Mark Helprin’s Tale
The author, like Israel, takes risks—and lives in opposition to nebbishy Jewish New Yorkers
Perhaps as a result of his writerly attachment to his own words, Helprin’s political involvements have often ended abruptly. During Dole’s campaign, for example, he claimed that the “internecine struggles of the campaign froze [him] out,” and that the speech he wrote for Dole’s resignation was only 80 percent his, and that after sending him away, the campaign aides and directors “fooled around with it,” and essentially ruined the speech he had written. He winced and made grimaces; it was obvious he was still disappointed. “Politicians will promise you everything, they won’t give you anything,” Helprin said, almost laughing as he commented on his semi-contentious relationship with the political world. He bucked at requests to include certain ideas or phrases. For Helprin, even fiction is meant to “serve the truth,” as he phrased it. His goal, in the end, is to be honest.
Helprin has been touring the country for several years giving lectures on Iran and the danger posed by its expanding nuclear program, which he writes about frequently. He gave me an abridged version of his lecture and explained that Iran couldn’t possibly want a nuclear reactor for energy because it has enough natural gas to power the country for 450 years. “It’s a lie,” he told me bluntly, looking directly into my eyes. His strong opinion on Iran is undoubtedly a result of his feelings for Israel, for whom, he admitted, the question of Iranian nuclear power is “existential.” In an urgently stern tone he explained: “If Iran has a nuclear weapon, Israel would be destroyed. Period.” He is convinced that Israel will do “what it has to do”—these words spoken as though they were used to avoid having to elaborate any further. Then he told me the story of Zvika Greengold, the single tank commander who reportedly destroyed nearly 40 Syrian tanks in 1973. Zvika, Helprin said, fought off an entire brigade on his own and saved Israel. Israel takes risks and has no choice but to fight this way.
Helprin as a writer sees himself the way he sees the state of Israel: eager to take risks, willing to explore, but most important, living and existing without chasing what might be popular. He admitted, days before the review of his recent book was supposed to come out, that he knew the New York Times was going to trash the novel. “They always do,” he told me, jokingly, almost seeming not to care. When I asked him about his prose he admitted that there was something not exactly of this era about his style, which is not to say it is anachronistic or archaic.
“Modern fiction, as I understand it, is supposed to be spare, short, tightly focused, cold, almost nihilistic, and you’re supposed to be cool.” The way Helprin sees it, modern fiction, like cool people, to use his word, never takes risks, is never vulnerable, and wishes to remain completely unaffected by everything. In Sunlight and in Shadow, in short, is a book in which characters, and even Helprin himself, are very affected by the world around them. “Like Israel, you take risks,” he says. “I’ve always done that.”
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