by Libby Sternberg
If you’re in an adventurous mood and want to try a new author, maybe something literary or at least upmarket, may I make a suggestion? I have two favorite authors who, while not obscure, are not household names. I heartily recommend their works. They are: Mark Helprin and Louis Bayard.
Mark Helprin: I discovered this author when I read a review of his novel A Soldier of the Great War that intrigued me. Then I was entranced by his soaring prose. To say he writes prose that sings doesn’t quite capture it. His storytelling is a Mahleresque symphony that combines light and dark, humor and heartache, whimsy and grit.
If you’re reluctant to dive into his longer novels, however, his short story (almost a novella) “Ellis Island” is a good place to start. Around 70 pages long, it contains all his strongest elements–sepia-toned historical setting, fantastical narrative, humor, orchestral writing, and poignant heartbreak. Listen as he describes a voyage of immigrants in the early 190os:
The sea moderated, and the land sent out signs–not doves, but gulls as white as wave crests, who came to join us days before our landfall, and followed on vibrating wings that seemed unsteady but had been strong enough to carry them, through winter air, across hundreds of miles of sea….a day from port I saw a cloud bank that seemed anchored in place over all of North America. Only on the sea was the sky clear, in patches of the palest blue, and the sea itself was as flat and glassy as oil. Then there was nothing but cold fog and blasts of the whistle. The officers doubled their watches, standing outboard on the flying bridge, listening like hunting dogs or men who are awaiting a miracle. The first time our blasts were answered, they lifted their binoculars and peered out to sea. They closed their eyes like symphony conductors and strained after the sound.
At Ellis Island at last, our protagonist disembarks, only to be smitten by an enchanting beauty in line, a girl he is determined to make his own, no matter what the obstacles. And obstacles abound, including getting through quarantine and off the island into New York. One of his immigration interrogators asks what he does, and his response is one most authors could sympathize with:
“I write books,'”I said. Little did I know that in America no one ever believes this, as if all the books that appear are written not by living people, but by hairbrushes, watermelons, and branding irons. She looked at me the way one looks at a madman.
Eventually, our hero lands in the city and goes from adventure to adventure, trying to find lodging and work. When he’s told that Jews “were not wanted for manual labor,” he determines to give a name he thinks sounds all-American: Whiting Tatoon.
Whiting finds happiness and love and work, settling into the “dreamworld” of America. As for the girl he pined for on Ellis Island….he goes back to find her, and the story ends with him seeing through fresh eyes arrivals of new immigrants . No longer one of that crowd, he observes that the journey “takes from you as much as it gives, and that their difficult voyage was far from over–for the city itself is like wild surf, and lessons are hard to learn when one is breathless in a cold and active sea.”
“Ellis Island” feels breathless when you read it, as much poetry as prose. Helprin’s soaring novel Winter’s Tale is set to be released as a movie next year. I recommend reading his Memoirs from Antproof Case, A Soldier of the Great War, and stories in the collection The Pacific.
Louis Bayard: I first discovered Bayard when I picked up his book Mr. Timothy. I was in the middle of writing a retelling of Jane Eyre (Sloane Hall, cough::cough shameless plug), and I was interested in other re-creations of famous tales. Mr. Timothy isn’t a retelling as much as a continuation. In it, Bayard covers the sweet and sad story of Timothy Cratchett — Tiny Tim from Dickens’s Christmas Carol. What a brilliant idea! But as many readers know, not every bit of genius translates into a compelling story. Mr. Timothy delivers, however, in both storytelling and characterization.
In Bayard’s vision, Timothy has lived his life on the generosity of his “Uncle” Scrooge who has continued to subsidize him into adulthood. This has left him without ambition and generally drifting, until a murder mystery presents itself.
But Bayard writes more than just a good mystery. His specialty is plumbing the depths of ennui. His main characters end up confronting some buried sorrow before the story is over, and even if the mystery is solved and the catharsis of discovery endured, sometimes the ensuing flames still consume those they cleanse.
If Mr. Timothy sounds like too far a stretch for you, start out by reading The Pale Blue Eye, a mystery set in 1830 West Point where an old detective sets about solving a murder with the help of a dreamy cadet….Edgar Allan Poe. The Poe that Bayard paints is youthful and different, already a man apart from his peers. When the detective confronts Poe with various false tales Poe has told of his past, the young writer vows revenge…in his own way:
There comes a time, I think, in every man’s life when he is forced to see his utter helplessness. He spends his last penny on a drink, or the woman he loves sweeps her plate clean of him, or he learns the man he trusted with everything wishes him only evil. And in that moment, he is bare.
That’s how Poe stood now in the middle of that room, as though every last strip of skin had been peeled away. His bones wobbled inside him.
“I assume you are finished,” he said finally.
“For now. Yes.”
“Then I will bid you good night.”
Dignity, yes, that would be his last redoubt. He would hold his head high as he made his way to the door….Something would make him speak, in a scalded voice.
“You will one day feel what you have done to me.”
What a magnificent back story to come up with for Poe’s haunting writing–that he was trying to make all his readers feel the pain he’d suffered as a callow young man trying to impress, to be loved, and rudely brought back to reality.
Just as you think The Pale Blue Eye’s mystery is solved, Bayard throws in a final scene that will break your heart. It’s a tour de force piece of writing. I now read whatever new mystery he releases: The Black Tower, The School of Night, and I eagerly await next year’s Roosevelt’s Beast.
Coming soon, I’ll share with you information on a series of books that should appeal to Downton Abbey fans!
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. If you buy her books, she can buy books, too.