Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 9 – “The Hospital in Printing House Square”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 9 – “The Hospital in Printing House Square”)

We’re getting close to the end of part 1; after this chapter, there’s only one more before we jump ahead eighty years.

In past readings, I haven’t known what to make of this chapter.  I didn’t really understand everything Helprin was trying to do here, but I think I’ve figured it out this time (or at least, I have AN interpretation of it, anyway!).

We open with a description of the ongoing winter as a war:

People struggled until exhaustion, giving everything they had, and the days were packed with trials and mysteries.

We see one of those mysteries on an afternoon sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, after the Penns and Peter Lake have returned to Manhattan.  The Mayor, his wife and several “favored flunkies” pay a visit to the Penn mansion.  One of the flunkies is the police commissioner, with whom Peter has something of a history.  It seems that during his career with the Short Tails, he carried on a correspondence of sorts with the commissioner, signing all his letters “Grand Central Pete, bunco and confidence,” which was how the police knew him at the time.

The commissioner doesn’t quite recognize Peter, but he’s suspicious, and so Peter heads up to the roof to consult with Beverly on strategy.  she suggests distracting him – and the entire visiting party – by showing them ” the painting.”

What painting?”

“There’s a painting in the basement.  You don’t know about it.”

Indeed not.

Isaac Penn soon leads everyone down a spiral staircase

deeper into the rock than some of the ladies cared to go

Even the Mayor is uneasy about the depths to which they are descending.  His feeble protest, that all this really isn’t necessary just for him, is answered by Isaac:

“In this infinite universe, whole worlds have been created for the instruction and elevation of a few simple souls.  Believe me, it’s no trouble for me to show you this painting

I wonder whether they’re not really in the basement of the Penn house when they finally reach the bottom of the stairs and hear – yes, hear – the painting.  I think it’s possible that they’ve crossed over into another world, or another time.

The room they find themselves in is huge, and the painting is described as at least 60 feet in length and 30 in height.  It also moves, and the sound it makes is clear to Peter – it’s the same sound as the cloud wall.  I wondered on previous readings if the painting was really a movie, projected on a screen, but I don’t think so.  I think it’s literally a painting, if one that is unlike any other artwork in existence at that time.

It’s a painting showing New York, but not the New York of 1915.  It’s a city of the future, with billions of moving lights, a painting in which the view changes from a high, almost Godlike perspective to the surface where individual people in the painting can be seen in detail.  Isaac is asked what sort of technique produced it, and what colors make up its palette:

“A new technique.  New colors.”

Isaac is asked who the artist is, and he gives only the initials: “MC” and says that no one will ever guess, or know, who it is.  I never had any idea, either, except for one guess: that it’s a reference to Jesus.  MC = “Master Carpenter.”  But that’s going very far outside the text, and while there’s no question that Helprin is dealing in Messianic imagery and references, it’s the Jewish Messiah who’s yet to come, not Jesus that he’s interested in, in this book.

Upon rereading this chapter yesterday, though, I realized who Helprin may be referring to.  There is a character with the initials MC in this book, and he is an artist, and he does work for the New York Sun.  We’ll be meeting Marko Chestnut in part 2 – but the book will have skipped ahead to the 1990s when we do.

If the past and the future are connected, though, then it stands to reason that the connection can go the other way.  And elsewhere, we’ll see the view expressed that from a far enough distance, there is no past, present or future – all are one, all events have happened, are happening and will happen together.

Perhaps the basement really is in another world – another time.  Or perhaps it, like the painting it contains, is far enough removed from the rest of the world that all times and all events truly can be seen as one thing here.  Or I could be completely wrong.  But that’s my interpretation of this scene, which has baffled me on all my previous readings of the book.

We move on from the mysterious painting, and to another mystery.  Peter decides to go in search of the child he saw two decades ago, the night he returned to the home of the spielers.  He remembers the way, but en route, he sees a familiar face: his old friend from Reverend Overweary’s home and later the Short Tails, Cecil Mature.  Or, as he prefers to be called now, Mr. Cecil Wooley.

Peter is understandably surprised to see Cecil; the last time they were together was during the Short Tails’ ill-fated attack on the Baymen, after which Cecil ran headlong into the cloud wall and vanished.  Peter assumed his friend was dead, but clearly that’s not the case.   And Cecil has more surprises for Peter: he’s working for bridge-builder Jackson Mead, as Chief Structural Engineer – and above him, as overall Engineer in Chief is the Reverend Mootfowl.

Before he can reveal any more, Cecil spots his new employer, Mr. Mead, and dashes off to follow him.  They’re headed to Mead’s ship, where they will then sail to South America to build fourteen new bridges.  Peter follows atop Athansor, but when he gets to the wharf, the ship is already steaming out:

He had expected as much, and he was beginning to sense a pattern in such things.  According to Cecil, Mootfowl was once again alive.  Peter Lake wondered what would be the fate of the many others who lived amid the city’s complicated machinery and hearthlike engines.

If there is no past, present or future, but one vast now (if only one has the perspective to see it), then what does death even mean?  I think that’s key to the whole book.

Peter realizes where he is, near to the place the spielers called home all those years ago.  But the old tenement in which they resided is gone, replaced by a massive industrial building.  He finds his way inside, and sees a vast room, so large that he can’t even see its limits.  The description of the cranes, controlled from “houselike lighted boxes” makes this space seem even larger inside than it looked from outside (I very much doubt that Helprin is a “Doctor Who” fan, or was one when this book was written in the early 1980’s, but the idea that the inside of this facility is in another world or dimension from the outside surroundings fits right in with the rest of the book all the same).  Peter can hear the same white noise that he associates with the cloud wall, which by this point is no surprise at all.

He finally encounters a workman, who informs him that this building is a “relay station”

“For what?”

“For the power that comes in here.”

“From where?”

“I don’t know.  It’s just a relay station.”

I think the power is not coming from any conventional, Earthly source.  This place may be a spot that connects worlds or times (or both).

The workman does remember what used to be here, and when Peter questions him about the child he’s searching for, he’s directed to the nearest hospital, the one in Printing House Square (which as we’ll learn later, and not at all coincidentally, is the home of the New York Sun).

Peter goes, and eventually finds a doctor toiling away in the morgue.  This leads to a digression where Helprin expounds on his personal politics.  Although i happen to agree with him, it’s a  somewhat clumsy monologue and it very much sticks out (there are other places where, although it’s clear that Helprin is making his own views known, it’s handled with more subtlety).

The lecture ends with the doctor declaring that there’s no possible hope of finding the child.  The odds would be poor if it had been twenty hours; nearly impossible if it had been twenty days.  But twenty years?

“you might as well go to a wheat field in Kansas and try to trace an individual grain that fell off the stalk two decades before you got there.”

In any case, it wouldn’t matter according to the doctor (who has, obviously, not been granted the vision vouchasfed to Beverly, Athansor, Pearly and others) because

“The city is burning and under siege.  And we are in a war in which everyone is killed and no one is remembered.”

What, Peter Lake asks, should he do, if that is true?  The doctor asks in return, if there is anyone he loves.  WE all know the answer to that:

“Then go home to her.”

“And who will remember her?”

“No one.  That’s just the point.  You must take care of all that now.”

We already know this is wrong; Beverly will be remembered, and, really, no one will be forgotten in the end.  But he is right that Peter Lake has a lot to take care of, as we’ll see in the next chapter.

So that’s my interpretation of this short – but hugely important – chapter.  I’m curious what other readers think of it. Am I completely off the mark?  There’s a lot here, and many ways to interpret it…

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3 Replies to “Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 9 – “The Hospital in Printing House Square”)”

  1. I was surprised Peter Lake was so anxious to find out about the mishapen child that he’d only seen for a brief sentence or two previously.

    1. I never understood that, either, on past readings. But I think it connects up with Beverly, and with what will happen near the end of the book as well (and his parents – obviously he couldn’t save them from consumption, nor the child in the tenement, nor Beverly. But if everything happens for a reason, as Helprin is arguing, then those are all leading up to someone he CAN save)

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