Author Interview // Mark HelprinThe Perennial Outsider Rejects Jewish Male Stereotypes
Much like the swashbuckling heroes of his popular novels, author Mark Helprin has led a life of great adventure. As a young man, Helprin served in the Israeli army, the Israeli air force and the British merchant navy, and he’s earned his living as an agricultural laborer, a factory worker, a military adviser, a Wall Street Journal columnist, a political speechwriter and much more. He has climbed mountains and taken long journeys by horseback. And between all that, he’s somehow found time to write seven bestselling novels, including A Soldier of the Great War (1991) and Winter’s Tale (1983), which is considered to be his masterpiece. In his New York Times review of it, literary critic Benjamin DeMott wrote, “I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.” In 2006, when The New York Times Book Review asked several hundred prominent writers, critics and editors to identify “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years,” Winter’s Tale was among the small number of novels to receive multiple votes.
At age 70, Helprin remains fiercely—and famously—antiquarian. He still writes the first draft of his novels out by hand, doesn’t have voicemail on his home phone, rails against social media, farms his own land and has never had a cup of coffee. He avoids modern literature and cites Dante, Shakespeare, Melville and Twain as his great loves and influences. Moment recently spoke with Helprin about his new novel Paris in the Present Tense, being politically conservative in the Jewish community and anti-Semitism in America.
Popular culture often portrays Jewish men as angst-ridden and neurotic, but Jules Lacour, the hero of your new novel, is strong, adventurous and romantic. Were you deliberately trying to challenge that common image of Jewish men?
It’s not like I decided to be the anti-Woody Allen, but the self-hating Jewish man has not been my experience. I model on people I know, myself included, and most of them don’t fit that mold. My father, when he was 36 years old, volunteered for World War II. He worked for “Wild Bill” Donovan, who founded the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA. In the 1920s, he was like bloody Lawrence of Arabia traveling throughout North Africa and Central Asia. The World War II vet Harry, in my novel In Sunlight and In Shadow, is based on my father. I myself have always been very attached to military and police formations. I was in the Israeli army and the air force and served in the British merchant navy as a policeman for eight years. The men in the Israeli army were nothing like Woody Allen, and my Jewish friends are not like that. They would not marry their own stepdaughter either.
Why do you think that’s such a prevalent image of Jewish men?
I think the “nebbish image” dominates the view of Jewish men because negatives tend to prevail in a stereotype. It’s true that there are some Jewish men like that, but the image of Jews as cowards who can’t fight is contrary to reality. For instance, historically in Russia, where so many Jews came from—including my ancestors—male Jews were taken from their families at age five into the Russian army. Large numbers of Jews were professional soldiers. In general, when people want to feel superior to another group, in this case the Jews, they latch on to the most unflattering image of that group. And while there are certainly enough anti-Semites around to keep whipping this up, unfortunately a lot of Jews also buy into the idea of Jews as nebbishes. There are legions of Jews in Hollywood who are just the opposite—Kirk Douglas, James Caan, Douglas Fairbanks and Paul Newman, to name a few. Yet who is seen as most representative? Woody Allen.
Your novels have received a great deal of praise and attention from the mainstream press, but despite many of them having a Jewish focus, they’ve gotten relatively little attention in the Jewish press and in the Jewish community. Why do you think that is?
I am Jewish and I often write about Jewish subjects, but I am somehow not considered a Jewish writer. Philip Roth is taken as the paradigm of a Jewish writer. A significant reason for this is that Philip Roth has an extremely conflictual relationship with Judaism. My work doesn’t exhibit any of that. Somehow the essence of Judaism is to struggle with God, to be questioning and to argue—that is what Jewish writers are supposed to do. I don’t do that in the same way as Roth and others. I don’t feel that the whole structure of Judaism has betrayed me or that Judaism is something I need to be ashamed of or that I need help dealing with. I am happy to be Jewish. I am comfortable with Judaism and my relationship with it is largely peaceful. I’m like an adolescent who loves his parents and who doesn’t fight with them all the time. In the literary world, that doesn’t seem very Jewish.
Are there any contemporary American Jewish writers you’re interested in?
No, but I have to plead ignorance because I don’t know much about them. Most fiction writers read a lot of fiction; I don’t. I don’t want my voice to be influenced by contemporary writers, but rather by the large subconscious store I have of the great literary works. Also, I have had a second career as a political and military analyst. I have to keep up with all those materials. I read very slowly and carefully, so that doesn’t leave a lot of time for reading other things.
Most of your novels, including your latest, Paris in the Present Tense, are in some way about World War II. Why are you so fascinated with a war that ended before you were born?
The first half of the 1950s was a time capsule: That was the world of my childhood. When the war ended, everything was frozen in time as manufacturing shifted from war to civilian production. Cars, radios, household items, fashion and public transport remained exactly as they had been during the war. And the war loomed very large for decades after it ended. Similarly, September 11 was more than 16 years ago, but it seems like yesterday. When people came back from World War II, they were so affected by their experiences that it was almost as if it was still going on and, of course, a lot of people didn’t come back. The war was everything to everyone because it had been so cataclysmic and catastrophic. My parents talked about it incessantly, and everyone I knew was either in the war or had lost someone during the war. Later, when we moved to France, I remember seeing shattered buildings with bullet holes in the walls and American soldiers were all over the place. There were other soldiers, still in their World War II uniforms, and tanks. That made a huge impression on me.
How did you come to serve in the Israeli military? What was that like?
I went to Israel for the first time in June of 1967. I was hitchhiking on a coastal road down to Tel Aviv, and an air force truck stopped and gave me a ride. I was in the truck, and they said, “Why don’t you come with us? We’re going to Sinai and you can help.” It was a very different Israel in 1967 than now. It was really still the Israel of the pioneers. And I said “okay,” and soon found myself in a grey Israeli air force uniform, even though I was not technically in the air force. A lot of Americans did that kind of thing. In 1972 I went to Israel and became an oleh chadash (new immigrant). I served first in the infantry and then was attached to the air force, but in a ground fighting unit. I served mainly in the West Bank. I was in an experimental unit with a lot of criminals in it. It was very difficult, even though I had trained for that kind of thing all my life. I was already an expert with a submachine gun and in fantastic physical shape, but it was taxing and trying and dangerous.
How did you balance your loyalty to America with serving in the Israeli military?
The issue of dual loyalty is very complicated. There was a Supreme Court decision in 1967—Afroyim v. Rusk—in which the Court ruled that you could serve in a foreign army as long as you didn’t make war against the United States. Personally, my first loyalty is to the United States. When I enlisted in the Israeli army I made that very clear to myself; otherwise you float between two countries. Before I served in the Israeli military, I went to the American Embassy and took an oath in front of the American flag to support the Constitution of the United States. I have enormous affection for Israel and I would never harm it. But the United States is the country of my birth; it has my undivided loyalty.
You were a lefty in your youth and opposed the Vietnam War. How did you become politically conservative?
I was a Democrat, but the party began to veer off tremendously to the left. If you were a Democrat in 1964 and 1965, it’s pretty much like being a Republican now. The Black Panthers first turned me off on the party. They were funded by the Arabs and were very anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. And while I was against the Vietnam War, there were people in the anti-war demonstrations who actually hated America and wanted to destroy it. I don’t think the United States should have been in Vietnam and I dodged the draft. I’m now very sorry about that. There are people who went in my place and may have been killed in my place. That’s wrong and I should have taken my responsibility. That’s another reason I went to Israel and volunteered for the military. Ultimately, I and others like Norman Podhoretz became neoconservatives, a term which in many circles is a dirty word for “Jew.” My politics didn’t change. As Ronald Reagan said, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.”
The majority of the American Jewish community remains politically liberal. What’s it like being in the conservative minority?
Because I can put a sentence together, most Jews I know assume that I share their politics. I don’t. That can be terrible at family gatherings and socially, in the community. It’s very awkward and difficult. People just scream at me. I don’t ever scream back. There are actually quite a number of politically conservative Jews and many more who are crypto-conservatives. They have to hide their politics. When you discuss politics, it’s important not to get into an adversarial relationship but rather to talk about them as though you were in a graduate school seminar. Too often people just want to conquer the other side or make rhetorical points.
You were Bob Dole’s speechwriter. How has the Republican Party changed between Bob Dole and Donald Trump?
It’s like going from the Earth to Mars. Donald Trump has a disordered mind and simply grabs anything that floats by.
Should American Jews have special concerns about Donald Trump?
No, Donald Trump is not an anti-Semite and Steve Bannon is not an anti-Semite. The alt-right is of concern, but Donald Trump is not run by the alt-right. Trump is run by no one besides Trump. You never know what you’re going to get from Trump, but you won’t get anti-Semitism from him. Period. In fact, I think that Jews who voted for and still support Barack Obama and are now worried that Trump is an anti-Semite are out of their minds. Obama ensured the Iranian progression towards possessing nuclear arms, he appointed people who are vicious anti-Semites, and in his Cairo speech he sided with radical Arabs against Israel. Trump conversely has an Orthodox Jewish son-in-law and daughter and is very pro-Israel.
You’ve written that, given the Holocaust, American Jews should not be upset by their lives in the United States. What did you mean by that?
I meant that when anything bothers us as American Jews, we should put it in perspective. So many American Jews are discontented, but whatever we may be upset about, think about Jews in the Holocaust. I do that all the time. It helps me keep in mind what really matters and what’s important.
Given recent events, should American Jews be more concerned about anti-Semitism now than in the past?
No. I live in Charlottesville. It was scary, shocking and freakish, but you have to keep in mind that this was a one-off. Anti-Semitism in America is like a sine wave. It goes up and down; it subsides for a while and then it goes up again. The running average is pretty much the same. There was anti-Semitism when I was at Harvard in the mid-1960s. It’s now 2017 and we still haven’t seen any Holocausts or big Nazi movements in America. So I don’t think anyone needs to worry.
What’s the value in farming your own land?
I like to do the kind of work many other people hire someone to do for them. As long as I’m able, I feel that I should repair the many miles of fences on the farm myself and take care of the trees and repair the machinery. It’s part of being well-rounded. I never want to forget what it’s like to work physically the way I did when I was younger and couldn’t make a living as a writer. I was an agricultural worker, a dishwasher, a surveyor and a security guard—you name it. That kind of work keeps you connected to real life and real people, instead of being an isolated intellectual who is scared to get his hands dirty. I always have tremendous calluses on my hands.