Issue 126, Spring 1993
For Mark Helprin the world has always been an abundant source of tales of high romance and beauty leavened by the occasional absurd detail.
As a young man, Helprin’s father traveled in Soviet Asia as a purchasing agent, buying sheep entrails for sausages for his family’s food processing business, and then became involved with American and British intelligence, leading to a close association during World War II with “Wild Bill” Donovan, founder of the Office of Strategic Services and the CIA.
Helprin’s mother, Eleanor Lynn, a Broadway leading lady of the thirties, is the daughter of Max Lin, a Jew from Sinkiang Province, China; she began her career at age eleven, when she was recruited into a child acting troupe, and played, among other roles, that of the Chinese princess in the original production of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth.
Helprin himself attended a number of graduate schools; served in the Israeli army, the Israeli Air Force, and the British Merchant Navy; and for a large part of his life earned his living by working at various occupations: an agricultural laborer, a Pinkerton, a manuscript editor, a teacher, a factory worker—and the list goes on.
The New York Times Magazine, faced with this checkered experience and noting, perhaps, that Helprin once told a reporter that he was raised by a dog, published an article that questioned his veracity. Shortly after its appearance, Helprin undertook a three-month, ten-thousand mile, fourteen-city tour of the United States in a Volkswagen Westphalia van—not solely to publicize his just-published novel, A Soldier of the Great War, from which he never read, but also to refute the Times piece, point by point, brandishing affidavits and documents. Some of these are reproduced here.
Helprin was born on June 28, 1947 in New York City. His career as a fiction writer began when, soon after his graduation from Harvard, The New Yorker bought a story he had written while sitting on the grave of Henry James in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of A Dove of the East and Other Stories (1975), Ellis Island and Other Stories (1981), the novels Refiner’s Fire (1977), Winter’s Tale (1983), and A Soldier of the Great War (1991), as well as a children’s book, Swan Lake (1989), based on the ballet and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg.
Each of Helprin’s books has met with praise from reviewers, but the most extraordinary critical response may be Benjamin DeMott’s admission in reviewing Winter’s Tale for the Times Book Review: “I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.” Such praise aside, Helprin negotiated for himself a long-term contract for three novels, a story collection, and a book of nonfiction—an arrangement that many consider remarkable in its generosity and inclusiveness.
Helprin, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, is also a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal, in which he published extraordinarily prescient analyses of political and military strategy prior to and during the Gulf War. He now lives in Seattle with his wife, Lisa, a lawyer, and their two children. His introduction to his wife came after he noticed that a copy of his own book, Refiner’s Fire, and a book about petroleum geology that he had ordered, had been placed together on the Scribner’s will-call shelf. He asked to see Refiner’s Fire and discovered that it had been ordered by a woman who lived next door to him on Riverside Drive. When he announced himself over her building’s intercom shortly thereafter, she was reading the book and, living in New York, assumed that someone of dubious motivation had been peering through her window with a telescope. She greeted him in the lobby carrying a large butcher knife.
This interview was conducted by letter and over the telephone between New York and Seattle. During the process, the interviewer expressed regret that he and the author had never met. Helprin promised to stop by when he was next in New York. An afternoon coffee was suggested. “Oh no,” he said. “I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life. I can’t even remain in the same room with coffee. You know, it’s funny you should mention it, because my next novel is about a man who, though he is condemned to live in Brazil, feels exactly the same way.”
Why don’t you like to give interviews?
When I was young it was impossible to stop me from talking about myself, but I now find it difficult to start. As an adolescent (which stage in life took me to about the age of thirty) I had a facile tongue, a prodigious memory, and an all-consuming fear of sociality (a fear and distaste that is, if anything, stronger now than it ever was, but now I am disciplined enough just to suffer through it and, quite frankly, I’m tired of trying to keep back a sea of discomfort with the flood of my own words).
The source of my aversion is partly hereditary, in that my father and many of my relatives were much the same, and partly an acquisition that I owe to my early upbringing. When this was far more serious a matter than it is now, I was born two months prematurely, with malformations of the spine (spina bifida) and lungs, and what was later diagnosed as “hyperconvulsive neurological syndrome.” Whatever that is, it was sufficient to have kept me out of the United States Army, though not the Israeli infantry and air force or the British Merchant Navy.
To make a rather long story extremely short, I spent many weeks in an incubator, came home as damaged goods, and spent much of my early life in the throes of respiratory diseases that kept me out of school and apart from others. As a small child, I once ran a fever for, literally, a year. I had pneumonia half a dozen times, double pneumonia, whooping cough—all because of the circumstances of my birth.
Now, combine that, and all that you can imagine might flow from it, with the place in which I was raised—Ossining, New York. Culturally, the character of the area was formed during the Revolutionary War, when it was a no-man’s-land between the Americans and the British, and every criminal, deserter, and malcontent for hundreds of miles found his way there and left his genes. When I was a child, I would always look at people’s hands, to see if they had six fingers, and sometimes they did.
My draft board, I am told (although it may be myth), had, of all draft boards in the United States, the highest proportion of men killed in Vietnam—where, incidentally, my godfather, the photographer Robert Capa, was the first American to die, though he was a Hungarian and had nothing to do with the Hudson. The area was salted with military institutions—West Point, military academies, veterans’ hospitals—and old soldiers, including even, when I was young, some from the Civil War. The play of the boys was guerilla warfare in the extensive woods. Every stranger was a threat, an enemy. Indeed, there were a lot of bad apples around—escaped convicts from Sing Sing (twice as I remember), standard criminals, gangs in the fifties, child molesters (a beautiful little girl was taken from my third-grade schoolyard and raped and beaten over a period of many hours), and hoboes (not Shakespearian woodwinds) on the rail line that was the geographical locus of my childhood. I ran wild through all this, protected by my paranoia, by my sharply-honed guerilla skills, and by a rather extensive arsenal. Had you turned me upside down and shaken me, the floor would have looked like a military museum after an earthquake.
I was asking about your dislike of being interviewed.
Interviews, yes. For various reasons I was not socialized in a conventional manner. Nor, having gone to elite schools (that once gave slightly more than lip service to nonconformity), was I forced at any time to adjust. The writer’s profession used to be such, anyway, that one did not need to learn to be a member of the herd. In fact, when I entered upon the field in the early sixties, individualism, such as it was, was the dominant orthodoxy. This was then forced to compete with the idea of the collective, and now the idea of the collective, albeit in tribal subdivisions, is the orthodoxy. And I, in the space of a generation or two, am as outdated as a fountain pen—something with which, by the way, I accomplish my labors. I used to write exclusively with one particular Montblanc fountain pen, although lately I have had to use a roller-tip fountain pen, because I find it harder and harder to control the fine muscles of my right hand during prolonged periods of work. I buy boxes of Deluxe Uni-ball pens, use them until they start to drag and then change. If a pen starts to drag, I lose nervous control and find that I bear down on the paper so hard that I put holes and rip channels into it. It’s a condition that has become progressively worse since childhood, when it gave me a handwriting problem that my teachers ascribed to sloppiness. (What an irony, given how I have always driven everyone crazy with my compulsive neatness. When I was very young, I used to clean up after my parents. If I stay in a hotel, I make the bed and clean the room when I get up, even the bathroom mirror, for which I carry a tiny bottle of ammonia.)
Once again . . .
Yes. An interview is like social discourse, something that makes me profoundly uncomfortable mainly because it is shrouded in conventions designed to keep people apart and obscure the truth. I have a few very close friends and I enjoy working with people in any number, which is different—you can be both more private and more direct simultaneously. I’ve always said, for example, that the best way to meet a woman is in an emergency situation—a fire, an earthquake, a flood, a battle—and that I would rather go to war than to a cocktail party. That, however, is not the whole of it. I like to be in control—perhaps because I understand very clearly how easy it is to lose control, to end up in a camp, to succumb to illness, to lose the ones you love. In an interview, I lose control even of what I am, for it is the interviewer who edits me, finally, into what he thinks I am, and never have I been happy with someone else’s version of my life after that person has spent an entire two or three hours fathoming it.
Not that I myself am capable of compressing what I have seen and felt in a lifetime into an interview, which, admit it, one is supposed to be doing. If that were not the case, you would be querying me on something other than myself—say, the political economy of landlocked states or the ideal profile of the post–Cold War navy.
Well, rather than that, why not a literary subject?
Because I’m a writer and not a literary critic. I was always totally uninterested in literary criticism, even though writers are supposed to be, as a signal of their devotion and well-roundedness. You know, Not only is Joshua X. Belasco a well-received novelist and the recipient of the Golden Falcon of the African Literary Congress, but he writes erudite critical essays in The New York Dime Book Review. For one, Joshua wants to let everyone know that if they write a bad review of his next book, there he is, writing erudite reviews for The New York Dime Book Review. It’s no less sophisticated or delicate a form of deterrence than wearing a pistol in Tombstone. And then Joshua wants to be taken as an intellectual; he knows instinctively that writers are not intellectuals, so he attempts to blur the difference.
Why can’t writers be intellectuals?
It isn’t that they can’t be, but, rather, that being an intellectual is not sufficient, and too many “writers” these days think it is. This is because art has for so long been subsidiary to science, and the creative impulse for so long subsidiary to the critical facility. Why should a baseball player want to be a sports announcer and why would an actor want to write movie reviews? Far be it from me to criticize my contemporaries (isn’t that what Idi Amin said?), but this impulse makes no sense unless you consider that so many writers these days are not really writers at all but intellectuals doing what they think writers do.
Could an interview indicate whether they are writers or intellectuals?
No, their writing would. Interviews are fundamentally overreaching. They don’t convey the nature of the subject even when they are unedited transcriptions. And if, God help you, you submit yourself not to a portraitist but to an abstractionist, you’re finished, because what comes out is his idea of you rather than you yourself.
This happened to me quite recently, for the first time in hundreds of press pieces over several decades, and it has made me shy forever. Last year, The New York Times Magazineran a piece about me that has caused me a great deal of trouble ever since. Many people now treat me with open disdain and others have told me that they were extremely reluctant after that article to make my acquaintance. And who could blame them? The Times’s central thesis was that I am a liar. Along the way, they strongly suggested that the items on my resume (so to speak, I don’t have a resume) are fabricated and that I am cowardly about upholding my beliefs in public. They did so by innuendo, by contrived and inaccurate juxtaposition, and with false statements. The most troublesome thing in the world to prove is that you are not a liar, because any piece of evidence you marshall in your defense is suspect. Still, I fought in the press and my case is on record. It would take a long time to walk you through the whole thing, but I would like to air a few choice examples just to illustrate the facts. It was said, for example, that I made up the incident in which I was nearly killed in Jamaica when I was thirteen years of age. But it was the God’s truth. I don’t know why they refused to believe me or why he said that I changed the facts of the incident (because I never did), but after the accusation I obtained a signed statement from the physician who saved my life. Here it is. You may run it if you wish. Why not put it in a box?
Then there was the business about the British Merchant Navy, in which I served briefly while I was in college. Actually, I should have known. Twenty years ago, I was for a time a graduate student at Princeton. In a seminar I was forced to attend that I think was entitled Variations of the Romantic Self (now you see why they had to force me), we read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and after we reached the line that reads, “The water, like a witch’s oils, / Burnt green, and blue and white,” the professor said, Here we have to pay particular attention to the symbolism, for the obvious reason that the sea cannot look like that.
Yes it can, I said. Of course it can. How do you mean? some epicene students asked, though not in those words. They must have asked this question in snaky, coily, slimy words, of which any ten in a row would put me to sleep like a tank truck full of chloroform. The sea sometimes looks like that, I said, and sometimes writers forswear symbolism and ingenuity for the sake of description and conveyance, which is a perfectly fine thing to do, for the world is a miraculous and beautiful place. But the sea, they maintained, does not glow. Oh yes it does, I insisted, and proceeded to describe the bioluminescence of the Sargasso Sea. I don’t think they knew much science and they seemed to be unacquainted with bioluminescence. How did I know about this? I’ve seen it, I reported. Where? In the Sargasso Sea; I was a sailor in the British Merchant Navy. Come to think of it, just like the ancient mariner! It was the season of hurricanes and we had diverted the ship into the doldrums to escape a storm . . .
Well, the Times didn’t believe me, either. If only they had said, Prove it, I would have tried. In fact, when they ran the article I tried very hard. My ship was the M.V. Stonepool, out of Hartlepool. After calling all the shipping companies in Hartlepool, I located someone who remembered the Stonepool, now long gone. He referred me to various maritime agencies, and after an astounding and difficult chase (like most of my family before me, I do not speak Welsh) I found the crew records in a warehouse—in Newfoundland. The Times was unable to do this, I suppose, because they don’t have the resources. All I had to do, on the other hand, was call up my Newfoundland bureau. Here are the records. You may run them if you wish. Why not put them in a box?*