Helprin: A Soldier of the Great War

August 2, 2010

A Soldier of the Great War
Mark Helprin (HBJ, 1991)
792 p.  First reading.

This novel was recommended to me by someone’s whose judgement in such matters I respect.  He said that when he finished reading it, he was ready to turn back to the first page and start again.  I understand what he meant.  It is a beautiful book in many ways, sensitive and thoughtful, and it has a courageous heart.  In its deceptively gentle and unassuming way it portrays the greatness of which a soul is capable when life is lived with intelligence and love, a greatness consisting not so much in attainment as in desire.

On the surface the book is about an Italian soldier, Alessandro Giuliani, and his experiences during the First World War: the fighting, the danger, the friendships.  At a deeper level it is about the inner life which persists, unseen by the eyes of outsiders, in the midst of the upheaval and violence: the family relationships, the intellectual passions, the romantic love.  And at a deeper level still I believe it is about the human capacity to discern, through love, rumours of glory, especially in our experience of beauty.  Alessandro, in the years after the war, is a professor of aesthetics, and his whole life is, in some sense, a quest to experience the beauty of the world and to discover its hidden sources.  It is a quest that never ends, for beauty is always able to unfold and manifest itself anew, leading the longing soul further up and further in.  Alessandro is not, sad to say, conventionally religious, but he does live with his mind and soul open to transcendence, and he reaps his reward.

I am in danger of giving the impression that the book is airy or “philosophical”, in the pejorative sense.  In fact it is dramatic and humorous, with a quick-moving plot and memorable characters.  The themes of beauty and love, about which the central axis turns, emerge slowly and naturally from the events of the story.  Only occasionally did I have the feeling that a hint of didacticism had crept in.  The book is written with a sense of large-hearted and steady intelligence behind it, and out of a profound appreciation for the dignity and importance of the inner life.  I enjoyed it very much.

[A vignette]
Once, high in the Julian Alps, he and his father had watched a flock of birds scatter in the presence of an eagle.  As the eagle moved with uncanny slowness, like a great battleship confidently steaming far offshore, and the birds scattered to bait the eagle away from their young, Alessandro’s father said, “Their souls, at this moment, are full, and the eagle is nothing.  God is with them for what they lack.”

9 Responses to “Helprin: A Soldier of the Great War”

  1. Janet Says:

    If I had a magazine, I would pay you to write book reviews.


  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Janet. Know anybody who does have a magazine? 8)

  3. Janet Cupo Says:

    Well, I know somebody that used to have one, but then, so do you.


  4. Craig, have you read Winter’s Tale? I started that once and it seemed pretty intriguing, but was too busy to stick with it. Helprin is someone I’ve wanted to read for a long time.

  5. cburrell Says:

    This was the first of Helprin’s books that I have read, Mac, but Winter’s Tale is on my list. I wonder if you or Janet remember the exchange to which I refer at the start of this post? It took place at LODW, though neither of you are the person to whom I refer (in this case).

  6. Jerome Says:

    In 2004, three well-preserved soldiers were found in a scene of high-altitude fighting from World War I in the Italian Alps.

  7. cburrell Says:

    Fascinating. That scene was one of the most memorable from the book, I thought.

  8. […] many beautiful works, including The Tempest by Giorgione, featured in Mark Helprin’s novel A Soldier of the Great War.  After feasting your eyes, head over to Cantinone Gia Schiavi (Fondamenta Nani 992), a famous […]

  9. […] many beautiful works, including The Tempest by Giorgione, featured in Mark Helprin’s novel A Soldier of the Great War.  After feasting your eyes, head over to Cantinone Gia Schiavi (Fondamenta Nani 992), a famous […]

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