If we put Helprin’s latest novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow (ISBN 978-0-547-819235, $28) under our critical loupe, all the flaws found in his earlier books — here I am thinking specifically of A Soldier of the Great War and Freddy and Fredericka — leap to the eye. The pace of the book is uneven: the main character, Harry Copeland, trying to stave off the Mafia from ruining his leather goods business in post-World War II Manhattan, by spending a small fortune in protection money and yearns desperately for a solution, yet he spends much of his time in the novel pursuing the woman he loves. As in other Helprin novels, readers must also endure long descriptions of physical landscapes, in this case of New York City and various locales in New York state and Europe, descriptions so freighted with vague language that they become leaden weights on the reader’s patience. Then, too, there are the sometimes-tangled observations of the characters. Here, for example, is Harry Copeland reflecting on the docking of the Staten Island Ferry:
“Were there a choice — between the steel walkways lowered with deafening racket, and the toss of spray in the air; between the silent, graceful coming to rights of the stern, and the crash of the boat into the wooden palisades; a choice between the great heaviness of the city looming behind him, and the gravityless air above the water — he wanted to make it.”
Finally, Helprin’s protagonists here, like the protagonists of his earlier novels mentioned above, are all high-minded, noble, athletic, and physically attractive. Catherine Thomas Hale, who comes to love Harry, is beautiful and wealthy, a graduate of the finest schools, descendant of one of the country’s oldest families, sings like an angel, and has a major part in a Broadway play. Harry, who has attended Harvard and played the hero in France and Germany in World War II, has wealth of his own, is handsome, runs 12 miles a day, and woos Catherine like a troubadour while musing like a philosopher on the nature of beauty and love.
These are the flaws and chips. Now let’s take a look at the diamond.
In an age marked by narcissism and despair, an age in which minimalist writers not only give us simplistic prose but simplistic human beings, in which some topsy-turvy writers and artists declare the ugly beautiful and the beautiful ridiculous, Helprin stands nearly alone in his celebration of the indomitable human spirit and the virtues which act as shield and sword for that spirit. In their battles against those seeking to ruin them, both Harry and Catherine are old-fashioned warriors, refusing to bow to the enemies who would abase them, fighting back with the time-honored virtues of prudence, courage, and faith in themselves and in their cause. Helprin writes exceptionally well when he makes us feel the cost of this war.
In Catherine, for example, whose wealthy ex-lover takes revenge on her by bribing theater critics to slice up her performances in their reviews, we come to understand the moral agony of a talented artist who lives to bring beauty into the world, but finds herself attacked on every side.
Like A Soldier of the Great War and Freddy and Fredericka, In Sunlight and in Shadow also honors the ideas of romantic love, that ideal of love between a man and a woman which grew out of the household of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 12th century and which until recently marked the Western concept of love. Despite all the odds against them — their disparity in income and their backgrounds as well as the obstacles thrown up by their enemies — Catherine and Harry find in the old pathways of romantic love the key to their souls. They are ennobled by their love for each other, and practice their affection without cynicism, embarrassment, and degradation. In a scene where Harry asks Catherine’s father for her hand in marriage, he says: “I promise that I’ll always care for her, that I’ll always put her before myself, that I’ll never betray her, that I’ll protect, honor, love, and defend her … I say it as an oath before God and on my honor ….” Later Catherine tells Harry: “I believe … that when all is said and done … love that won’t quit is more important than triumph, than time, than life itself.”
Finally, reading In Sunlight and in Shadow — the title reveals the struggle between light and darkness, between good and evil in this world — may make some attentive readers want to rise above the mark we may have set for ourselves. This novel challenges us to transcend ourselves and to lead lives of heroic virtue. It reminds us of the beauty in our struggles, of the transforming power of real love, of the cost and the great gains to be made by following a code of honor, goodness, and virtue.
In Sunlight and in Shadow will rest on my shelves alongside Soldier and Freddy, to be pulled out and randomly read whenever I require sustenance of spirit or an antidote to despair.
Flawed diamonds all, but diamonds nonetheless.
In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 720 pages