“The truth that’s fixed in the heart”: Mark Helprin, In Sunlight and In Shadow

helprinThe only thing that’s really true, that lasts, and makes life worthwhile is the truth that’s fixed in the heart. That’s what we live and die for. It comes in epiphanies, and it comes in love, and don’t ever let frightened people turn you away from it.

In Sunlight and In Shadow is surely one of the riskiest novels I’ve read recently – riskier by far, at any rate, than Ian McEwan’s smart but pat Sweet Tooth, or even the ambitious but cumulatively disappointing Sacred GamesThe Murderess is perhaps equally defiant of expectations , though it’s at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum: where The Murderess is grim, ruthless, and cruelly ironic, In Sunlight and In Shadow is radiant, romantic, and hopelessly idealistic. In his Wall Street Journal review, Sam Sacks called it “a sublime anachronism,” and now that I’ve read it I see what he meant: even though I can’t actually think of another novel with quite the same qualities, it reads like a throwback to another era, less because of anything it actually does or says but because it embraces nostalgia so openly. Yet somehow — perhaps because it never allows us to forget the price to be paid for a life worth remembering — it avoids cheap or simplistic sentimentality. It’s a novel that invites an unfashionable critical vocabulary: it’s aspirational, ennobling, inspiring, morally serious, beautiful, heartfelt.

In Sunlight and In Shadow has a simple (though dramatic) plot that is elevated to something very special by the language in which its told. In its insistence that we pay attention to it as something crafted deliberately out of words, the novel reminded me incessantly (and unexpectedly) of Cormac McCarthy’s fiction. Again they’re at opposite ends of a spectrum: McCarthy’s language alienates and defamiliarizes, while Helprin’s illuminates and rhapsodizes; McCarthy’s approach is relentless and unforgiving, though he offers us glimmers of grace, while Helprin is lovingly attentive, though as his title indicates, he does not spare us darkness and pain. Different as they are, though, both writers make the artifice of their writing constantly apparent, and thus they make readers constantly aware of their presence, much as an intrusive narrator does in a Victorian novel. I think this is risky because it exposes their idiosyncrasies and values as writers in a way that, say, McEwan’s deceptive directness does not: in McEwan’s prose (which is of course highly stylized in its own way) every word drops so crisply into place that the result feels inevitable and somehow impersonal, as if he has magically found the right word, of all possible words. I admire McEwan’s prose very much, but at the same time there’s something cold about it. In their very different ways, both McCarthy and Helprin seem more exposed through their writing: this is who I am, they seem to say; this is what I think a novel should do; this is my vision, my vocabulary, my art . . . are you with me? The risk is that the answer may well be “no” — an answer many people have certainly made to McCarthy, and that I suspect many people would also make to this novel.

I had moments of wavering myself. For one thing, the novel definitely requires a suspension, not of disbelief, but of cynicism. You have to accept (more than accept — believe in) the coup de foudre that launches its central love story, though it is less credible than any “meet cute” from romantic comedy: “he was oblivious of everything on account of a woman who then vanished, and left him as if struck by a blow.” You have to accept the lovers, Harry and Catherine, in all their youth and beauty and sublime confidence in each other and in love. The first time we see Harry his doorman tells a young boy “Now watch this guy. Watch what he does. He can fly.” Harry has, in fact, flown through the air, during his service in the 82nd Airborne during the war. Now he only appears to be flying because the watchers can’t see him land after he jumps. But the unreality of Harry is that he does seem to be above it all in some far less literal way. He’s not perfect, but he is elevated.

Harry has come back safely, though not unharmed, from the war. In coming back he believes he has brought with him a responsibility to live the life he fought for and his comrades died for. Some of the most memorable (and least mannered) parts of the novel are those set during the war. Stirring and significant in themselves, these sections are also essential to our understanding of why, in peacetime, Harry acts as he does, setting out on a quest to defeat the mobsters who are destroying his family business:

It was possible to lose everything in an instant or over time. It was possible to be confronted by forces, natural or otherwise, that one could not overcome by virtue. Courage, greatness, honesty, all could be defeated. He had understood this on the field of battle as it was illustrated by the way death chose among the soldiers. But after such a war, in which scores of millions had died, how could anyone tolerate corruption? . . . How could such a thing, after so much sacrifice, in a country where millions of men were now hardened soldiers, be allowed?

It’s a mission that is at once understandable, admirable, and infuriatingly quixotic, but Harry knows all this about it too, and that layer of self-consciousness was, for me, crucial in insulating In Sunlight and In Shadow against naïveté. Harry has had enough of people who think “they’re wise and worldly, having been disillusioned,” people who “mock things that humanity has come to love,”

things that people like me — who have spent years watching soldiers blown apart and incinerated, cities razed, and women and children wailing — have learned to love like nothing else: tenderness, ceremony, courtesy, sacrifice, love, form, regard. . . . They don’t have the courage to embrace or even to recognize the real, the consequential, the beautiful, because in the end those are the things that lacerate and wound, and make you suffer incomparably, because, in the end, you lose them.

He left a soldier, in other words, but has come back a knight — that speech tells us that Harry deliberately and defiantly embraces a chivalric ideal. It also tells us, I think, that Helprin too is making his stand against cynics masquerading as realists: In Sunlight and in Shadow tells exactly and unapologetically the kind of story (consequential, beautiful, lacerating) that Harry’s principles evoke.

But lurking in that romantic ideal is another source of my occasional unease with the novel: it seems to share Harry’s conviction that women are special sources of grace and inspiration, especially through their physical beauty: “women,” says Harry, “are the embodiment of love and the hope of all time”;

And to say that they neither need nor deserve protection, and that it is merely a strategy of domination, would be misjudge the highest qualities of the world. This is what I learned and what I managed to bring out with me from hell.

 It’s possibly that there’s some irony in the way his “deep consideration, devotion” plays out. When he carries out an elaborate scheme to rescue Catherine from her pending engagement to the society boor who, when she was 13, laid claim to her by raping her,  it turns out she does not need his intervention. Her courage in her own sphere is time and again shown (and often announced) as equal to Harry’s in his. She has wit, intelligence, moral rectitude — and yet even though we are assured that for Harry beauty is not, strictly speaking, an external trait (“because his sight was clear, the world was filled with beautiful women, whether the world called them that or not”), her physical loveliness is stressed again and again, with a strangely elegaic kind of voyeurism:

Even had her hands not been so beautiful, had her hair not been so glorious, had her face not been of breathtaking construction, had her youth not enveloped her like a rose, had her eyes not been so lovely, even had all this been different, the way she held herself, and her readiness to see, her fairness of judgment, and her goodness of heart would have made her beautiful beyond description. She was, like many, though not everyone by any means could see it, beautiful, just beautiful, beyond description.

In fairness, Harry is described as resembling a young Clark Gable, so they are meant to be well-matched in every way, but  it’s his physical presence, not his physical perfection, and certainly not his charm, that’s most often remarked. Harry himself insists that there’s nothing demeaning or controlling in his vision: “All I want is to be with you.” Clearly Catherine is persuaded, but I retained some hesitation about whether their love story might, if treated in a different register, have foundered on these rocks. To be adored is not quite the same as to be equal, after all, and putting women back on their pedestal could be seen, not as romantic, but as retrograde. And nothing in In Sunlight and In Shadow suggested to me thought we were meant to resist Harry, in this or anything else. Forget that usefully neutral term “protagonist”: he is every bit the novel’s hero.

But that faint disquiet aside (and I’d love to hear from other readers what they thought about that aspect of the novel), I loved In Sunlight and In Shadow. Rather than rehearse the plot, I’ll give a few more short samples of Helprin’s style, which is, as I’ve said, what I think makes the novel more than the sum of its parts — more than a love story, and a war story, and a quest plot. From the war story, a glimpse of a winter landscape:

Daylight revealed a nation of crows on the snow-covered plain. Thousands were in the sky or on the ground — flying in tightening circles, breaking off to glide down, running to take off, or walking like old people trying to dance. They fell from a white sky as if they had just been created, and their spirals echoed the columns of black smoke beyond them.

 From the love story, which is inseparable from the novel’s love affair with New York:

She wandered, overwhelmed by images — by thousands of faces, each telling of deep or despairing lives; by clouds garlanding the great buildings; by the engines of the city’s commerce; the wind lifting briefly the hem of a woman’s cream-colored coat as she glided south at the edge of Madison Square; the sun in blinding flashes upon a hundred thousand windows; bridges sailing high above blue waters and whitecaps; pigeons rising in almost exact synchrony from sidewalks darkened by rain, banking in a mathematically perfect curve, wings still, their perfection the gift of the omnipresent and invisible air.

And from the formally elegant, emotionally wrenching conclusion:

Had the story come full circle in the way that stories end, they would have walked quietly, Catherine and Harry, into the rest of their life, knowing that in the end the whole world is nothing more than what you remember and what you love, things fleeting and indefensible, light and beautiful, that were not supposed to last, echoing forever — golden leaves swept across the Esplanade, wind-polished bridges standing in the winter sun, the sound of Catherine’s song.

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