A Soldier of the Great War

by Mark Helprin

Hardcover, 1991




San Diego : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, c1991.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Joycepa
In 1964, Alessandro Giuliani, an old man who is a professor of aesthetics, catches the last streetcar from Rome to Monte Prato, where he wishes to visit his granddaughter and her family. Through a bizarre circumstance, he finds himself walking to Monte Prato along with Nicoló Sambucca, a 17 year
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old illiterate factory worker. Taking the high road over the mountains for a journey of days and nights, Alessandro tells an increasingly fascinated Nicoló the story of his life.

Alessandro Giuliani is the son of a well-to lawyer who is enthralled by beauty--not just the classical beauty of art, but also of music and nature, of life itself. He is exuberant, living life as he finds it, and reveling in the beauty that is everywhere around him. His family is a close one, and Alessandro loves them passionately. He races locomotives on his horse Enrico, he rows, he climbs mountains. He lives, utterly.

But in 1914, war engulfs Europe and Alessandro is drawn into the conflict. For four years, Alessandro is a soldier of the line, fighting in the trenches under unspeakable conditions, a hero, a prisoner, and finally a deserter. He falls deeply in love--only to lose his beloved to the war as he has lost everyone else he has loved to the war in one way or another. But Alessandro never loses his exaltation in beauty even in the midst of unimaginable horror, his quest for a God in which he alternates belief and disbelief with utter serenity, and his realized hope of redemption and resurrection.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no way to summarize this book adequately in a review, because I personally can not find a way to describe the dazzling richness of the prose, the always off-center viewpoint of Alessandro who is both deeply affected by the war and yet unscathed at his core, the lyrical descriptions especially of the mountains the sheer exaltation of the prose. In hands less skilled, Alessandro would be a caricature, a joke. Instead, for 860 pages, Alessandro burns as brilliantly as any of the stars over the Alto Adige, totally believable, completely real, in a world gone mad.

The other characters in the story, both major and minor, are utterly real and unforgettable as well: his gentle father, his fried Rafi, his wartime comrades in his regiment, the brief, searing acquaintances with other Italian soldiers whose names he doesn’t ever know but whose memories stay with him, his beloved Ariane, and most especially, because he epitomizes the insanity of war, the dwarf Orfeo. All are etched with prose that is as lucid as it is extravagant, no mean feat.

The last chapter is so heartbreaking that it is painful to read.

I have never read a work of fiction that so deeply moved me, both when I read when it was published in 1991, and now, in a much different time, in 2009. It is magnificent, a tour de force, both an epic saga and a paean to love of family. Written by an American, it is also very Italian, and captures that skeptical attitude that Italians bring to war in particular. Its descriptions of the war are searing. The people in it are unforgettable. It is a masterpiece.
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LibraryThing member brizzlehound
This is one of the most exquisite books I have ever read. It has a strong narrative, but at the same time it is a paean to beauty, to love, to friendship, to Italy, and in particular to the city of Rome and the Italian Alps. The whole thing is deeply moving, the language is astonishing, and the
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book begs to be read slowly, and then to be read again and again.
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LibraryThing member drsnowdon
Helprin is one of my favourite authors of epic and adventurous life stories; and this book is an excellent embodiment of that.
LibraryThing member Widsith
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member libraryhermit
Almost all of the books I have ever read about World War I or World War II were about Britain, France, Germany or Russia/U.S.S.R. So it is a nice change to finally read something about Italy. I will seek out more. Mark Helprin has done a very good job. I don't know if it's more scary to be a
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soldier in high mountain passes or on the flatter areas farther north from the Alps, but one thing is for sure: you can die of cold no matter where you are when you are a soldier.
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LibraryThing member dhogue
This is one of my favorite books. I have read it three times and recommended it many times. This is the book that gave me a character I mourned for, weeks after I finished the book.
LibraryThing member AmberA
One of my all-time favorite books! Interesting, and beautifully written, "A Soldier of the Great War" brings laughter and tears each time I read it.
LibraryThing member dchaikin
An old man looks back on his terrible, angry, defining experiences in WWI... with a mixed wonder. It's a strange mixture. Very powerful parts, but also a bit long and winding. In some ways it is really thoughtful and complex, in some ways it's profound and really disturbing and yet in some ways it
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was a little cheesy and gung-ho soldier. When I read it I was bothered by the length, but now a year away I couldn't care less about the length, it's the good parts that stick. On a side note, I see a lot of extra meanings behind the old man's walk, but I'm not quite sure what to make of it.
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LibraryThing member JudyKenn
This was a long book, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I never read a WW I novel written from the perspective of an Italian soldier. Alessandro Giuliani tells his life story to an illiterate young man as they walk miles upon miles after being thrown off a bus. As the story unfolds, we are
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treated to the vagaries and whimsical turns that life can take which lead us into uncharted waters. This book made me laugh out loud and cry real tears. It is a true depiction of life with all it's crazy twists and turns. Long read, but worth it.
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LibraryThing member rosinalippi
I love this novel for its depth and vibrant storytelling. Reading this novel finally made me understand -- in more than intellectual terms -- the terrible toll WWI took on Italy and Europe. And still it's not a depressing read. There are moments where the absurd -- and Orfeo -- get the upper hand.
LibraryThing member ZachMontana
A "Heavy" book in many ways - 860 pages! Very philosophical especially on beauty, war, and love. It took me forever to read this because it is so long and complex from the perspective that when the author is wandering on one of the multitude of philosophical thoughts one must be very focused to
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even remotely understanding. It was worth the perseverance because it's a good story and some of the philosophy is useful for reflecting on. I wonder how historically true the story is on the various part of WWI it covers as I have not hear of much of this. If it is pretty true to history this is even more a a condemnation of war and of the futility and fumbling of Italians in pursuing it. We all know of the ridiculous trench warfare in France and Germany, but not of the crazy things this depicts in Italy and other areas where Italians were involved.
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LibraryThing member ffortsa
The Great War in Italy had its share of trench warfare, but most of the fighting was up north in the mountains, where Italy abuts what was then the AustroHungarian Empire. The soldier of this story, Alessandro, grows up in Rome, and is studying aesthetics when the war begins; he enlists because he
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feels he can better avoid the worst of it if he volunteers.

Alas, that was not to be. While he leads what seems to be a charmed life, the war in all its cruelty and fatality whirling around him in various venues and battles.

The story is enclosed in the simple adventure of an old man walking to a distant village with a young man, to whom he tells the history of his war and also much more. Helprin uses the character's love of beauty as permission for vivid and often beautiful descriptions of even ugly and terrifying events, but does not forget to show how Alessandro learns, hardens, and finds meaning in life in spite of, or because of, the war.

There are funny scenes as well as tragic ones, some of them just short of magical realism; some villains get their comeuppance promptly, some long after it does any good, some not at all. Many good people die, some almost by accident, some quite deliberately. Ultimately, Alessandro is left with the idea of beauty as that with which God comforts his broken children, and the idea of life as the balance of risk and hope.
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LibraryThing member joegande
What a wonderful story...I believe this would make an epic, classic movie...it so beautifully written and eloquent. I loved the characters and beautiful descriptions & visions of Italy that came into my head while reading, the themes of family, friendships, love lost and won, the adventures,
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tragedies and triumphs of War...I could relate in many ways..maybe because of my love of history and because I am Italian and some of the topics and conversations seemed familiar to me in some way. I found the book very interesting...being of a time period, location and subject matter not often written or talked about.
I do have to say...I was certainly a bit disappointed at how the the author chose to end the book...it jumped around too quickly toward the end...I wanted more I suppose...but the journey was magnificent!:)
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LibraryThing member XxMLGReaderxX
I really liked this book, it is beautifully written and while yes it can get slow in some parts and yes it is long, it is well worth it in my opinion, and is a fascinating story. The story of Alessandro invokes all sorts of emotions along the way, and is always engaging even in the slower parts.
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One starts to adopt Alessandro's outlook on things as they go further and further in to the story, and I left with a new perspective and noticing life's small beauties. Great book.
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LibraryThing member creighley
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
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and then doesn't. Giuliani is a professor of aesthetics and his reselling gets waylaid often.
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LibraryThing member janoorani24
I have counted Mark Helprin among my favorite authors since reading "A Winter's Tale" sometime in the early '90s. I put off reading this book for a long time because of its length, but I finally finished it. While it was slow in parts, I still really enjoyed it. Helprin employs such beautiful
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language in his descriptions, and his stories are always so bittersweet. I think part of the reason I love his books is that they always make me cry, and I can't help loving a book that makes me feel great emotion. I've read a lot of books (both fiction and non-fiction) about World War One, and this was one of the only ones that was set in Italy. The other one I can think of is "A Farewell to Arms," which was also very sad. I think part of what another reviewer didn't like about the pointlessness of the book was probably intentional on Helprin's part, since WWI was a pointless war. Anyway, I really enjoyed the book and am glad I finally made the time to read it.
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LibraryThing member ben_a
Re-read -- I found it much more affecting now that I have children.
LibraryThing member SamTekoa
His writing is often beautiful. I liked this book. Some parts were so good they are to be read over and over. Lacked the humor and self-effacing tone of Don Quixote which I compare it to. A thoughtful and challenging book none the less.
LibraryThing member melydia
I don't generally like novels about war, but a friend bought me a copy of this book out of the blue because she had absolutely loved it. So I gave it a try. And did not love it. An old man and a young man walk along the road in Italy as the old man relates his life in WWI. Our protagonist isn't
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very interesting to me. Very masculine, unchanging, irresistible, nigh-indestructible. And extraordinarily long-winded. Lordy, but this is a long book. And maybe it would appeal to people who adore Italy during this time period, or are very interested in WWI, but it did not appeal to me.
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LibraryThing member m.belljackson
His horse, Enrico, Alessandro's father, Lawyer Giuliani, and Alessandro Giuliani are a proud, inspiring, and formidable triumvirate of my favorite characters ever.

Though some plot lines felt odd (risking Enrico's life to leap the speared fences was a disquieting lack of good sense), the only wholly
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improbable ones come toward the end > Alessandro's masochistic defiance of Klodgwig, hearing Ariane's heartbeat, and his family dream.

The final ending left an awful and totally defenseless image of a hunter's brutal killing of sparrows.
If this was a metaphor, it was overkill.
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LibraryThing member lawrence
I just finished reading A Soldier of the Great War and think I'm going to remember this as one of the best books I've read. I know this is personal but it spoke to me on a bunch of levels I'm interested in like aesthetics, religion, mountaineering, WW1, father-son relationships, love, adventure,
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the pointlessness of war, etc. However this novel was much more than the themes. The writing kept me going with zippy, interesting and often unexpected dialog, delightful observations of small details, a story structure that was unusual but in the end, it might have been the only way to spin this yarn. I identified with Alessandro as a young man, an old man and almost everything between. At about 800 pages, I don't think this book could have been much shorter -- author Mark Helpin has just so much to say, it is breathtaking.

Some people have criticized it as being too long, the use of magical realism, excessive, etc but I think, personally, that they have missed the point of the book -- which was to describe a remarkable life that was buffeted and shaped by events totally out of his control, and also a world that was just plain out of control. Yes, it's unrealistic that Alessandro survives some of the events and experiences but if he didn't, the book would have been exactly that much shorter. Only those who survive get to write their story, but hopefully they bring the dead along with them and that is exactly what Helprin does with Alessandro. To me, there was one use of magical realism, maybe, in that of the character Orfeo. I believe Helprin is saying it is the only possible explanation for the inexplicable lunacy of Italy's military decisions during the Great War.

A worthwhile, memorable and rewarding read, in my opinion.
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LibraryThing member BFiabane
Probably my favorite book and one of very few that I've reread just to refresh the images and memories of my initial read almost 10 years ago. For any of us with any association with Italy during WW I, this wonderfully written story is a must read.



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