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Refiner's Fire
by Mark Helprin


 
To: ALL Date: 06/04 From: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Time: 2:50 AM REFINER'S FIRE by Mark Helprin All right, here I finally am, with some very belated observations on my own selection for the reading list. I could rationalize the delay by claiming that I've been distracted of late or that I've been waiting for some indications that a number of you have managed to get hold of this not-too-easy to find novel, but in truth it's mostly been mere procratination -- putting off the imposs- ible task of summing up my reactions to an amazing book. But it's time -- well past time, rather -- to give it a try. I nominated RF for the reading list without having read it myself, as after reading Helprin's WINTER'S TALE I very much wanted to go through one of his books along with the people on this board. That first one had been such a stunning reading experience for me that I felt quite con- fident in recommending it sight unseen, and after at last (a year after buying it and almost ten years after reading WT) I'm satisfied that the choice was a sound one. I suppose a good place to begin is with what everyone mentions early on in any discussion of MH's work: his joyous, fabulously beautiful prose. One can dip into RF anywhere and turn up an arresting metaphor or piece of description; in fact, looking back at the places I've marked, it's difficult to pick out exactly which phrases I had intended to retrieve. A few "core samples" (taken essentially at random) will do: A herd of sheep ten miles distant looked like a tiny white glove rseting on a mountainside; a town with radiating roads and tracks was a starfish stuck in the valley. (p.82) In the palm-filled courtyard of the language com- pound, scores of Russians sat on benches, smoking cigarettes -- the red dots of which spotted the darkness like socialist butterflies. (p.272) Speaking Arabic is like drowning upside down in a a well, gasping for breath and writhing. It soon tires the speaker and lays him flat, exhausted, and wall-eyed. This, unknown to scholars, is the reason for the Arabs' fatalism -- their language is like a beautiful prison complete with guards who beat them. (p.273) Something that Updike once wrote about Nabokov applies as well to Helprin (this is a paraphrase from memory): He writes English as it should be written -- ecstatically." I'm just getting started here; will be back with more soon. Allen =============== Reply 1 of Note 20 =================  
To: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Date: 06/04 From: WSRF10B SHERRY KELLER Time: 8:20 AM Dear Allen, I loved this book and will try to formulate something, but I'm going to be leaving for my trip soon and may not get to it. The passage you quoted about the Arabic language was one I was particularly impressed by and read it aloud to my husband as an example of the beauty of this book. I actually picked up a copy of THE ODYSSEY the other day in hopes of possibly finding connections between the two books. (I am woefully short on education when it comes to the classics). Thank you for recommending it. Sherry =============== Reply 2 of Note 20 =================  
To: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Date: 06/04 From: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Time: 11:03 AM Allen: Like you and Sherry I loved that paragraph about Arabic. And I very much enjoyed the entire book -- particularly the 'growing up' portion. If Helprin's own boyhood and early adulthood were half as idyllic as the one in RF, then he should be a well-adjusted adult indeed. Helprin's prose is so dreamlike it just carries you along. I enjoyed this MUCH more than 'Winters Tale', in part I think because the storyline was more coherent. Anyway, a great read, and one that led me to pick up 'Soldier of the Great War' and 'Memoir in an Antproof Case'; just getting started on 'Soldier' in between bouts of confusion over 'The White Hotel'. Great choice, Allen. Dick in Alaska, on yet another glorious, sunny morning =============== Reply 3 of Note 20 =================  
To: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Date: 06/04 From: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Time: 11:45 PM I suppose I'm about halfway through. Two comments occur to me offhand: (1) I'm not surprised he sold his soul to the Republicans for daily bread, but I'm surprised they took it! This cat ain't a poster boy for their viewpoint. (2) Young Pearl seemed awfully casual and ungrateful toward Mrs. Livingston, though of course I can see where his heredity and manifest destiny are involved. Makes you wonder about taking in these little brats. Cathy =============== Reply 4 of Note 20 =================  
To: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Date: 06/05 From: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Time: 0:35 AM Cathy: Re: Taking in Brats; boy, that's a fact. See my post on Elisha and the Old Testament gang-bangers. It's a wonder there are any adults, ever, a theme upon which I think the Greeks were well focused. Dick in Alaska, loving the kids and planning for that one-bedroom retirement condominium =============== Reply 5 of Note 20 =================  
To: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Date: 06/05 From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 1:19 AM It's been a couple weeks since I finished REFINER'S FIRE and it has since been returned to the library. I suppose I should have taken notes, but I didn't. (Have any of you stopped to think that much of what we do here involves something like that dreaded school assignment, THE BOOK REPORT? You never could have told me back then that someday I would be doing this willingly and with great pleasure.) This is the first book by Helprin for me, and I fear it may be the last. I didn't actively dislike it, as I did RABBIT BOSS (sorry, Theresa, I don't know WHY, I took such an immediate aversion to that book), but it was not a book that cast the kind of spell I require out of a LIFE INTERRUPTER, as gail puts it. In the beginning I was, like those who have posted so far, enthralled by Helprin's use of language and metaphor. That passage about the difficulties of the Arab language is indeed a gem. However, after a while I began to feel that the writing was too self-conscious. Look at me, look at what I can do with words. I do enjoy writing that I can appreciate on two levels, the beauty and aptness of the words, and the tale they spin. But Helprin's writing was not transparent enough for me. It stood between me and the story, instead of enhancing the story and characters. Marshall Pearl never became a real person for me. I think perhaps Helprin meant him as a metaphor for Israel or the Jews, but to me the metaphor would have been more effective if I could have related to him as a person. Helprin himself seemed distant from his main character. And my appreciation of Marshall as a human being lessened with every adventure in which he triumphed, time after time, like Superman. Had this man no faults? No weaknesses, physical, mental or emotional? The willing suspension of disbelief became unwillingly grounded. I also had trouble with the packing-house incident and the eagle incident. Why this burst of surrealism? It seemed out of place and I don't get it. I have nothing against surrealism, indeed, I love it, but I found it a jarring note in this book. Can anyone explain it? Allen? Dick? Sherry? That said, this book was an interesting experience, and I must say I thought Dole's Helprin speech was the best I've heard him give, even before I found out who wrote it. (I'll still not vote for him, tho.) Ruth, in California, planning to run down THE WHITE HOTEL tomorrow =============== Reply 6 of Note 20 =================  
To: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Date: 06/05 From: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Time: 1:49 AM REFINER'S FIRE continued: When I read WINTER'S TALE those several years ago I found I had no name for its peculiar mixture of fantasy and reality; the world in which it was *almost* like our own, but in some fascinating, unsettling respects followed laws with which I was entirely unfamiliar. It wasn't until I read Marquez' ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE that I learned that this variety of fiction went by the name of "magic realism." REFINER'S FIRE has its fantastic elements as well, though in far lesser profusion than WT. Marshall and Al's adventures in the New York sewers, and in the Infernoesque slaughterhouse somewhere on the Great Plains come quickly to mind. It was this whimsical playfulness with reality, the being kept off-balance, never quite knowing what to expect, that for me was the special joy of Helprin's work. I can easily imagine that many readers might find this wearisome, however, and I've seen such comments about WT from time to time. Helprin is laying it on much less heavily in RF, so this book might be the better place to start if one has never read him before. One particularly fitting critical comment I've seen about MH (the book was WT, but it applies equally well here) is that he is "determined to loot the whole treasure house of human experience and write it all down." This extravagance of vision, MH's attempt to imagine a world in a multitude of aspects and somehow reduce it to the printed page, is yet another of the features of his fiction I find deeply compelling. As we follow Marshall Pearl from his birth on the refugee ship to New York, Colorado, Jamaica and more, each setting portrayed in generous detail (I often found myself wondering, How does he know all this stuff?), one can only marvel at MH's capacity to dream wide awake and be grateful for the chance to come along with his protagonist on his singular odyssey. There's much more to be said, but I hope this will do for starters... REMINDER: Up next on the reading list is Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY. Allen =============== Reply 7 of Note 20 =================  
To: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Date: 06/05 From: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Time: 12:33 PM Ruth: My feeling about Helprin is that he writes wonderful paragraphs, fabulous chapters and incomplete novels. In other words, he tends to get lost within the complex verdency of his plotlines. Like wandering in an equatorial rainsforest, reading Helprin can be a beautiful experience, even if your're lost. Ocassionally, however,the leeches and poisonous reptiles make you long for more familiar ground. I thought the slaughterhouse chapter was one of the most interesting in an interesting book. The time dilation was clearly and intentionally surreal and almost transparently experimental. However, on a personal level it seemed "just right" as well -- the college boy experience, working in the 'real world' was well evoked, I thought. When I would come back from the east to work summers as a seaman aboard hydrographic survey ships, a somewhat similar experience occured: time stretched and extended as you lost touch with books and cities to live in a world of the sea hard by glaciers and coastal forests, bounded only by sleep, meals and hard, often numbing, work. Your point about Marshall's perfection is a good one. To the extent the story line deals with his life and trials, his trips through the "refiner's fire" (I looked that Bible passage up, but have lost it again) seem superfluous. How do you improve or refine perfection? Of course, fine gold can be made into even finer gold, so perhaps that's the point. Incidentally, some of this book is clearly autobiographical: I wonder just how much and how intentional that was. To me Helprin comes close to being a fairy tale writer for adults. He just needs to calm down those ambitious, labryinthine plots of his and direct those gorgeous chapters he writes toward more satisfying and intelligible conclusions. Dick in Alaska, a Helprin fan with reservations =============== Reply 8 of Note 20 =================  
To: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Date: 06/05 From: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Time: 1:23 PM Dick: I haven't read REFINER'S FIRE yet, but I'm a great admirer of Helprin's writing in general, for its richness. Your point about the labrynthine nature of it occasionally becoming overtaxing is well taken, though, I think. BTW, my on-line King James Bible says the title is taken from Malachi, Chapter 3: *** 2 But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap: 3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. 4 Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in former years. *** A separate set of commentaries I've got, by a teacher named J. Vernon McGee, says that Malachi, in referring to the Millenium, "is describing two processes: cleansing and purifying. Cleansing is the use of soap as expressed here, and the fire is used for testing. In the refining process, the metal is put over red-hot fire, and as it begins to melt, the dross can be drawn off, and the metal is finally made pure." I can't find a reference source for "fullers' soap" specifically, just "fuller's earth." But a "fuller" is defined as somebody who fulls cloth, with "full" as a verb meaning to pleat or gather. Can anybody shed more light on the fuller/soap question? >>Dale in Ala. =============== Reply 9 of Note 20 =================  
To: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Date: 06/06 From: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Time: 0:31 AM As I understand it, fuller's earth was once used to clean clothes - clean clothes with dirt, about as sensible as using old ashes, eh? To me, the Malachi text is a marvelous and difficult baritone aria in THE MESSIAH, followed by an equally difficult fugal chorus. It's on most recordings. In fact, a good recording of THE MESSIAH is an open sesame to much Old Testament scripture not generally used by fundamentalists. Cathy =============== Reply 10 of Note 20 =================  
To: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Date: 06/06 From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 0:33 AM Dick and Allen, Yes, I agree, the slaughterhouse chapter was fascinating. I have no argument with it as a piece of masterful writing. In fact, it was plain wonderful. I just found it disconcerting, plonked down in the middle of this saga, which up until then, had been on a realistic (although increasingly unbelieveable) level. This chapter should have been a short story. And I don't think the novel would have missed it at all. Ruth, on page 39 of THE WHITE HOTEL =============== Reply 11 of Note 20 =================  
To: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Date: 06/06 From: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Time: 0:36 AM By the way, what's so perfect about Marshall Pearl when he - not to put too fine a point on it - lays every woman he can, presumably in an advisory capacity??? He appears to be gentle and as considerate as possible under the circumstances, but I can't say this strikes me as admirable behavior. Cathy =============== Reply 12 of Note 20 =================  
To: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Date: 06/06 From: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Time: 0:56 AM Cathy: I don't think Marshall's activities were specifically degrading to women, so much as the entire novel viewed women, in large measure, as superfluous. Nurses, sex partners, mothers, o.k., but as far as heroically delivering refugees, slaying banditos, etc., they were basically Old Testament kind of gals. Very male book; in my limited experience it's what Helprin writes. Can't criticize, though, since if I could write a book at all, it would undoubtedly be a male book. Dick in Alaska, where the humidity is an UNBELIEVABLE 16% -- no wonder the forests are burning (but don't worry, little touristas manque -- we've got a God's plenty of forest, and we need you to come buy our t-shirts) =============== Reply 13 of Note 20 =================  
To: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Date: 06/06 From: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Time: 11:27 PM I've just skip-read to the end to see where the devil Helprin was going with this thing, and I feel a little better about it. What was bothering me was this cat floating through the world, connecting briefly with people but remaining basically unconnected, with little sense of loyalty or whatever happened to old whats-his-name. This is understandable in someone basically a displaced person, but I found it grating. Also, I think Helprin went all the way around Robin Hood's barn to tell this story; it's a case where less would have been more. Cathy =============== Reply 14 of Note 20 =================  
To: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Date: 06/09 From: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Time: 11:42 PM Thanks for all the comments on REFINER'S FIRE, folks; and sorry to be late in getting back to you. I'll reply to the several posts in this note. Ruth, there were a *few* places where I thought MH was overwriting to some extent, but by and large I got "acclimated" prettu easily and the reading flowed without effort. I too prefer a "transparent" style that doesn't call attention to itself, but I have to admit I've seen some authors with prose that's worth the trouble it takes to get used to -- Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx being notable examples from our reading list. This is an area, I suppose, where a great deal depends on individual tastes. Dick, I agree that the parts of MH's books don't quite add up to satisfactory wholes. As I was reading WINTER'S TALE I had the feeling that the end of the book couldn't possibly measure up to what had gone before, and that was how it turned out. (I should note in passing that I read WT very slowly -- many sessions spread out over about four months -- so I didn't find the experience as taxing as you did.) But the first 90% of WT contains some of the most wonderful moments I've come across in all my fiction reading, so I thought RF would be a good gamble for the reading group. Also agree that "fairy tale for adults" is an apt phrase (it may be a simplified but effective way to sum up in a few words what "magic realism" is about.) Marshall is definitely a larger-than-life, ultra-resilient character one could never imagine existing in the real world. Peter Lake in WT is much the same; not having read MH's later novels I don't know if he's moved beyond this type of protagonist. Of course, Marshall and Lydia's romance, a study in perfection that began at the rather hard to swallow age of twelve, is straight from a fairy tale, and harder for me to accept than the purely magical scenes. Speaking of those surreal portions: please don't ask me what, if anything, they're supposed to mean! Some of them, like the boat full of ragged men that Marshall and Al en- counter in the New York sewers, I think are sheer playful- ness, moments to be enjoyed for themselves and not to be interpreted or tied in to any overarching structure. The attitude I took towards those sequences is much the same as I take toward a Fellini film: don't try to puzzle out the significance of it all, just relax and enjoy the won- derful spectacle. I concur, too, about the general dearth of credible female characters. Even the most important one, Lydia, seems an idealized fantasy figure -- as if the author created, and then fell in love with her. The way he goes on repreatedly about how beautiful she is, for example, gets wearisome; one longs to know more of what lies below that pretty surface. What we do learn of her personality is she's a too-perfect counterpart of Marshall -- a bit difficult for this mortal to develop much interest in. Oh yes, almost forgot: I grew up one town away from Beverly, Massachusetts, located about 20 miles to the north of Boston, where Marshall and Al go to play "Bushkazi", a game one might describe as polo for Klingons. Though it's not named, the site of the game is the Myopia Hunt Club, which I recall took its name from the fact that several of its charter members were near-sighted. More to come.... Allen =============== Reply 15 of Note 20 =================  
To: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Date: 06/09 From: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Time: 11:42 PM Trying to decide if the views expressed by characters in a novel are the author's own is at best an uncertain proposition. One hint that Helprin is indeed speaking through Marshall Pearl, however, might be found in this bit of dialogue: "The most important thing," said Marshall, by this time only half drunk, "is to tell the truth." "I don't think so. Only a barbarian doesn't dress his thoughts. It's civilized and correct to lie a little." "No. Fire burns, but the best thing is to put your hand in the flames and hold it there." "Why?" "Because then you are most alive. Not telling the truth is like being dead. It doesn't hurt, but you might as well be dead." Which leads me to suspect that what MH thinks he's doing is in a way holding the readers' hands in a metaphorical fire, forcing them to face uncomfortable truths. When you consider that at one point Marshall opines that the best way to deal with criminals would be to return to the Code of Hammurabi, you can't help but be alarmed with the thought that MH believes this to be true, but the argument he puts forth makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that this is truly the case. Likewise, it seems as if the author is speaking directly through the Polish Holocaust survivor Yossi Merzl when he tells Lydia: "You tended the graves, a gentle thing to do. However, did you know that for everyone who dies in war, there are others who are born, and reborn? That is why veterans will never make the peace, and why, in denying the nobil- ity of battle, pacifists cultivate war. To stop something so powerful you must at least tell the truth about it, and they don't. What I'm trying to say is, don't feel bad about us. There is a balance to everything -- symmetry, compensations. A soul buried in the ground rises in the air. When you go to America and have your wheat farm, thrive in peace, but don't pity those in war." Though it seems clear that MH is expressing what he would hold to be a core truth here, but there's much I find dubious, to say the least. It's a little hard to see where the "compensation" might be found for the tens of millions of lives lost in the Second World War. Pacifists did a great deal of damage by refusing to face up to the threat of Nazism in the 30's, but this has little to do with "denying the nobility of battle," as far as I can see. However, I'm usually able to ignore little nuggets of wisdom such as these and concentrate on the story. What did the rest of you think? Allen

 

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Mark Helprin

 
This extravagance of vision, MH's attempt to imagine a world in a multitude of aspects and somehow reduce it to the printed page, is yet another of the features of his fiction I find deeply compelling. As we follow Marshall Pearl from his birth on the refugee ship to New York, Colorado, Jamaica and more, each setting portrayed in generous detail (I often found myself wondering, How does he know all this stuff?), one can only marvel at MH's capacity to dream wide awake and be grateful for the chance to come along with his protagonist on his singular odyssey.
Allen

In the beginning I was, like those who have posted so far, enthralled by Helprin's use of language and metaphor. That passage about the difficulties of the Arab language is indeed a gem. However, after a while I began to feel that the writing was too self-conscious.
Ruth
 

 
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