Penguin Press ($27.95)
by Nicole Duclos
You would never guess it by his fiction, but Mark Helprin is a conservative. Had I known this ahead of time, it's quite possible that I never would have read him. Having not known, the opposite has happened—Helprin is one of the very few living authors that I hold in the highest esteem, expressing such original and exceptional talent, and such love for the craft of writing and for literature itself, that it is nearly impossible to read one of his novels without feeling that the world has changed much for the better.
Helprin's latest novel, Freddy and Fredericka, was published in July of 2005. To say that this is Helprin's first novel in 10 years is true but a bit misleading. Since the publication of his last novel, Memoir from Antproof Case (1995), Helprin has published two illustrated stories, A City in Winter (1996) and The Veil of Snows (1997); a collection of short stories entitled The Pacific (2004); and a towering collection of editorials and articles for the likes of Forbes, American Heritage, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, Commentary . . . the list goes on. Helprin has been doing anything but resting on his (literal or literary) laurels.
For the diehard Helprin fan, Freddy and Fredericka may look like uncomfortably different territory. Dressed in the garb of a farce, Freddy and Fredericka veers stylistically from his usual fantastic and bittersweet fare. It is the story of two characters very loosely based on Prince Charles and Princess Diana (or perhaps, more precisely, based on what could have happened to them had she been a little bit less than she was, he a little bit more, and the world more than a little bit crazy) who, in an effort to resurrect the regal name Freddy has unwittingly dragged through the mud, are dropped by plane onto American soil having been given the mission to conquer the United States for England.
It is not avarice, nor idiocy, nor selfishness that has put Freddy in such a position, but rather a genuine desire to be a noble and honorable man and king. Bordering on the absurd (think Abbott and Costello in print), the book is, as most Helprin novels and stories are, a book about courage, honor and the willingness to not only accept one's fate but to stand bravely and magnanimously in the face of all obstacles that may thwart it. It is ultimately the story of a hero.
Freddy and Fredericka proves that Mark Helprin has a knack for anything he sets his mind to. He simply never fails. Refiner's Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling (Knopf, 1977), Winter's Tale (Harcourt, 1983), A Soldier of the Great War (Harcourt, 1991) and Memoir from Antproof Case are all testaments to some of the most abundant and moving literature in the last 50 years. His characters are people one can actually admire, not because they are endowed with any special powers or remarkable traits, but simply because when faced with the decision between good and evil, they always seem to choose good, but not cheaply. Helprin's characters are bracingly self-sufficient, something Helprin prides himself on being as well, both in his approach to fiction and to life itself, and especially in his politics.
It is in this arena that Helprin shows a different face. Gone is the romantic, the poetic, and the passion. Helprin divides with stark and strong lines his literary life from his political one. From an interview in the May-June 2005 Harvard Magazine: "Modern literature is all cool and detached, even though a lot of modern writers are passionate about their politics. To me, passion should be for literature, and reason and detachment for politics." Though in his editorials, Helprin seems anything but detached.
September 11 was not so much a discrete event as part of a continuum. It was the result of broad strategic failures that, preceding it by decades, continue to this day and are likely to continue on. It is as if the country has lost, as exemplified by the Left now out of power, a great deal of the will to self-preservation, and, as exemplified by the Right now in charge, not a little of its capacity for self-defense. Our politics and policies have somehow been parceled out to opportunists like Michael Moore—purveyor of conspiracy theories and hatreds, whose presentation, unclean in every respect, is honored nonetheless by the controlling rump of Democrats—and to Bushmen like 'Kip' Hawley of Homeland Security, father of the proposal to allow carry-on ice-picks, bows and arrows, and knives with blades up to five-inches long.
That—an excerpt from Helprin's September 9, 2005 Wall Street Journal editorial—is a perfect example of Helprin's cutthroat attitude towards policy, and his complete lack of fear in expressing it, all caution be damned. In 1983, he argued for the deployment of short-range nuclear missiles in Europe (and has been told that doing so would ruin his chances of ever winning another literary award—a comment that has proven to be true). Helprin publicly advanced his case for impeaching Clinton, served as the Adviser on Defense and Foreign Relations to Bob Dole, and also wrote the former's retirement address. He currently serves as senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a conservation think-tank dedicated to "a limited and accountable government that respects private property, promotes stable family life and maintains a strong defense." Though his resume may read as one of the glorified G.O.P., it is safe to say that Helprin would prefer not to associate himself with any particular side, and that it is a well-won pride that keeps him from doing so. He is conservative, but he is also anarchic. Republicans don't want him because he speaks out against their failings. The Democrats don't want him because he simply doesn't agree with anything they do. The literary pundits don't want him because he is too outspoken. In his interview with Harvard Magazine, he explains how his individualistic attitude has frightened both the literary and political communities: "I try to determine the truth of a question and am not deterred by the damage that will be done to me by moving out of the herd."
This is where one comes to respect Helprin, and not only because of his incredible talent, his refined aesthetic, his rare and exquisite appreciation of beauty and honor. Helprin stands on his own, and he does so with no concern for the opinion of others. And yet, somehow, this attitude isn't borne out of arrogance but rather an honest-to-God knowing of his own self, a trait that is so rare (not only in writers but in government and rulers) that it is impossible not to stand in awe of his confidence.
It is this confidence that is mirrored in all of Helprin's main characters, and it is this confidence that is found still in the hero of Freddy and Fredericka. In this way, the new novel is trademark Helprin. Freddy is not overcome by any difficulty, and it is easy to imagine that neither is the man who penned him. As Freddy himself says, "Peculiar? Why are we peculiar? We need only behave with dignity to carry ourselves effortlessly through any situation. The day is not even over." And perhaps it is this rare quality—dignity—that keeps Helprin at the top of his game in spite of what others assume about him.
What makes Helprin's views even more intriguing, if not merely controversial, is the fact that in the midst of it all, he maintains his writerly sense of justice and beauty. From the September 12, 2001 Wall Street Journal, Helprin states his views on the war on terrorism with as much poetry as vehemence:
The course of such a war will bring us greater suffering than it has brought to date, and if we are to fight it as we must we will have less in material things. But if, as we have so many times before, we rise to the occasion, we will not enjoy merely the illusions of safety, victory, and honor, but those things themselves. In our history it is clear that never have they come cheap and often they have come late, but always, in the end, they come in flood, and always, in the end, the decision is ours.
In a similar manner, the main character from Memoir from Antproof Case tells us of an equally committed philosophy:
But I have believed from almost the beginning—perhaps unwittingly, perhaps instinctively—that life and love are inseparable, that to honor one you must honor the other, that love can be many things and the cause of many exceptions, and that, as the greatest matter of exceptions, love can be God's permission—indeed, His command—to war against His order to which one is sworn, to war against other men, against nature, against God Himself. Only love can carry such a message, so strongly felt, so terribly laden, so right, so pure and so perfect. Only love.
Whatever the venue, Helprin does not write as mere political exercise or propaganda. He is not writing to convince us but merely to be who he is and what he is. Helprin's characters suggest to us that war and the fighting that is inextricably linked to it may happen for the most noble of reasons; that in the midst of supreme struggle, whatever the cause, we may all still remain whole human beings who live and die for love, for beauty, for dignity, for reasons beyond our own selfish wants and desires. We are not mere bodies, mere machines. We do not stand up to difficulty simply because we are told to but because we honestly believe there is something worthwhile to defend. If life is to have any meaning, we must witness in ourselves and the world around us, some force of grace. Helprin and his talent for storytelling make this, at least in part, possible.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006