So far about halfway into it I’m entranced. Winter’s Tale spans the late 19th and 20th centuries in a mythical New York, and other places too. Helprin is quite an astonishing writer and storyteller. The fantasy is dazzling, but inseparable from a immersive sense of history and the two together conspire to be unexpectedly truthful. Helprin manages to weave high hyperbole with naturalistic, intimate life, and at times his prose soars to great heights.
And I can’t resist, here’s a short interlude about the Hudson, which just ought to appear in our onboard journey together, on the mighty Lorelei, don’t you think?
THE UPPER Hudson was as different from New York and its expansive baylands as China was different from Italy, and it would have taken a Marco Polo to introduce one to the other. If the Hudson were likened to a serpent, then the city was the head, in which were found the senses, expressions, brain, and fangs. The upper river was milder, stronger, the muscular neck and smoothly elongated body. There was no rattle to this snake. Albany sometimes tried to rattle, but failed to emit an audible sound.
First of all, the Hudson landscape was a landscape of love. To reach it by sea, one had to have a series of glorious weddings, crossing the sparkling bands that were the high bridges. Then one sailed into tranquil, capacious, womanly bays, the banks of which were spread as wide and trusting as any pair of long legs that ever were. Then began an infinity of pleasant convolutions. There were whole valleys on tributaries, each with many thousand well-tended gardens. Towns along the banks were entirely subsumed in their devotion to one great view, or in the memory of one portion of one century in which they enjoyed a seemingly endless spell of clear weather. There were old opera houses, great estates, hidden root cellars and spring enclosures, gray churches built by the Dutch, wharves that stretched a mile into the river and were hung on somedays with dozens of sturgeon each of four hundred pounds or more and bursting with roe. The skating was unparalleled, except perhaps in Holland, for the early Dutch had built several hundred miles of canals through wilderness, swamp, field, and village, upon which a skater could glide all alone under the moonlight for a long winter’s night, and hardly know that he had been out ten minutes. Often boys or girls would come home in the blare of early morning, after a night of racing the moon, having fallen deeply in love.
On the Hudson, infatuation was a great and complicated phenomenon. It was sometimes ridiculous and endearing: that is, to see adolescents caught painfully in the pleasant traps into which they eagerly jump. They would go about town sighing and talking to themselves. “I love you,” they would say to the imagined beloved, though it might have appeared to someone else that they were speaking to a snow shovel or an egg crate. The valley seemed to have run on love. But, luckily, commerce and farming were richly endowed, and the seasons were intense and fruitful (ice and maple sugar in the winter; shellfish and flowers in the spring; vegetables, grain, and berries in summer; everything at fall harvest; and lumber, minerals, whale products, beef, mutton, wool, and manufactures all year-round), for if they were not, there would have been chaos.
On the Hudson, there was always the opportunity to be educated deeply in the heart. The beauty of the landscape did the rest, along with the magic of the moon, the river’s hot and reedy bays, the glittering silver ice, days of summer or days of snow submerged in an ocean of clear blue air, fields never-ending, the wind from Canada, and the great city to the south.