Short Shelf: Winter’s Tales

Happy Vernal Equinox to all our readers! Usually this would be an occasion for a sigh of relief, signaling at least the thought of the end of winter in sight. This year, having had no winter to speak of—one freak blizzard just before Halloween that immediately melted, one lovely little snowfall in January that did the same—the date brings more of a shrug than a sigh. This week is promising at least one day with temperatures topping 80˚, which is even a bit annoying. I haven’t even ordered my seeds yet, and here it is too hot to plant spinach. But, as I always say, no one moves to New York for the weather.

So in honor of the winter that pretty much wasn’t (although I’m still not ruling out a freak April snowstorm), here is a Short Shelf of Winter’s Tales:

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
“A sad tale’s best for winter,” says King Leontes’ poor doomed son, but this is one that ends happily all around. It’s debated as to where this one belongs in Shakespeare’s canon—is it a comedy or a romance? Certainly it has all the elements of a great romantic tale, complete with a king’s furious jealousy, an innocent queen imprisoned, a baby princess sent away and adopted by a poor shepherd, young lovers kept apart because they’re deemed ill-matched, a comical pickpocket who saves the day, and in the end the triumph of true love: king and queen reunited after he feared her dead due to his misfired accusations, and the lovers validated—the poor shepherdess is a princess, after all. Even the scheming members of the court find love. But there is also plenty of funny stuff, including one of the first English-language mentions, according to the OED, of dildos (volunteered as humorously inappropriate subjects for “the prettiest Love-songs for Maids”). And, of course, what is arguably Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen
This short story collection is a bit more Gothic in nature than Shakespeare’s play. Dinesen wrote the tales from her home in Denmark during World War II, in the dark and melancholy days of the country’s occupation by Germany. On the surface Dinesen’s life was deceptively normal, but supplies were sparse, communication with the outside world difficult, and travel nonexistent. No surprise, then, that the stories reflected her diminished world: the sere, windswept Danish countryside and the lonely docks. They retain an old-fashioned fable feel, full of dramatic, almost Jungian types—orphans, sailors, young lovers—while digging surprisingly deep. And in fact Dinesen touches on the same elements of jealousy, exile, disguise, and mother’s love as Shakespeare in his similarly-named play, but adds a winter’s touch of chill to the proceedings. These tales are frosty, and offer up a definite alternative to birdsong and crocuses:

During the last days of March, the Sound was ice-bound, and blind, from the Danish to the Swedish coast. The snow in the fields and on the roads thawed a little in the day, only to freeze again at night; the earth and the air were equally without hope or mercy.

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
Oh, Mark Helprin. It would be so hard to forgive you your conservatism, your weird rabid hatred of Wikipedia, your plastic hair, if you hadn’t written Winter’s Tale. While all three of the wintry tales mentioned here have elements of mystery to some degree or another, this is the most magical of the bunch. It gives us an alternate 19th-century New York, sunk deep in a cloud bank and caught in the grip of a long, icy winter, finally depositing us a hundred years later on the eve of the Millennium. I’m not much of a magic realism person, but Helprin manages to hit the right notes here. If this is the only book I read as an adult with a flying white horse in it, that’s fine with me, but I will have to admit to loving the horse—not to mention the places: secret rooms above Grand Central Station’s constellated ceiling, a mansion on Central Park West and an even bigger one on a frozen lake upstate, a cathedral filled with model ships. It’s not very strong on plot, but Helprin’s gift for description mostly makes up for that. What you have is an upstart Irish burglar and the wealthy dying girl he loves, plus an enormous cast of bit players and a memorable gangster named Pearly Soames. Mostly it’s about atmosphere, both figurative and literal. And if you ever need a reason to love winter, it’s right here:

Skating on the lake in darkness, firing a pistol to keep in touch with a friend, was like traveling in space, for there were painfully bright stars above and all the way down to a horizon that rested on the lake like a bell jar…. Someone had had the idea of laying down wide runners, setting the light-as-a-white-wedding-cake village bandstand on them, and hitching up a half-dozen plough horses with ice shoes to tow the whole thing around at night. With lights shining from the shell, an entire enchanted village skated behind it as the Coheeries orchestra played a lovely, lucid, magical piece such as “Rhythm of Winter”…. When the farmers all along the undulating lakeshore saw a chain of tiny orange flames, and the shining white castle moving dreamlike through the dark (like a dancer making quick steps under concealing skirts), they strapped on their skates and pogoed through their fields to leap onto the ice and race to the magic that glided across the horizon. As they approached, they were astonished by the music, and by the ghostly legions of men, women, and children skating in the darkness behind the bandshell. They looked like the unlit tail of a comet.

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1 Comment to Short Shelf: Winter’s Tales

  1. March 20, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    You still can’t get me to love winter. (Ice and snow, echhhhh) but I am intrigued by that excerpt of lovely prose by Mark Helprin.
    Just what I need… more books to read.

  1. By on March 22, 2012 at 12:09 am

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