The Schreuderspitze by Mark Helprin, 1977
The magic trick:
Blending dream and reality to the point where the reader can’t differentiate between the two
Call it a copout if you must. But at least grant that Helprin makes this story’s ending a brilliantly conceived copout of tremendous art and craft. The entire story is pointed toward Wallich’s climb of the Schreuderspitze, and by the end, the reader can’t be entirely sure if Wallich did in fact reach the summit or not.
The funny thing is Helprin explains exactly what he is doing before he does it. Setting up the conclusion, he writes of Wallich’s dreams: “Sometimes dreams could be so real that they competed with the world, riding at even balance and calling for a decision. Sometimes, he imagined, when they are so real and so important, they easily tip the scale and the world buckles and dreams become real. Crossing the fragile barricades, one enters his dreams, thinking of his life as imagined.”
Halprin then describes the scenes of Wallich ascending and descending the mountain in self-consciously hazy terms. The details of his trip are specific and realistic but also washed in moments of mysticism and hyper-sensation, where roads of stars lead “into infinity.” Helrpin is also very careful to describe Wallich’s sleeping and waking patterns with enough vagueness to allow the reader to tip the scale in either direction – dream or real.
Personally, I believe Wallich only scaled the mountain in his dreams. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter. By the end of his stay in the Alps, Wallich has suffered the punishment he sought, and endured the necessary life cleanse. The blurring of lines between reality and dream make the mountain climbing moot and put the story’s focus on Wallich’s emotional journey. And that’s quite a trick on Helprin’s part.
There was Munich, shining and pulsing like a living thing, strung with lines of amber light – light which reverberated as if in crystals, light which played in many dimensions and moved about the course of the city, which was defined by darkness at its edge. He had come above time, above the world. The city of Munich existed before him with all its time compressed. As he watched, its history played out in repeating cycles.