A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR by Mark Helprin
“This was the sound that, on the Western Front, had begun to drown out the music of the world. It was clear to Alessandro, and easily understandable, that, for some, music would cease to exist. But not for him, not for him. The electricity rose up his spine and he trembled not from shock but because, over the sound of the guns, he was still able to hear sonatas, symphonies, and songs.”
Review by Roger Brunyate В (NOV 06, 2010)
Alessandro Giuliani is listening to field guns being tested in Munich in 1914, the year before Italy entered the War against Germany and Austria. Although mostly interested in the visual arts, Alessandro should know about music and beauty of all kinds; as a Professor of Aesthetics, it is his metier. But he learns about it the hard way. When the war breaks out, he is just about to take his doctorate at the University of Bologna. He volunteers for the Italian navy in the hope of avoiding conscription into the trenches, but he ends up in some of the worst fighting of the war nonetheless, facing the Austrians across the river Isonzo. Subsequent phases of the war will take him to Sicily, the high Alps, and many other places, and he proves as natural a soldier as he is an aesthetician. Alessandro’s appreciation of beauty, which shines through every chapter of his reminiscences as an old man in the 1960s, has not emerged despite his exposure to death and danger, but because of them.
“From the quarry, scepters of light emerged at sharp angles, like mineral crystals, and the thicket from which they came was a fume of light. Sometimes the beams were cranked into different positions as if they were choosing new targets among the stars. Hundreds of men worked below, in a brilliance that made the vast quarry look like a piece of bright moon that had crashed to earth. They appeared to be mining not stone but white light, and when they took the stone in slabs and caused it to float through empty space, tracked by searchlights, hanging on gossamer cables and unseen chains, it was as if they were handling light in cubic measure, cutting and transporting it in dense self-generating quanta from the heart of magical cliffs.”
Alessandro’s image of looking down into a marble quarry as men work through the night to make tombstones for the Italian dead is one of dozens that have stuck with me indelibly since I first read this wonderful book a decade ago. It is a magical image, cinematic in its theatricality and scale, yet the men down below are prisoners working murderous sixteen-hour shifts, and Alessandro is about to join them. Yet he finds wonder everywhere: in a midnight bathe in the Isonzo between the two front lines, in the sunlight glinting off a flight of birds that feed off the battlefield dead, in the walls of flame from burning stubble that line the Italian coast as he travels slowly southward on a cattle steamer, in the fury of a thunderstorm breaking over icebound peaks, in galloping a fine stallion across the plains of Hungary. “And how does God speak to you?” somebody asks him; “In the language of everything that is beautiful,” he replies.
I cannot think of any other book more full of amazement. The only other modern thing that comes close in fantasy, wonder, or scale is David Mitchell’s recent The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. But this comparison also points to a weakness that I noticed on second reading but missed or excused the first time. At 800 pages, it is a long book, slow to get started and over-extended at the end. Although Helprin skillfully sets up the combination of reality and imagination at the beginning, and is careful to ensure that every episode, however colorful, is also realistically plausible, the long sequence of such events demands an increasing suspension of disbelief. There comes a time, after about 500 pages, when one wonders how many more humps and turns this roller-coaster has. There is also a bizarre thread, involving a former employee of Alessandro’s father, a diminutive mad clerk placed in an important position at the Ministry of War, which seems more in the manner of Catch-22 than the basic seriousness of the rest of the book.
And it is serious. It is a book about God, and honor, and joy, and endurance, and above all about love. Love in a spiritual sense, love among families, love between friends, the love of man for woman. There is a moment early in the book when Alessandro comes upon a young girl weeping quietly beside a Roman fountain at night. There is another when he goes to Venice to look at the enigmatic picture by Giorgione known as “La tempesta,” involving a young soldier and a naked woman with a baby facing one another against the background of a gathering storm. Both gleam with that magical grace which Helprin conjures so effortlessly. But both will resonate throughout the book to wondrous effect, more than once bringing tears to my eyes, and lingering in my mind for ever.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 210 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Mariner Books (June 1, 2005)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Mark Helprin|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our reviews of:|
- A Dove of the East and Other Stories (1975)
- Refiner’s Eye (1978)
- Ellis Island and Other Stories (1981)
- Winter’s Tale (1983)
- A Soldier of the Great War (1991)
- Memoir from Antproof Case (1995)
- The Pacific and Other Stories (2004)
- Freddy and Fredericka (2005)
- In Sunlight and in Shadow (October 2012)
Illustrated Trilogy (with Chris van Allsburg):
- Swan Lake (1989)
- A City in the Winter (1996)
- A Veil of Snows (1997)
- A Kingdom Far and Clear: The Complete Trilogy (October 2010)