Mark Helprin: In Sunlight and in Shadow


Friday, October 05, 2012

Mark Helprin has been a scholar, soldier, farmer, commentator, and a speechwriter (unpaid, he insists) for Bob Dole. He’s best known, though, as a writer of great fiction, and his 1983 Winter’s Tale is widely regarded as a classic.

His new novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow, is the story of a young man who returns from heroic service in World War II to take over his late father’s leather business. He soon becomes involved in an unlikely romance with an heiress and a dangerous conflict with a local mafioso. Helprin tells Kurt Andersen that the plot is actually “80% true” to events that happened to him and his parents, and that the characters are all based on people he knew as a child.

The novel is largely realistic, but fantasy and reality have blurred in Helprin’s fiction. He remembers studying The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with a group of students at Princeton who were befuddled by descriptions of glowing fish in the poem. His classmates felt certain the mysterious creatures were metaphorical, but Helprin insisted he’d seen the real thing in the British merchant navy — bioluminescent fish. “Just like the ancient mariner,” he remembers telling them, “at night we took lifeboats out and we rowed through the Sargasso Sea and looked down and you see all these incredible fish that were gleaming and glowing… They thought I was insane.”

Helprin is also an outspoken conservative, writing editorials in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. “I have no desire to come into the modern age or to follow a fad,” he says. “The old fashioned values still serve me well.” He’s concerned about America’s standing abroad and, in particular, maintaining a military strength that sustains a balance of power that secures peace. But Helprin says he has never been tempted to force a political message into one of his novels. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” he says. “It’s bad art and it wouldn’t last.”

    Music Playlist
  1. En Vintersaga (The Winter's Tale), Op. 18: I. Siciliana
    Composer: Lars-Erik Larsson
    Artist: The Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
    Album: Pastoralsvit / En Vintersaga
    Label: Swedish Society
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Who By Fire
    Artist: Leonard Cohen
    Album: The Best of Leonard Cohen
    Label: Columbia
    Purchase: Amazon


Mark Helprin

Produced by:

Jennifer Sendrow

Comments [8]


What a strange interview--kind of like moving about in a darkened room, unable to ascertain the identity of things you keep bumping into, but keenly aware of there edges. A wine dark sea with no bioluminescence to be had.

Oct. 14 2012 02:52 PM
Dale from Brooklyn, NY

While I'll agree with Halprin on some level that you can't keep spending forever, but the idea that printing money, or currency, really has anything to do with arithmetic is kind of silly, or at least very simplistic. There is no trust in arithmetic, it's cold hard numbers. Currency exists mainly due to trust and belief that what you hold in your hand is worth something, trust that those electrons being transferred one bank to another is worth something. So certainly a little more magical than boring old arithmetic.

Oct. 09 2012 10:28 AM

Tom Wolfe said "the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe."
Based on the political rhetoric of the 12 years, one might now say fascism in America is always descending on the right but lands on the left. Liberal New Yorkers, be careful what you wish for.

Oct. 07 2012 03:39 PM

Mark Helprin apparently likes being identified as a "conservative" thinker. I find his understanding of the social contract superficial and, perhaps, self-serving.

Oct. 07 2012 02:51 PM
Dennis Maher from Lake Luzerne

As a Leonard Cohen fan I challenge the supposed haiku quote. Searching online I only find it appearing first from Mark Steyn (~2008), a writer whose politics seem to match Helprin's. Check out Cohen's lyrics on Cohen's 1992 album "The Future." It is a bleak prophecy that I remembered on 9/11 and especially with Bush's wars and patriot acts. Cohen sees fascism not a collapse of modern mixed economies. He had room for seeing that "democracy is coming to America." That would not be by restoration of old moralities and more powerful elites.

Oct. 07 2012 12:15 PM
Chip Morris from Ayer, MA

Bryce: I had a similar reaction to Helprin's comments: Dickens came immediately to mind. Except that I generally agreed with Helprin. Great artists make great art from anything. But the vast majority of would-be artists I have encountered who start with politics end up with junk.

Oct. 07 2012 04:52 AM
Bryce from Baltimore

From his dismissive comment about the divide between politics and art I guess Mark Helprin has little use for Charles Dickens, with his obvious political stance. Or perhaps he thinks it a blot on Dickens' art. For that matter I guess he thinks Aristophanes was only a minor writer of the moment. Weird that productions of him are still being done in this country a few thousand years later. Could it be a false dichotomy, this line between politics and art? Just asking.

Oct. 06 2012 02:37 PM
jmp from Melrose, Massachusetts

The horrible people, the horrible people
It's as anatomic as the size of your steeple
Capitalism has made it this way,
Old-fashioned fascism will take it away
(Marilyn Manson - The Beautifull people)

“Oh and one more thing… you won’t like what comes after America”
(Leonard Cohen)

Oct. 06 2012 10:38 AM

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