Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 4 – “A New Life”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 4 – “A New Life”)

We open a new chapter by meeting yet another new character.  We’re on a sailboat somewhere off the Atlantic coast, manned by brothers Asbury and Holman Gunwillow.  They encounter a fierce gale which damages the boat, sends Holman overboard and knocks Asbury unconscious.  When he awakens, he realizes that he’s been out for at least a full day – possibly longer.  His brother is long gone, far beyond any possibility of rescue – the boat must have been carried hundreds of miles during Asbury’s sleep.

Instinct tells Asbury to head for land, to head north-northwest.  It will come as no surprise to know that he’s headed directly for New York city.

We flash back to Asbury’s memory of a long-ago talk with his grandfather.  His grandfather claims to be at least 175 years old, as he remembers what he was doing prior to the onset of the Civil War.  He realizes this is obviously impossible:

“No one lives to be that old.  And besides, I’m not clear on how the time went.  But I remember, for example, where we lived during the war.”

He lived in Manhattan, naturally.  Perhaps he passed through the cloud wall at some point, and was deposited into the future?  He might well have lived before the Civil War as he recalls, before skipping years – or decades – to simply continue on after the clouds jumped him forward in time.  I actually think that’s fairly likely, given everything we’ve seen so far (and knowing what’s yet to come).  It’s especially likely considering what he tells young Asbury about the city, and why Asbury needs to go there someday.

“Catch it before it gets too late – the engines.”

“What engines?”

“All of ’em.  They’re all set up to play one sound.  They’re tuning, I think.  It isn’t right yet, but it’s music.  One will lead.  The others will follow – and that’ll be the day.”

We’ve heard similar things, from Peter Lake, and Mootfowl as well.  Is Asbury’s grandfather gifted with this vision due to his age, or was it imparted to him by – or within – the cloud wall as it moved him in time?  Whatever the reason, he makes Asbury swear to go to New York, and then we return to the present, where Asbury hears the thundering sound of a city, and knows without doubt what city it is.

We then switch perspectives and rejoin Hardesty Marratta.  It’s been several months since we last left he and Virginia, and they’ve engaged in a long, slow, courtly courtship.  Hardesty takes a job at the Sun, and finds a comfortable partnership – and rivalry – with Praeger de Pinto.

Briefly, Helprin throws in an aside that I take to be a moment of bragging, which I can’t brgrudge him:

Whenever (Hardesry) passed St. Vincent’s Hospital, he felt as if he were inside a great Russian novel.

I think Helprin can be forgiven for implying that he’s writing something that’s the equal of the best of the renowned Russian literature (there are some similarities in tone and scope with “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov which would well be worth an extended read and discussion like this one…).

Back to the narrative, Hardesty, despite his job, and his love for Virginia, decides he has to leave, to fulfill his obligation to his father and seek out the perfectly just city.  Virginia, unsurprisingly, does not take it well:

She cried fiercely, and then she attacked him.  She tried to pull his hair, and landed a punch or two.  “Get out!” she screamed in rage.  When he did get out, she slammed the door and bolted it, and he heard sobbing that broke his heart.

His friend, Sun artist Marko Chestnut, does his best to keep Hardesty from leaving on the ship he’d booked passage on, but Hardesty, undeterred, jumps into the Hudson River and swims after it.  The ship stops to retrieve him from the fouled waters of the river, and he’s given one of the Captain’s own robes and invited to dine at his table that night, occasioning one of my favorite lines in the whole book:

It is difficult, he reasoned, to refuse an invitation from someone in whose bathrobe one is.

But he does not, ultimately, have that dinner.  The ship encounters what looks like a fogbank – except that it stretches from the base of the sea to the sky, and it goes on for at least thirty miles in each direction.  Hardesty recognizes it as the cloud wall from Virginia’s handed-down descriptions of it, and he knows that if he remains aboard ship, he will never return to Virginia – at least not in this era.  So he decides to jump ship.  He makes it off the boat just as it’s swallowed up by the wall, and the clouds do touch him:

As it touched Hardesty’s heel, he felt rapturous pleasure spreading through his entire body, not the kind of sensuality which robs and burns the soul, but something elevated and ecstatic that he knew might take him very far.  Still, everything in him told him that the city was better.

This is really interesting.  He’s able to resist the cloud wall, just as Peter Lake could, on occasion, reason with it.  And it’s also notable that he is firmly set in the real, material world, despite having the ability to experience and understand worlds beyond.  We’ll see more about this later in the book.

Hardesty sinks under the water, and when he resurfaces, the cloud wall, and the ship, are gone.  But soon enough, a sailboat encounters him – Asbury’s boat, picking up his story from earlier int he chapter.  They converse about many topics on their journey to New York:

“Apart from natural laws, from the world as we know it,” Hardesty speculated, “maybe there are laws of organization which bind us to patterns that we can’t see and to tasks that we don’t perceive.”

Sound familiar?

Asbury agrees, and in return, Hardesty offers him his apartment, since once they arrive in the city, he won’t need it anymore – assuming Virginia would take him back, of course.  Asbury doesn’t argue:

Asbury accepted, thinking that, the way things were going, to look at the place before he took it would be foolish.”

For his part, Hardesty heads straight for Virginia’s apartment, watches her in the window as she reads to young Martin, and remembers her words of warning to him:

“If your faith is genuine, then you meet your responsibilities, fulfill your obligations, and wait until you are found.  It will come.  If not to you, then to your children, and if not to them, then to their children.

Virginia hears Hardesty outside, knows it’s him, and the chapter ends with the reunion of the lovers.

So a lot of callbacks to part 1 of the book here, and further setup for what’s to come on part 3 and 4.  We’re almost done with this short second part of the book; we have only one more character to meet, and in our next post, we shall be introduced to Christiana Friebourg…

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3 Replies to “Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 4 – “A New Life”)”

  1. Were you surprised by the violence of Virginia’s reaction? Maybe I’ve missed something in how she’s been portrayed so far or maybe this will be borne out subsequently, but I wasn’t her expecting her to hit him as part and parcel of a deep disappointment particularly because it was addressing a family thing.

    Even though this section of the book has introduced a large number of new characters, they seem to get integrated into one aspect or another of the plot fairly quickly so the reader becomes acquainted with them rather quickly imo.

    I’m not sure if it was an over the top conceit to mention a Russian novel. Although I enjoyed The Master and Margarita a great deal, any discussion of Russian novels makes me instantly think of Tolstoy and his magisterial portrayal of things. The current book certainly has a massive scope in what it’s addressing but I think it suffers slightly in comparison, which is still fairly high praise imo.

    1. I wasn’t really that surprised by Virginia’s somewhat over the top reaction. Her tirade against Mr. Fteley when he doubted her ability to climb up the ice wall a couple of chapters ago speaks to her temper, and we’ll see another example of her letting her emotions get the better of her in the next chapter I’ll be posting.

      I have to read Tolstoy – the only Russian literature I’ve read, besides The Master and Margarita, is Eugene Onegin (and a couple of Pushkin’s short stories).

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