Bumping Into the Characters

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THE great essayist Roger Rosenblatt once generously reminded me that "good writers have good accidents." Accident is as much a part of fiction as anything else, symbolic of the grace that along with will conspires to put words on the page. The craftless anarchy of the Beat poets on the one hand, and the extreme control of Henry James on the other, suggest that for most human beings, just as both freedom and discipline are necessary in life, serendipity and design must coexist in a work to make it readable. Fortunately, the world is rich in the interweaving of the two, which can be found almost everywhere, and not least where one lives.

I was raised on the Hudson, in a house that had been the stable of the financier and Civil War general Brayton Ives. In midcentury, we had fire pits in the floor for heating, and rats everywhere, because they nested in the hay insulation.

Accidents began to happen early, when behind the massive beams we found a Kentucky rifle and a Whistler etching, both perfectly preserved. As a boy, I habitually took a path past a house where I could hear what I thought was an old man (younger than I am now) playing the piano. He was pretty good. He was also Aaron Copland.

Next to the New York Central tracks was a factory constructed of the same brick and slate as our house. Faded letters across its front read "Brandreth's Pills." What a surprise it was, in 11th grade, to find that Melville, who rode past this spot frequently as he traveled between Albany, the Berkshires and New York, wrote in "Moby-Dick" that to cure dyspepsia in a whale one would need "three or four boat loads of Brandreth's pills."

But it was not as surprising as the ancient in his 90s, as thin as a pipe cleaner and with wispy white hair, who wore a black three-piece suit even in the heat of July. He carried a huge sack to help him in collecting (stealing) insulators and iron spikes from the New York Central Railroad. He ran from everyone, including me, until one day he saw a book in my hand. I had taken "Leaves of Grass," my homework, to read down by the Hudson.

"What's that?" he asked. "Oh, him. The son of a bitch still owes me eight dollars."

It might have been another amount, I've forgotten exactly, but from the nature and detail of his testimony, not to mention his obviously unfeigned resentment, I knew that it was true.

These were lovely accidents, purely serendipitous, much like what may be the origin of the name Holden Caulfield. In 1965, arriving at college, Google-less of course, I went deep underground and spun The New York Times on microfilm as far back as it went. Around the time that Salinger was working on "The Catcher in the Rye," a movie called "Dear Ruth" was released, advertised with great fanfare and much space in the theatrical pages. The first names of the two leads, William and Joan, appeared in tiny letters. Beneath the small print, in gigantic type, reading from left to right as if to smack you in the face, were their last names: HOLDEN CAULFIELD. Serendipity. Nice.

It happens all the time, and where it gets quite interesting is in your own house, because what leaps out at you is so often conjoined with your preferences and your history. Here, the conscious and the subconscious, intent and accident, will and grace, often intersect. In some respects the writer's house is like an artist's model. She is chosen, she is posed, but like all elemental beauties, hers is beyond your design and therefore a continuing source of elevation and surprise.

I wrote a great deal of a novel, "Winter's Tale," on the roof of a Brooklyn Heights tenement on Henry Street. I was a technical climber, and now and then I would put down my manuscript and get up to walk along parapets and climb walls and chimneys. At the top of a chimney that had gone unused for a century, I looked down into the darkness. A sweet and lovely scent arose, the history of a hundred years of pine blazes on half a dozen hearths, still alive, still giving of itself night and day long afterward, even if to nothing but the sky. I thought this was so wonderful I had my protagonist do the same to remember what he had loved, what he had lost and to what he would be forever faithful.

THE house I live in now is also excellent territory for accidents.

One morning, I went downstairs and was astounded as the winter sun, low and rich on the horizon, illuminated the living room. The scene was perfect for where I found myself in "In Sunlight and in Shadow," and I transplanted it: "In the very early morning when the sun was trapped by the stubby buildings across the river in Long Island City, it sent out weak rays to scout the gaps between the tenements, and these rays would leap the river and hit the bottles, their dim light making the room glow in preternatural brown, bringing up the colors so gently that they showed even finer than the blazes of color that would follow."

Just before I was going to embark upon a section about the Battle of the Bulge, I was taking down sweaters and scarves from a high cabinet, when a piece of cloth fell on my head. It was artillery flannel, with blue lines marking it off so the gunners could cut it off its huge rolls into proper-size strips for their ramrods.

When I was a soldier in the winter mountains of the Middle East, despite our battle parkas and wool pants, we were always freezing. A supply truck stopped in front of our fort, and I asked two blue-lipped soldiers in the back if I could have a few pieces of cleaning flannel to use as a scarf. They were cutting it for me when an officer arrived, screamed at them and threatened to bring charges for theft of army property. He got in the truck and slammed the door, and as it drove away a magnificent bastard in the back, at risk to himself, and out of sympathy, understanding and defiance, threw me the whole roll. I shared it with my squad, and it saved us that winter. When the remnant piece fell on me 40 years later, it gave me a way into writing about the citizen soldiers of my father's generation who breached the Siegfried Line in winter and certainly understood how in war a small gesture can illuminate the greater themes, the ever-present loss and the ever-present love.

And then there is my study, constructed according to my specifications and dominated by a great wall of books, which lent itself to the description of Catherine's rooms in "In Sunlight and in Shadow." Giving to her the rooms in which I myself was writing gave me great pleasure. At first I didn't know why, but then I understood.

The day of the physical book as anything but a curious artifact is fast approaching. Out of continuing affection, I built a library to hold the books that I have read and those I have written. Much like the sweet smell from a century-old chimney, they are a wonderful, life-sustaining record with far greater power than their mere physical presence. But soon enough these books and what surrounds them will be scattered to the winds.

Houses, rooms, our designs of all sorts and all material things will eventually vanish. Because they cannot last, their value is in the present, in memories that die with us, in things that come unbidden to the eye and in the electric, immaterial, miraculous spark that occurs when by accident and design they jump the gap and, like life itself, are propagated into something else, becoming for a moment pure spirit, thus to become everlasting.

Mark Helprin is the author of, among other works, "Winter's Tale," "A Soldier of the Great War" and "In Sunlight and in Shadow," just published.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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