls post World War II New York City throughout In Sunlight and in Shadow with the accuracy and atmosphere of A Winter’s Tale (1983) and his protagonist’s combat experiences with the chilling combat detail of A Soldier of the Great War (1991).

vacancy“The Casual Vacancy” by J. K. Rowling, Little, Brown and Company (September 27, 2012), ISBN-13: 9780316228534 – Rowling steps away from teenagers and contemporary fantasy with a story about the people and politics of a small English town.

  • From my review: Winesburg, Spoon River, Grover’s Corners and Peyton Place reside so powerfully in the consciousness of readers as accurately rendered representations of small town life that their people, town squares, relationships and secrets are forever in our memory almost crossing the boundary from fiction into reality. The English village of Pagford in J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy belongs on this list.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels, including “Sarabande.”

Contemporary fantasy for your Kindle.

Contemporary fantasy for your Kindle.

Books: Magic Between the Covers

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“A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way.” – Caroline Gordon

My parents orchestrated Christmas Eve and the following morning with skill, making it a time of magic and expectation even though the gifts beneath the gifts beneath the tree were saturated with love rather than money. More often that not, one or more of the carefully wrapped packages beneath the spruce tree contained a book.

More often than not, each book was inscribed with my name, the date, and the name of the person who found the book and thought I might like the story. Pirates, space ships, wild animals and detectives waited between the covers for me to turn the page and enter an alternate universe. I didn’t see stories as alternate universes at the time, but now when I think of books, I smile at the concept of being in two places at one time.

There I was following the Hardy Boys in their latest attempt to help their police detective father crack a dangerous case AND there I was sitting in a comfortable chair in the living room next to a lamp. According to reports, I often didn’t respond when my parents called me to dinner when I was more there than here within the pages of a book like The Twisted Claw.

Portals, Portkeys and Magic Carpets

Caroline Gordon saw books as magic carpets. Ever fascinated with portals, I see books as doorways to faraway lands like the famous wardrobe in C. S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia. In today’s Harry Potter series terms, readers might well see a book as a portkey that whisks them away the minute they touch it.

While looking at the Amazon page for Mark Helprin’s upcoming novel In Sun Light and Shadow, I found the novel’s stunning 489-word prologue included there as part of the book’s description. The constraints of fair use don’t allow me to cut and paste the entire prologue into this blog as a shining example of an author’s invitation to his readers asking them to step through the door, touch the portkey or settle themselves onto a flying carpet. But, here’s a taste. . .

An Invitation

Helprin’s prologue begins with the line: If you were a spirit, and could fly and alight as you wished, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then you might rise to enter an open window high above the park, in the New York of almost a lifetime ago, early in November of 1947.

The prologue goes on to describe the view from that window, and then the room itself: full bookshelves, the Manet seascape above the fireplace, a telephone, a desk drawer containing a loaded pistol, and a “bracelet waiting for a wrist.” Then the prologue concludes with: And if you were a spirit, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then there you would wait for someone to return, and the story to unfold.

Even though I was, from the viewpoint of my three cats who were hovering around the den door waiting to be fed, sitting here at my desk, I had in fact stepped through a portal to an apartment in New York 65 years ago. I tell you this: I wasn’t ready to return when Katy, our large calico, rubbed against my leg with a no-nonsense purr because I was thoroughly enchanted by the magic between the covers.

Even though a small percentage of the books I read each year come into my hands as gifts, I approach every book with an interesting premise and a cover splashed with promises as a gift. Years ago, I watched a TV western called “Have Gun, Will Travel.” Today, I gravitate more toward Have Book, Will Travel. Each book is an invitation to adventure, lives hanging in the balance, twisted claws lurking in the dark, castles set high above green valleys, and frightened travelers walking down roads in sunlight and in shadow.

Books cast spells and carry us away and while we are gone, we are changed, writ larger by the experiences now living within our consciousness, and ready to see the word of here with the visions we had while we were there.

Malcolm

Travel to mountains and magic for $4.99. It’s cheaper than Amtrak and Delta Airlines.