Book Review: "A Soldier of the Great War" by Mark Helprin

Mark Helprin's 860-page epic novel "A Soldier of the Great War" is a couple years away from being twenty years old. But having just read it, I'll offer what could end up being the last review written about it.

The novel begins (and ends) in 1964, with white-haired Professor of Aesthetics Alessandro Giuliani having a chance meeting with a young man chasing a train in Rome. As they walk together, Alessandro (almost always referred to by his first name in the book) tells the boy his life story...a truly remarkable life story.

What makes Helprin such an outstanding author is not just his well-conceived story lines but also, or maybe even mostly, his stunning turns of phrase, his weaving of a philosophy, whether about the meaning of life, the importance of religion, the role of beauty, into the tale with words that make you feel more like you're looking at a great painting than reading a book.

We learn of Alessandro's life from his time as a boy in Rome, his father a moderately successful attorney, through his service in World War I (which takes up most of the novel), and to the time of the conversation in which he's recounting his remarkable history.

Beside Alessandro, the book contains some remarkable characters:

  • A hunchbacked near-dwarf who goes from being a scribe for Alessandro's father to (after being put of out business by the invention of the infernal typewriter) having enormous impact on Italy's war effort -- in a hilarious, dangerous, and truly insane way.
  • A half dozen soldiers, each with his own quirks and personality, one of whom is willing to cut off his own leg in an attempt to be able to return to his family after serving on the front lines for a couple of years.  (In typical Halperin style, all does not work out well for the soldier despite his extreme sacrifice.)
  • A series of women Alessandro meets, including the love of his life, about whom I can't say more without ruining the story for you.

The war story itself is remarkable, brilliant, and brutal with moments of hilarity arriving at most unexpected times.

From a scene in which Alessandro's unit is sent to Sicily to arrest (or kill) deserters:

He went ahead to find the path that, before the war, tourists and naturalists had worn into the rim of the crater. No one walking over the mountain could avoid it.  Though Alessandro climed straight for the rim, it took him longer than he expected to get there.  Lakes of fire in the crater far below turned over and boiled and were covered in hideous red scales and flakes as if they were the dried skin of a mythical animal.  Now and then a line of fire would leap into the air and fall back, leaving an impression temporarily upon the molten lake from which it had sprung. The air that flowed past the rim was sulfurous and unbreathable, and the malevolent lakes had been working through the night for many thousands of years, scouts in a war so great and so deep within the earth that the surface was held in contempt.

From a scene in which Alessandro is looking at a painting by Raphael:

Unlike the new paintings, with their disheveled and hallucinatory colors, each and every one of Raphael's brush strokes, all of his shining planes, the rendering of air in light -- whether bright or subdued, whether of morning sky or evening star -- was disciplined with an iron hand.  Here were no strategems or conceits, nothing centrifugal, nothing wild, nothing without the rich harmony that seemed to be the world itself as seen in heavenly recollection. The one weight that aligned all the elements, and reconciled every contradiction and variation, was the burden of mortality.

From a scene in which Alessandro has been sent to a marble quarry and is working on a snowy night:

Blinded by patterns of light and sound that grew ever more confusing and intense, the soldiers worked themselves up to  a feverish pitch to match the pace of falling snow and racking pistons, and, caught in a thousand rhythms, Alessandro seemed to float.  Dozens of slabs rode the aerial trams, flashing in and out of the smoke, light, and snow, crossing and intersecting as hammers and saws rang out against the rock. The music of his own heart and breathing, the deverishes of snow that sometimes blinded and sometimes entertained, the mournful steam whistles, the clatter of engines moving across rickety tracks...the weave here was as tight as it could be, tight enough to elevate the bodiless spirits that labored in it until they floated like swimmers.  It had a life of its own, but that life was suddenly shattered when lightning struck amid the snow, homing for the iron that had been laboriously driven into high points.  For half an hour hundreds of speechless soldiers were shelled by thunder and light that illuminated every snowflake and blinded them as it scourged the marble cliffs with brightness.  The thunder rattled the heavy engines and the lightning made the fires beneath them seem dark and cool.

And from a conversation with a supervisor when Alessandro is forced to work in an Austrian palace:

"I have the impression," Klodwig stated, "that the King of Italy may be rather ordinary, or even deprived. He doesn't have these things, does he."
"No," Alessandro said, "but he has a special rubber throne with electric balls and hats that can resurrect dead ostriches."
"Electric balls?", Klodwig asked, inching closer.
"Hoheit, do you know why crows are black?"
"No, I never thought of it."
"They taste lousy, and they're black as a sure sign to predators that they're crows, who will taste lousy."
"Why aren't they yellow?"
"They live in cold climates, and black absorbs heat. They don't need camouflage, so they can take advantage of the way their color soaks up the sunlight."
"Why do you ask me these questions?" Klodwig demanded.
"To remind you, Hoheit, not to argue with nature."

Intertwined among the war story, the love story, and the thoughtful consideration of relationships among children and parents, Helprin weaves a constant discussion of beauty and aesthetics.  Whether in a description of the sea, a mountain, a painting, or even a battle scene, "A Soldier of the Great War" makes you consider and reconsider "what is beauty?" and what about beauty is important.

Make no mistake: Don't look for a happy ending. This book is not light, airy, and cheerful. It is primarily a war story and, having served in the Israeli Army and Air Force as well as the British Merchant Navy, Helprin is not one to sugarcoat the trials, horrors, and occasional minor success -- even if only meaning survival from an apparently hopeless situation -- which war encompasses.

I'm not the type to cry in movies or over books, but "A Soldier of the Great War" pushed me to the edge of tears. It's rare that one finishes a work of fiction and remains unable to stop thinking about it for days or weeks afterward, but Helprin's majestic novel has exactly that power.

  • James | Napoleon fireplace
    Comment from: James | Napoleon fireplace
    02/27/10 @ 04:09:17 pm

    Almost 900 pages? Yikes! But I have to admit that your review of the book sounds like it would be just the thing to sit at the fireplace and read for days at a time. I currently watch way too much television and reading does have much appeal. I'll have to see if I can find a copy of this book (and hopefully be able to afford to buy it!) Thanks!

  • Michael
    Comment from: Michael
    05/25/10 @ 12:10:11 pm

    This book, after more than 12 years of reading it, is still one of my most cherished and beloved books. Like a satisfying warm cup of soup on a cold chilly night. I still uphold all works modern works of fiction up to this amazing novel. I cannot recommend it enough... beautiful, powerful, majestic, might I even say life-changing. Thank you Mark Helprin wherever you are. Michael V. Tampa, FL

  • commenter
    Comment from: commenter
    06/16/10 @ 01:19:56 pm

    The novel sounds like an interesting one and I really enjoyed your review about it. I definitely think I am going to check it out for myself and read more into detail about it.