Sunday, July 24, 2005

Mark Helprin

I saw Mark Helprin at a book signing at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Cherry Creek last Thursday. I've read two of his books, Winter's Tale and A Soldier of the Great War. A few of his books are considered literary masterpieces. I felt like I was sitting in the same room with Charles Dickens or Herman Melville; it was truly awesome.

He filled the evening by telling roughly twenty or so stories. He could have gone another hour and nobody in the audience would have flinched. His stories generally involved language in some way (which isn't surprising if you've read his stories and understand how incredible his mastery of language is). He said he speaks seven different languages and spoke at least four to us. He alluded to The Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, Don Quixote, and other stories like he had memorized them. He joked around a lot. It was kind of like I imagine being in a room with George Burns - I'd be nervous to be alone with him because he's so sharp it's almost scary.

He grew up on 1,000 acres of forest next to the Hudson River in New York; in his words, "1,000 acres of birds." His father worked directly for Samuel Goldwyn in the film business. Mr. Helprin said his parents didn't drive him to play groups or really socialize him so he grew up walking around the forest thinking. He said that being around other people made him really uncomfortable, so he would tell stories as a sort of mask.

When he was 17 years old, he went to France with a female classmate. He was going to meet her in a city and decided to try and impress her by arriving on a motorcycle "James Dean" style. So even though he'd never ridden a motorcycle before, he rented one and drove to the city. Just before he got there, he flipped the bike going about 40 miles per hour and it landed on him critically injuring him. He had internal injuries and a head injury that almost killed him. He was attended to on a U.S. Navy ship on its way to Barcelona. In Barcelona, he ended up in a seedy hotel, bandaged up with little medication. He said he thought he was going to die there.

One night around three in the morning, he instantly awoke and all of his pain was gone. Not only that, but he had realized that his head pain was gone and that he'd been dealing with it literally his whole life. There was a nightstand next to his bed with a pen and pad of paper. He wrote down a description of an ancient cathedral that was converted from a Muslim mosque into a Roman-Catholic church. He said he woke in the morning, read what he had written, and couldn't believe the writing that he'd done; that it was something his professors or professional writers would write and not something that could be conjured up by a 17 year old boy. He said from that day on he was a writer. He said, "blame it all on a brain injury!" Incredible.

Mr. Helprin is truly a Great man. His views on our world are interesting to say the least. Though I find his opinions hard to swallow, I seek them out as diverse information points. Check out the following links if you're interested: WSJ opinion and the National Review.

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