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The Book Trade

September 04, 1988|ELIZABETH MEHREN

NEW YORK — Here are the opening lines of what may be the highest-priced children's book in history:

"Once, the mountains held within the silvered walls a forest so high and so gracefully forgotten that it rode above the troubles of the world as easily as the blinding white clouds that sometimes catch on jagged peaks and musically unfurl. Cold lakes scattered in the greenery ran so deep that soundings were of no avail, and the meadows along the tree line, suspended in the light, were as smooth and green as slabs of jade.

"Here birds sought refuge from hunters on the plain, and found higher realms in tranquility and perfection. And though empires and kingdoms below might nervously claim it, the forest was in its own way inviolable--a kingdom of hearth smoke in unwavering columns against a perfectly blue sky, of mountains clad in wind-buffed ice, of the thinnest air, of rivers running white and bursting with oxygen."

Little wonder that when New York book packager Armand Eisen, president and publisher of Ariel Books, read these first passages of Mark Helprin's "Swan Lake," he realized he had more than a simple country children's tale on his hands.

"It is an ingenious story, a glorious story," Eisen said, "and I think the advance reflects the fact that this is such a special piece of writing."

The advance--$801,000, from Houghton Mifflin--thrusts Helprin and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg into the stratosphere of children's literature. If a book for children has commanded more money, no one in publishing was quick to remember it.

Helprin, on the other hand, was almost blase in his reaction. "Of course" he was surprised by the amount, Helprin said. "It's probably also the greatest amount ever paid for a short story."

But by way of perspective, Helprin recalled that in 1956, his father, Morris, a screenwriter and producer, sold "a movie that he made, 'Richard III,' with Laurence Olivier, for a million dollars for a single showing on a Sunday afternoon." The figure was "a big deal then," the younger Helprin said, "but what's a million dollars today? Nobody even bats an eyelash."

Once a member of the Israeli Army and Air Force, Helprin had originally contracted with Alfred A. Knopf to write an updated version of "Swan Lake," the Tchaikovsky ballet. The story was to be issued as a Knopf classic.

But in researching the story, Helprin discovered that "Swan Lake" was not, as had been assumed, an obscure Russian, Central European or even Norse folk tale interpreted by Tchaikovsky. "Swan Lake" turned out to be an original story by the composer himself. The backbone of the ballet, Eisen said, became the bare bones of a bigger tale, "a story," Eisen said, "that took Tchaikovsky as a starting point and became uniquely Mark's."

The minute Eisen read the story, "I knew it was something extraordinary," he said.

He laughed when asked what made it so special: "That's like asking why Rembrandt is a great painter."

Eisen said Knopf graciously agreed to release the Helprin manuscript. When Helprin suggested engaging Caldecott Award-winner Van Allsburg, a sculptor and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, as illustrator, Eisen warned him that Van Allsburg had his own books, was reclusive and might be less than enthusiastic about a collaboration.

As it turned out, the two were something of a silent mutual admiration society. Van Allsburg had read Helprin's short stories in the New Yorker. Helprin recognized Van Allsburg as one of the leading contemporary illustrators. They shared a serious commitment to their work and a posture of whimsical irony toward life in general.

Eisen opted for an auction involving just two publishers, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and Houghton Mifflin, the publishers of Helprin and Van Allsburg. The winner, Houghton, will publish the book, to be listed in adult and children's catalogues, in the fall of 1989.

"I wasn't greatly surprised," Eisen said of the lucrative remuneration, "because we had run sales projections of our own. When one calculates sales based on Mark Helprin's following combined with Chris Van Allsburg's following, it makes sense."

Houghton has promised a first-run printing of the 96-page story of between 150,000 and 300,000 copies.

No one has ever accused Donald Trump of subtlety. Still, the full-page advertisement for "Trump: The Art of the Deal" was dazzling even by the standards of a man who snaps up the Plaza Hotel one week, the most luxurious yacht in the world another. No one would dispute the show-stopping tendencies of an author-entrepreneur whose book sells out in New Orleans during the Republican National Convention while books by George Bush, New Jersey Gov. Thomas Keane (and, not surprisingly, Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis) limped by with embarrassingly meager sales.

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