I’ve spent 35 years as a reader and literary critic, and still, to this day, I have never found a more stunning, courageous and powerful work of ?ction than Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin’s millennial New York epic.
On my ?rst read, I stayed up through an entire night, ?nished the whole 768-page novel and wept for a full 15 minutes, then turned back to page one and started again. I personally bought, oh, maybe 50 copies of the book and gave them away to friends, pressing it upon them with the fervor of a mad evangelist. I try to read the book once a year, as a reality check and a spiritual bracer. I made two trips from California to interview Helprin in his New York home, trying my damnedest to understand the mind where this colossal, towering work of the imagination originated.
Until now, though, I’ve never written about Winter’s Tale, out of abject fear. I was unsure that I could do the book justice, as was critic Benjamin DeMott in the New York Times Book Review, who wrote, “I ?nd myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.”
Winter’s Tale spans the latter half of the 19th century and all of the 20th, and probably best ?ts into the very wide con?nes of Magical Realism, although any genre categorization inadequately and unfairly represents its scope and breadth.
A deeply consequential, wonder-?lled, grand quest for truth, the book revels in beauty, honor and the silent grace of winter. It has a ?ying white horse; overpoweringly tender love; breathtaking vistas; swoon-inducing language worthy of Blake, Whitman and, yes, Shakespeare; hard-souled villains; bridges that span time as well as rivers; the most profound and passionate city-as-character construct ever put to paper; hilarity and courage and illumination and memory conjoined; great tragedy and messianic ?re and impassible storms and a white cloud wall prophesied to turn pure gold.
It contains no postmodern angst; existential irony; dissolute deconstructionism or tortured interior monologue. Helprin told me he didn’t really consider himself a 20th-century writer, but that he more properly belonged to the 12th century, when artists paid homage to the Creator by imitating His universe and serving as a clear channel of inspiration and revelation.
“Every day,” he told me, “I would go down to my study at 9 a.m., ?nish writing by ?ve, and then repeat the pattern the next day. But always that next morning I would read over the previous day’s work, and ask myself, ‘Who wrote this?!’ It came to me unbidden, almost like automatic writing, as if I pulled it from a mysterious place I couldn’t name.”
So Winter’s Tale is Harry Potter for grown-ups, C.S. Lewis for agnostics, Tolkien for the fully matriculated, García Márquez for everyone. Equally a man’s book and a woman’s book, a towering achievement most writers would cut off an arm to write, easily the age’s most optimistic serious work, it has the gravitas and the heft of a hydroelectric turbine, rumbling deep in your fundament and shooting magnetized electrons into your ether.
If our civilization survives, we will venerate this beautiful, ringing masterpiece of a novel hundreds of years from now. I dare you, whoever and whatever you are, to read it and not be moved.