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A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

A Soldier of the Great War (original 1991; edition 1991)

by Mark Helprin

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1,425285,292 (4.28)95
Title:A Soldier of the Great War
Authors:Mark Helprin
Info:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1991), Edition: 1st, Hardcover, 800 pages
Collections:Your library

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A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin (1991)

  1. 00
    Man of the Century by James Stewart Thayer (5hrdrive)
    5hrdrive: Fictional reminiscences of men who saw and experienced a great deal of history.
  2. 00
    Memoir from Antproof Case by Mark Helprin (AmberA)
    AmberA: Two of my favorite books! Both very well-written.

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Confusing ‘epic’ with just ‘very long’, this book has entertaining sections but cannot justify an investment of 860 pages. It tells the story of one Alessandro Giuliani, an Italian soldier who goes off to fight in 1914 and soon shows a propensity for escaping death and injury which is only matched by his proficiency as a rider, his irresistibility to women, his prowess as a mountain-climber, his fortitude, his moral strength, his physical strength, his perceptive art criticism, his religious insight, his cutting one-liners, his rakish anti-authoritarianism, and his ability to attract woodland creatures like a Disney princess:

Perhaps because he had been without his family, solitary for so long, the deer in deer preserves and even in the wild sometimes allowed him to stroke their cloud-spotted flanks and touch their faces. And on the hot terra cotta floors of roof gardens and in other, less likely places, though it may have been accidental, doves had flown into his hands. Most of the time they held in place and stared at him with their round gray eyes until they sailed away with a feminine flutter of wings that he found beautiful not only for its delicacy and grace, but because the sound echoed through what then became an exquisite silence.

That's from page one, and had me muttering ‘oh fuck off…’ under my breath already. As well as being overwritten it is also just clunky (that long, commaless string of words that begins the third sentence is especially unwieldy), and although what follows is usually perfectly readable, this paragraph does get to the heart of the book's core problem, which is that it takes itself far too seriously while not taking its subject seriously enough.

Although Helprin is pitching this as a grown-up literary treatment of war, it has almost nothing in common with the works of writers who were actually in the First World War and who are talked up on the book's back cover. It reminded me more of historical romances like The Three Musketeers than of anything by Hemingway or Remarque; Helprin's hero is just not living a plausible experience of the conflict. He is whisked away from certain death so many times and in such unlikely ways (seconds before his execution by firing squad, for instance) that it is hard not to start finding it comic as he saunters through yet another cliff-hanger untouched while the poor mortals around him drop like malnourished flies.

Alessandro is, indeed, a kind of virile superman. Again, we are supposed to take this seriously but I found it mostly laughable. He is always the biggest, bravest, most commanding presence in every scene. He cannot walk ten feet away from his division without women falling at his feet: on one occasion he sleeps with a woman sitting next to him on an overnight train, while on another he arranges a sexual liaison with someone seconds after meeting them while jogging across a city square. He refuses to have sex with an adoring prostitute, however, because he is also a paragon of moral fibre. In reality, of course, sexual desperation among soldiers was almost pathological, most of them were not very good at speaking to real women, and queues for the run-down brothels went literally around the block. A braver and better book might have attempted that story, but instead we are treated to some kind of weird heroic wish-fulfilment figure.

Alessandro's exemplary traits might have been more bearable had he at least been forced to change or develop them in adversity, but he doesn't. He begins the book with an unerring sense of the truth of the world, and his losses and hardships do nothing but confirm him in his convictions. Indeed, he seems to treat the pain and misery of war as something like the ritual mortification undergone by a Christian saint. This is not inappropriate given the religious nature of Alessandro's worldview. Helprin would like his hero to come across as a kind of Herman Hesse-style magus figure, and there are many wistful and high-minded passages in here about God's beauty and consolation and how the light and truth of the world can be apprehended by those with an eye for it. These sections sound wise and sensible, but if you look at them for a second, they turn out to say nothing much at all except that you just have to have faith. In the context of the First World War, I found this a bizarre, offensive, and ultimately very conservative kind of snake-oil for an author to be pushing.

Still, there are some lovely descriptions of Rome along the way. ( )
3 vote Widsith | Feb 4, 2017 |
Solid. ( )
  danojacks | Jan 5, 2017 |
Alassandro Giuliani is the son of a prosperous Roman lawyer living a carefree life when the war intercedes. Half a century later, he is walking down the road with an illiterate young man and telling him about the life he lived during the war. He went from elite soldier to deserter. The story moves and then doesn't. Giuliani is a professor of aesthetics and his reselling gets waylaid often. ( )
  creighley | Nov 1, 2016 |
a study of beauty and war. no war is not beautiful but for the main character to live he is also reflexing on beauty. this novel has a number of levels. on one level is a grand adventure story but on a deeper level it does explore the concept of beauty. ( )
  michaelbartley | Aug 28, 2016 |
It took me several tries to read this book, but once I did it was well worth it. One of my all-time favorites. ( )
  euroclewis | Jun 8, 2016 |
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On the ninth of August, 1964, Rome lay asleep in afternoon light as the sun swirled in a blinding pinwheel above its roofs, its low hills, and its gilded domes.
Numbers, as you well know, are delicate illusions. You don't have to have Archimedes talking about rabbits and turtles to know that when you start in with negative numbers, as we do with young schoolchildren, you are singing like a Druid.

In war, the terror, the compression of eschatological questions, the abridgement of the laws of man, the lack of sense in it, the confusion, the entropy...All combine to demolish completely the meaning and integrity of numbers.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156031132, Paperback)

From acclaimed novelist Mark Helprin, a lush, literary epic about love, beauty, and the world at war


Alessandro Giuliani, the young son of a prosperous Roman lawyer, enjoys an idyllic life full of privilege: he races horses across the country to the sea, he climbs mountains in the Alps, and, while a student of painting at the ancient university in Bologna, he falls in love. Then the Great War intervenes. Half a century later, in August of 1964, Alessandro, a white-haired professor, tall and proud, meets an illiterate young factory worker on the road. As they walk toward Monte Prato, a village seventy kilometers away, the old man—a soldier and a hero who became a prisoner and then a deserter, wandering in the hell that claimed Europe—tells him how he tragically lost one family and gained another. The boy, envying the richness and drama of Alessandro's experiences, realizes that this magnificent tale is not merely a story: it's a recapitulation of his life, his reckoning with mortality, and above all, a love song for his family.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:07 -0400)

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"For Alessandro Giuliani, the son of a prosperous Roman lawyer, trees shimmer in the sun beneath a sky of perfect blue, and at night the moon is amber as Rome seethes with light. He races horses across country to the sea, climbs in the Alps, and is a student of painting and aesthetics. And he falls in love, deeply and eternally. Then the Great War intervenes. Half a century later, in August of 1964, Alessandro, a white-haired professor, finds himself unexpectedly on the road with an illiterate young factory worker. During a walk over days and nights, the old man tells the story of his life. How he was a soldier, a hero, a prisoner, and a deserter. And how he tragically lost one family, but gained another. Dazzled by the action and envious of the richness and color of the story, the boy realizes that the old man's magnificent tale of love and war is more than just a tale: It is the recapitulation of his life, his reckoning with mortality, and above all, a love song for his family."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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