A Soldier of the Great War (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
As a writer of fiction, Mark Helprin always has concerned himself with the complexities of the human heart and with the intricate network of relationships that engage the individual human being. He is a writer whose vision is supremely humane. Tested by grand varieties of pain and loss, Helprin’s characters consistently discover the redemptive capabilities buried within their own natures. They learn specifically of the explosive potential of love, of the heart and the soul willed into action.
This same humane vision shapes the moral center of Helprin’s novel, A Soldier of the Great War, wherein the potency of love is relentlessly tested by the obscenities of war. Helprin’s protagonist, Alessandro Giuliani, moves through the violence of World War I on a furious wave of circumstance and event; death weaves its way around Giuliani, never claiming him directly, but wounding him horribly in its claims on those around him.
The telling of Giuliani’s story comes through an extended flashback (nearly 650 pages’ worth) contained within a narrative frame. The novel opens in August, 1964, the 74-year-old Alessandro Giuliani now nearly beatific as he limps along the streets of Rome, his white hair tossing “like the white water in the curl of a wave,” his hands the gentle resting place of doves. Giuliani is a retired professor of aesthetics, a student of beauty burdened by memories that seem to defy aesthetic definition. In the course...
(The entire section is 2228 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Eder, Richard. “Radiance Is in the Details.” Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 5, 1991, p. 2. Praises the novel for its magical radiance, which “claps together comedy and sudden beauty . . . as a gateway not to skepticism but to wonder.” Argues that the battle scenes are less successful, however, for they are merely realistic and have been done before.
Edwards, Thomas R. “Adventurers.” The New York Review of Books 38 (August 15, 1991): 43-44. Suggests that Helprin’s novel may be part of a new literary trend, reacting against certain current expectations in art and life. States that the work exhibits a disillusionment with secular explanations but at times becomes portentous and abstract.
Keneally, Thomas. “Of War and Memory.” The New York Times Book Review, May 5, 1991, p. 1. Keneally admires Helprin for asking the big questions and notes that the author’s answers are sometimes banal but often illuminating. Keneally suggests that Anton Chekhov would have hated Helprin’s work, but he points out that Chekhov disliked Fyodor Dostoevski’s concern with God’s mysteries.
Linville, James. “The Art of Fiction.” The Paris Review 35 (Spring, 1993): 160-199. A revealing interview that examines Helprin’s obsession with privacy, his reactions to criticisms of his work, the influence...
(The entire section is 357 words.)