(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War relates, through a long flashback, the early manhood of Allesandro Giuliani, particularly his life during World War I. Told in the third person, the narrative begins in 1964. Allesandro is journeying by streetcar from Rome to visit his granddaughter’s family. A young factory worker, Nicolo Sambucca, futilely chases the car in an attempt to board. Allesandro demands that it be stopped. Refused reentry by the driver, Allesandro decides that he and Nicolo will walk the seventy kilometers to their respective destinations. They have little in common. Allesandro, from an old and successful Roman family—his father was an attorney—is a professor of aesthetics. Nicolo, a helper in a factory, is young, naïve, and uneducated. During their walk, Allesandro relates the crucial events of his life, centering on the years of World War I.

Life is idyllic for Allesandro before the war, centering on his family and their home in Rome. One evening, he hears singing in the garden of the French Academy. Entering, he sees three young girls. The youngest, at sixteen, and the most beautiful, is Ariane. He also saves the life of a fellow university student, Rafi Foa, who had been harassed because he is a Jew. Afterward, Allesandro introduces him to his passion for mountain climbing.

In the autumn of 1914, while millions of men are marching to war and death, Allesandro travels to Munich to view Raphael’s portrait of Bindo Altoviti, a painting that had survived time; Allesandro comments that “he knew from Bindo Altoviti’s brave and insolent expression that he was going to stay alive forever.” There Allesandro first hears the thundering cannons of war. To avoid the carnage of the infantry, Allesandro joins the navy; instead of escaping the front, however, he is assigned as a river guard in the mountains he knows so well.

It is there that he meets Guariglia, a Roman harness-maker. Although unsympathetic to the war aims of his country—or any political or economic...

(The entire section is 836 words.)