I wrote this review not as a recommendation whether to read or not read the book. It’s just my way of showing that I care about it somehow. I repudiate that silly superstition wherein thinking about the ingredients in a cake makes the cake less delicious. Quite the opposite: to understand and appreciate a thing is to enjoy it more fully. Also, SPOILER ALERT.
I can say that Swan Lake is a masterpiece without even a touch of irony. It’s the sort of young adult fiction that begs the question whether all that “adult” fiction is even worth having.
The story is a bittersweet tragedy very alike its Grecian alma mater. The plot turns on remarkably mature fulcra for the intended audience- political assassination, accidental pregnancy out of wedlock- and yet the childlike tone never flags nor does the implied grittiness descend into self-indulgence. And no review of Swan Lake would be complete without mentioning that the writing is completely airtight. I witnessed Mark Helprin waste not a single word in all eighty pages.
But this is just the ordinary stuff of writing for young readers, though executed with extraordinary panache; Swan Lake’s richest treasures are found at greater depths.
The central thematic element is the sublime, first introduced at the lake which is the book’s namesake. The protagonist is stunned by the transcendental beauty of what transpires, such that “Then he could not believe his eyes, and though he insisted to himself that he was dreaming, the dream was so beautiful that he believed it more than what was real.”
The transcendental beauty of nature is contrasted heavily with the artificial beauty of man’s greatest triumphs. It is no accident that most of the narrative is encased in the most magnificent palace ever built. But this is not a facile invective to abandon civilization and “return to nature”. Rather, I believe Mark Helprin is arguing that the sublimity of nature is proof for the existence of God.
But let’s slow down for a moment and recall whence the concept of sublimity comes. In the classics, to be sublime was to be awe-inspiring and worthy of veneration. And terrifying. This is perhaps best illustrated in William Blake’s famous poem, The Tyger:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?
To see a tiger in the wild is to feel mortality. Could a more beautiful and terrifying creature be devised?
Sublime literature probably first appeared in the biblical book of Job, a great piece of work in its own right. Assuming you’re familiar with the book, you may have noticed that God never really answers Job’s very important question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Instead, God describes the marvelous complexity of his creation and the beauty and power of the behemoths and leviathans. It’s a very powerful account. At the end, Job is struck dumb except to repent and worship. What a remarkable answer to that age-old question (one that eviscerates the very heart of American Churchianity’s bastard theology).
Helprin’s approach is a bit less controversial, but still very straightforward. When his characters see the beauty of Swan Lake, they also see something just a bit beyond it. Something barely invisible, as if it were just below the water’s surface. The protagonist commits himself to his doom while in thrall to this unbridled, eidetic sublimity, and yet it’s a bittersweet doom. Arguably, it is the most idyllic moment of his life.
At this fantastic moment, we also witness a small miracle. See, “to sublimate” can also mean “to change from a solid to a gas”, which is not unlike when a swan slips the bonds of earth and takes flight.
Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. That sort of inspiration would be…extraordinary.