Helprin’s third novel, A Soldier of the Great War, is a huge book, and opening it is less about starting to read than beginning to live another life. Its 792 pages encompass the story of a well-born Italian, Allesandro Giuliani; it is the tale of his early life and loves and of his experiences in World War I. Unlike Helprin’s previous novel, Winter’s Tale, there is no fantasy here and only a little hyperbole or humor. Like Helprin’s other works, though, this book is written in his acclaimed gem-like lyrical style, perhaps even more polished here.
The smooth writing and luminous images reinforce one of the main themes of the novel: the desirability of finding beauty and the joy of living, in nearly any situation. Allesandro is a student, and later a professor, of aesthetics, and his concerns about art and life, and the author’s eye for the beautiful, infuse the book with light. In one scene, after Allesandro, as a soldier, has been sentenced to hard labor in a marble quarry for desertion, the description of the quarry in action at night, with searchlights glinting off blocks of marble being transported high in the air on cables, is nothing less than dazzling. The exhausting, backbreaking labor is accepted by Allesandro as a way of feeling truly alive.
War is a major theme of the book, and Helprin’s ambivalent feelings about it are clear. War is at once a brutal waste of human life and resources and a testing ground...
(The entire section is 511 words.)