“Winter’s Tale,” the new film based on Mark Helprin’s lauded second novel, is garnering mostly negative reviews. Perhaps it is not the worst time, then, to offer some reflections on his first novel, the less well-known but far more Jewishly significant and, I would argue, aesthetically rewarding Refiner’s Fire, published in 1977.
Refiner’s Fire bears more than passing resemblance to Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, and not only in its relentless ebullience. Like The Adventures of Augie March, Refiner’s Fire is a picaresque novel centering on a Jewish orphan making his way in the world. Like Bellow’s Augie, Helprin’s protagonist rides the rails, travels through Mexico, survives a shipwreck, and wrestles an eagle. Like Bellow’s novel, Helprin’s is a meditation on America, on love, and on the tension between individual will and external determinants.
Strangely, of the two it is Bellow’s 1953 novel in which Jewishness and Americanness are seamlessly interwoven, Helprin’s later one in which they are painfully at odds. Bellow’s famous opening line (“I am an American, Chicago born…”) is not an anxious insistence. Augie is an American, is a Jew, and doesn’t register any insurmountable contradiction between the two. For Augie, being Jewish is occasionally a liability, but it is not a problem. It does not enter into the ledger of things that might keep one from being American. Quite the opposite: for Augie, Jewish is a kind of American, maybe even the best kind.
Helprin’s novel, on the other hand, is riven. It poses, far more than most works of Jewish American fiction, the question: Jewish or American? And it insists on a choice, even if, as we will see, it softens the consequences of that choice.
Born and soon orphaned on a Jewish refugee boat that tries to break the British blockade of Palestine, Marshall Pearl, the novel’s hero, is raised by adoptive parents in the United States. His first caretaker and eventual father-in-law, an American naval officer named Paul Levy, tells Marshall that the restlessness that characterizes Marshall’s life derives from his birth, Moses-like, on the border between the sea and the promised land: “you have no way of being that other self of which you were robbed by shifts in history,” says Levy, “you’re sort of stuck. You don’t really fit in anywhere.” Moreover, the novel hints that this is in some sense the condition of all American Jews. Of Paul Levy we are told: “being a Jew was impossible since he could not get either in or out and seemed to be hanging in between worlds which would not have him.” To be an American Jew is to be a foundling, born outside of the homeland, between worlds, and needing to choose and create a self that was somehow misplaced by history.
Marshall attempts to return to the Jewish homeland. While his tale takes us to upstate New York, Jamaica, Harvard, the Alps, and other locales, the final third of the novel takes place in Israel, where Marshall serves in the Israeli military in the period leading up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. (Like his fictional creation, Helprin moved to Israel for a brief period in the 1970s, taking on citizenship and commencing military service before returning to America.)
The novel’s portrait of Israel is scathing. Along with two other idealistic American immigrants, Marshall is mistakenly thrown into an experimental military unit for the criminal and disturbed. The officers overseeing the unit are shown to be brutal, pompous, racist, and inept. The torments Marshall and his comrades suffer during their training are Kafkaesque. One of the Americans dies, and Marshall barely makes it through the experience alive. His transfer to a regular combat unit is the best thing that happens to him.
One could take this to be a portrait not of Israel in general but only the military, except that it is of a piece with the Marshall’s general disappointment with the Jewish state—not with all of Israel, to be sure, and not accompanied by even a shadow of a doubt of its right to exist or its duty to prevail against enemies that would destroy it. Rather, Helprin conveys in comically magnified form the frustration many Americans have felt in their encounter with Israel’s levantine looniness and disorganization—with, as he puts it in the novel, “the mill of the semi-feudal, part Eastern European, part Ottoman, part Moroccan, and entirely Jewish bureaucracy, the likes of which have never been seen in the world and will not be in any worlds yet to be discovered.” American tourists who have visited the Israeli interior ministry for a visa or a bank for any purpose whatsoever will recognize Helprin’s description of Israeli banking (“Trained in the Sudan or rural Mexico, the syrup-blooded bankers required twenty visits, fifty coffees, and a dozen stamps and seals to cast one check”) and civil servants (“fat little men who looked like East German woodchucks and sat behind barred enclosures sipping tea and eating sesame cakes”).
It should be said that Helprin’s portrait is, thank goodness, no longer relevant today. In the last decade globalization and capitalism have worked a miraculous and positive sea-change in Israel’s once dismal organizational culture, while (less happily) in the United States, by contrast, the quality of customer service, civil servants, and general manners have all plummeted.
In any case, the turning point in the novel is Marshall’s realization that America is more his home than Israel will ever be. In an Israeli frogmen unit, Marshall finds boarding ships to be easy going until he tries to practice on an American vessel. Unlike the other ships’ crews (“pushovers”) the American sailors easily apprehend, and befriend, Marshall. Later in the day, he tells his wife about the experience:
I looked at their faces. They were the faces of plains farmers. They put down their guns and we talked. After all, I was in a bathing suit. What I want to say is that I was much more than proud. It was different and better than being proud.
Looking at this American yeomanry, Marshall realizes that he wants to return to America, to farm in the Colorado valley where he first met his wife. “We can never be what they are, the plainsmen,” he says to his wife, “and we can never be like the Israelis either,” yet, he concludes: “If I belong anywhere, I belong in that valley.”
In its stark presentation of the American Jewish choice of the American homeland over the Israeli one, Refiner’s Fire precedes Philip Roth’s The Counterlife by a decade. On the other hand, the consequences of this choice receive short shrift. Helprin’s depictions of Jewish life in America are vague, the tensions at times magically resolved. For instance, when Marshall’s adoptive father decides he wants to attend Harvard, he avoids the anti-Jewish quotas by changing his name from Lischinsky to Livingston and faking a tony Park Avenue address. And so, we are told, “he experienced Harvard as a Livingston might, except that each Friday night he went to synagogue in a poor neighborhood near the South End.” In this world, the Ivy League beckons, yet fidelity to Jewish tradition never wavers. We can have it all.
This easy resolution of tension between the American and the Jewish, the future and the past, takes on mythical form in Helprin’s “Ellis Island,” the title story in the collection that followed Refiner’s Fire and preceded Winter’s Tale. “Ellis Island” is a brilliant, manic tall tale version of the Eastern European Jewish immigrant narrative. Its most charmingly rendered impossibility—along the lines of Pecos Bill’s lassoing a tornado or Paul Bunyan’s digging the Grand Canyon—is this immigrant tale’s allowing for perfect Americanization along with total retention of Jewish tradition.
While it has its magical touches, Refiner’s Fire does not depend so wholly on myth. Despite its evident desire to heal all rifts, it remains, unlike “Ellis Island,” cognizant of its—of Marshall’s—split. The novel soars on symphonic, Copland-esque sweeps of love for America and its plenitude. And then there is the basso profundo, inaudible for long stretches but which returns again and again, of Jewish loss for which America, grand and precious though it is, cannot compensate.