FOR SOME REASON, PEOPLE FIND IT REMARKABLE that Mark Helprin likes to bend the truth. Never mind that a flying horse is a central character in his best-known novel, Winter’s Tale. Or that his writing displays the exuberant inventiveness of a man who believes that dreams are superior to reality. Even when he talks about himself, interviewers have often considered Helprin’s stories…well, exaggerated. Who, a New York Times Magazine writer recently asked, could believe the fantasies that Helprin’s mother (a ’30s-era Broadway actress) had been sold into slavery or that his father (a film-studio executive) had forced him to spin tales before allowing him to partake of the dinners prepared by the Helprins’ French chef?
On the eve of the publication of his latest novel, A Soldier of the Great War, Helprin is pacing the expansive study in his Seattle house, scuffing the hardwood floor with the hiking boots that, along with heavy sweaters and baggy pants, are part of his daily uniform. Fanning a copy of the offending Times Magazine, he says, “People will read this and think I tell lies. Always.”
Helprin concedes that he amused himself by serving up “obvious untruths” to interviewers in the wake of his early successes, A Dove of the East and Other Stories (1975) and Refiner’s Fire (his 1977 first novel). There was the one about escaping a coup in Africa with a sack of diamonds, which he later lost in the sea. Or the “eyewitness report” he fed to a European radio station when Elvis Presley died, describing 500,000 mourners “in sashes and death shrouds.” But since then, says Helprin, “I have never said anything that wasn’t true. I just have something about me which makes me unbelievable.”
Indeed. Boyish, grave-looking, the 43-year-old Helprin looks not unlike a grown-up Eddie Haskell. (As one writer has noted, his face is that of someone accustomed to looking “innocent on short notice.”) And even the unvarnished facts about his life sound a bit apocryphal. A sickly only child who suffered from respiratory problems, he grew up in a rambling carriage house that his parents owned on 1,000 acres of woodlands in Ossining, N.Y. Often bedridden, he passed the time reading and dreaming. By the time he reached high school, he was a confirmed loner and an accomplished fantasist. At 17, while on a summer backpacking trip in Europe, he sat down in a Paris hotel room and wrote a description of the Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul, Turkey. Reading it over the next day, he told himself, “That’s something a real writer would have done.” Four years and 12 rejection letters later, his first story appeared in the New Yorker.
A die-hard polymath and ad hoc adventurer, Helprin majored in English at Harvard, went on to earn a master’s in Middle Eastern studies there, studied Renaissance voyages of discovery at Oxford and then served briefly in the Israeli military. Intellectually voracious, he writes occasional columns on military affairs and other subjects for the Wall Street Journal and says he has considered the notion of running for the U.S. Senate. “Writers should do something else [besides write],” he has said. “If you want models, look at Wallace Stevens and his insurance company, and Dante and Milton being diplomats.”
Still a loner, Helprin dislikes parties of any kind. “To me, it’s a big deal when the mail comes,” he has said. “Sometimes I even find that upsetting.” He avoids “existential thrills,” including cigarettes and drugs, and claims never to have tasted coffee. He has said he prefers writing to having sex: “It’s a far superior pleasure.” That sentiment aside, he has been happily married for the past 11 years to second wife Lisa Kennedy, 40, a lawyer who is the mother of his two daughters. (His first marriage, to a Wellesley art student, ended in 1975.)
It was on his and Lisa’s 1980 honeymoon in Italy that A Soldier of the Great War was conceived. Hiking in the Dolomites, they encountered gun emplacements from World War I. The fortifications sparked memories of the trip Helprin had made at 17. In a crowded train station in southern Italy, a “bemedaled ancient, a soldier of the Great War,” says Helprin, stared at him for hours, with a gaze that reflected “anger, pity, amusement, respect, contempt, hatred [and] affection.” Galvanized, Helprin decided that the man had “entrusted me with his life.” The new novel is an imaginative reconstruction of that life. Lush, lucid and brilliantly original, the book has won high praise from many critics and is currently on the best-seller lists.
One of the few authors who can write serious works and still attract seven-figure multibook advances, Helprin is not one to leave the details of promotion to others. In early May he packed up his family and began three months of crisscrossing the country in a Volkswagen van, signing books and telling his tales to reporters. Already at work on his next novel, he refuses to say anything about its content. Although he told one journalist that it is “about coffee,” it seems equally likely that he is writing about Elvis, or the Hagia Sophia, or escaping from a coup with a sack of diamonds. For Helprin, literal truth isn’t always paramount; the tale, of course, is the thing.
J. KINGSTON PIERCE in Seattle