By Lisabet Sarai
All the members of the Grip could, I’m sure, tell you about books that changed who they are. We all know the power of the word. That’s part of what draws us together. Recently, though, I came to understood the ways in which we also change the books we read.
As birthday gifts, back in November, I gave my brother two of my all-time favorite novels: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin and Little, Big by John Crowley. Both date from the early eighties. I’ve been hauling my paperback copies around with me since then, including half-way across the world to Asia. The bindings are brittle; pages are falling out. I was heartened to discover that both are still in print, in new editions.
After I sent them off, I decided I should re-read them, to refresh my memory. My kid brother’s pretty intense. When I sent him The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, he insisted on spending an hour and a half on the phone (long distance, from the U.S.) discussing it. This time I wanted to be prepared.
I believe this was the third time I’d read Winter’s Tale. The last was in the late nineties. It’s a long book (800 pages) and deliciously complex—something of a commitment. I had vivid recollections of various scenes and characters, but a lot of the details had faded.
Before I continue, I need to tell you something about this book. Winter’s Tale is an urban fantasy, but not in the sense that term is used now. It’s an epic imagining that centers on New York City. Indeed, the city is as much a character as Peter Lake, the master burglar and mechanic who returns from the dead after a hundred years, or Beverly Penn, the brilliant, beautiful, dying young woman whom he loves, or Pearly Soames, brutal and dandified gang leader who chases Peter Lake for a century, or Athansor, a massive white horse who can fly. The book begins just before the turn of the twentieth century and ends just after the millenium. The city has its roots in the past and its eyes on the future, creating a tension that provides much of the book’s energy.
I’ve never read anything like it. Hence, it’s rather difficult to describe. It chronicles the interlocking lives of its many remarkable characters, but it’s really, I believe, a book about time. Time appears to change everything, yet at some fundamental level is an illusion. Just behind modern New York City, you glimpse the ghosts of New York from earlier eras. If you could only focus your attention, you could make those ghosts solid and bring the past to life.
Winter’s Tale is in no sense erotica, yet it is exquisitely sensual. It does have one love scene, which I’ll quote just to give you a feeling for the wildly poetic language.
She had not counted on affection. It startled her. He kissed her temples, her cheeks and her hair, and stroked her shoulders as tenderly as if she had been a cat. She closed her eyes and cried, much satisfied by the tears as they forced their way past a dark curtain and rolled down her face.Beverly Penn, who had the courage of someone who is often confronted by that which is gravely important, had not expected that someone else would be that way too. Peter Lake seemed to love her in exactly the way that she loved everything that she knew she would lose. He kissed her, and stroked her, and spoke to her. How surprised she was at what he said. He told her about the city, as if it were a live creature, pale and pink, that had a groin and blood and lips. He told her about spring in Prince Street, about the narrow alleys full of flowers, protected by trees, quiet and dark. He told her about the colors in coats and clothes and on the stage and in all kinds of lights, and that their random movements made them come alive. “Prince Street,” he said, “is alive. The buildings are as ruddy as flesh. I’ve seen them breathe. I swear it.” He surprised even himself.
This might not be the best passage to quote, but it may give you a sense for the rhythm in Helprin’s prose, a bit like verse.
In any case—I found in re-reading that for me, at least, the book hadn’t lost its magic. And yet, it was a different book, because of what I’d experienced since the last reading.
First, since that last reading, I had the opportunity to actually live in New York City for nine months. In other readings I’d taken the geography of the tale as realistic, but now I know it’s an imagined map superimposed on so-called reality. There is no “Printing House Square”, anymore than there is a village hidden in hills upriver called Lake of the Coheeries. At the same time, I’ve now seen first hand the constellations in the vault of Grand Central Station, so eloquently described in the novel. (Peter Lake hides out in a room just above the star-embroidered ceiling.) During my time in the city, I took a train every week day from Grand Central to the suburbs where I was working. No matter how much I was rushing, I always found time to gaze at the stars.
I understand in a much deeper sense now the way past and present entwine in New York. The book may be a fantasy, but it captures this essential reality, the core idea the drives the story forward.
The second change is the specter of 9/11, haunting me and casting its shadow over the novel. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment should you decide to read the book, but let me just say that it ends with a disaster that almost destroys the city. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the chaos and terror that followed the fall of the Twin Towers, the legions of New Yorkers trudging on foot over the bridges, the stench of burning that hung in the air for weeks afterward. 9/11 occurred before my stay in the city, but as it happened, I had a job interview in lower Manhattan less than a month after the attacks. I vividly remember the smell, charred and chemical, stinging your nostrils and making your lungs ache—like someone had left a pot on the stove too long, until the BakeLite handle scorched and the metal buckled.
In this last reading, the book darkened. The wonder and beauty have been tempered by the pain of irrecoverable loss. This didn’t spoil the book for me. However, I have a fresh appreciation of the costs of time, and of human folly.