Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A Soldier of the Great War was Mark Helprin’s third novel, following Refiner’s Fire (1977) and Winter’s Tale (1983). He has also published many short stories and has written for children. Many years in the writing, A Soldier of the Great War is the most ambitious of Helprin’s works. A serious author who has attained best-seller status, he claims that he is basically a teller of tales who eschews the modernist literary concerns of introspection and alienation in his characters.

Helprin’s first novel, Refiner’s Fire, also uses the flashback technique, recounting the picaresque adventures of a widely traveled Israeli soldier who has been mortally injured in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Winter’s Tale, Helprin’s second novel, is a surrealistic fantasy that relates the lives and adventures of a number of characters, including a horse who flies, in an idealized New York City. Popular with readers, the book received mixed reviews from critics. Helprin’s father, to whom Helprin was very close and who died in 1984, suggested that he make his next work more realistic. As Helprin has noted, in contrast to the previous novel, there is “nothing that violates the laws of physics” in A Soldier of the Great War. It too became a best-seller.

All Helprin’s novels have in common the struggle against mortality. In Refiner’s Fire, Marshall Pearl, although apparently dying, exhibits the will to live as he rises from his bed. The same battle and victory is true of many of the characters in Winter’s Tale. Although many characters physically die in A Soldier of the Great War, the spiritual, through art, beauty, and love, can and will endure. At times out of step with much of modern literature, Helprin’s works are life-affirming, humanistic tales of heroic adventures.