"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Excerpt: A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin, Part 2

You can read Part 1 of Book Excerpt: A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin here.

I’ve been behind with posting on my readings, but it has been a busy summer.  Let me try to catch up with two more posts on Helprin’s novel.  This will be the first.

It is difficult to present the full scope of this large scale novel.  This being my first reading I feel hesitant to flesh out the major themes.  What I can say is that Helprin strives to show that life is a sequence of difficulties, pain, agonies, and tragedies—grouped as a sorrowful or dark side of life—contrasted with the moments of luck, blessings, happiness, joy, and love—grouped as a luminous side of life.  It is through Allessandro’s full life and through the microcosm of the war that both these groupings become acute.  Ultimately we understand that these two groupings are not just two opposite sides of a coin, but integrated strands that lead one to a transcendent fulfillment, to become part of a divine whole.  With this and one more post I hope I can give one a glimpse of Helprin’s vision.
It is no coincidence that many parts of the novel have allusions to paintings and music.  Alessandro after all is a professor of aesthetics.  Art, in its fullest sense, is a representation in the novel of the divine creation that is life.  I mentioned in my first blog on this novel that Helprin starts so many threads within the first two hundred pages that it seems he has attention deficit issues and questioned whether all these threads will ever be consummated.  I believe all the threads do come to culmination, supporting this vision of an integrated whole.  All those threads make life appear as complicated, but the complexity does fit within wholeness.  This wholeness completes a canvass of a very complex picture so that through Alessandro we see beyond our own curtailed faculties, that our lives are much more integrated than random events.  Helprin’s vision is of unity, not fragmented disorder.

I am not going to be able to show the nuances and subtleties of the novel from this first reading.  The details are not on my fingertips.  The dark sequences of the novel are apparent: the war battles, the deaths of friends, the injuries, hardships, even being taken  to prison for treason and facing a firing squad, separation from his family, including his love who he erroneously believes was killed, and so on.  What I’m going to present in this post are three scenes that show Helprin’s rationale for keeping faith in life’s transcendence.

Here is a scene where Alessandro is locked in prison with a Marxist, Ludovico.  Both are scheduled for execution.

Ludovico now began what appeared to be a series of desperate calculations.  It was as if he felt that in a clarified understanding of the working of economics he could make himself comfortable with the notion of eternity—but due to the minimal relation of economics and eternity, he was forced to calculate faster and faster, and to no avail.

“Marxism won’t carry you into the next world,” Alessandro said.  And then he asked, “How can you reserve your most sacred beliefs for a descriptive system, and one that is imperfect at that?  I can’t imagine myself believing in trigonometry or accounting, and yet you guide your soul according to a theory of economics.”

“It won’t fail me as surely as your system will fail you.”

“I don’t have a system.”

“Theology is your system.”

“Not my theology.”

“Then what is it?”

“What is it?  It’s the overwhelming combination of all that I’ve seen, felt, and cannot explain, that has stayed with me  and refused to depart, that drives me again and again to a faith of which I am not sure, that is alluring because it will not stoop to be defined by so inadequate a creature as man.  Unlike Marxism, it is ineffable, and it cannot be explained in words.”

“Well,” said Ludovico, “socialism is effable, which is what I like about it.  It’s solid.  Very little of it is conjecture.  It may be limited, but it’s honest and down-to-earth and you can prove it.  It gives me something I know I can hang on to.”

“Why don’t you hang on to a toilet?”

“I’d rather hang on to a toilet than believe in a collection of wishful thoughts.”

“The, in that case,” Alessandro answered, “all you need to do is secure yourself a toilet and you will have solved the mysteries of the universe.  It would be easy enough to provide every man with a toilet at his death, or a porcelain amulet, and then the world would be perfect.  Husbands would not grieve for their wives or wives for their husbands, children would not suffer the loss of parents, nor parents the loss of children, as long as production were regulated and the workers controlled the economy.”

“To tell you the truth, Alessandro,” Ludovico said combatively, “I’m not concerned with what happens after life on earth, since I believe that nothing does happen.  I’m concerned with what I’ve been allowed, and screw the end.  It only takes a second.  Why waste time worrying about it?”

“The answer is simple.” 

“The church has a simple and unprovable answer for everything.”

“I don’t care what the church says.  This is a simple answer that comes from my own heart.  I’ve seen and felt many things that I cannot believe are material artifacts.  They so clearly transcend all that is earthly that I have no doubt that they can run rings around death.”

“What things?”

“Had you been with me, Ludovico, for the last twenty-seven years, I could have shown them to you, one by one.  They exist everywhere.  They’re as simple as music, or the wind.  You need only see them in the right way.  Perhaps I could not have shown you.  The question that comes to me is why would you need to be shown?  Why haven’t you already seen?”

“What, exactly, are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about love.”

“I’m unconvinced.”

“I wasn’t attempting to convince you.  I’m now sufficiently tranquil not to have to convince anyone of anything.”

“Will you be tranquil in front of a firing squad?”

“I don’t know.  We’ll see tomorrow.  You’ll be able to watch from the window.”  Alessandro winked at Ludovico, to show him that he was undisturbed.

“The way you winked,” Ludovico said accusingly, “the way you winked at me was just like a religious fanatic.”

“Sorry,” Alessandro said.  “I’ll try to wink like a Marxist.”  [p. 479-81]


Here is a very different scene.  Alessandro and his beloved wife to be, a nurse who has cared him back to health from a war wound, steal away into the mountains for some intimate time together.  The painting that is alluded, Giorgione’s La Tempesta is perhaps a single visual representation of this vast novel.

The slope from Gruensee to the Adige was white without imperfection.  Alessandro and Ariane skated down and across it for an hour.  Falling brought not pain but surprise, for the snow was powdery and dry, and even when they fell they stayed warm.  Though the glare hurt the back of their eyes, and they were quickly sunburnt, they felt like angels who inhabit the cool air above a flume, and who, with nothing to do but sing, give to the water its tranquil and hypnotic sound.

On the riverbank they found a bare concave rock facing south, and stayed there for as long as the sun warmed them, lost in lovemaking in which sometimes Ariane’s hair hung over the edge of the rock and was lapped by the ice-cold Adige as it surged and relaxed.  The river roared, and on their granite platform it was so hot and bright that they leaned down to cup the cold water in their hands and drink. 

“What is the name of the painting?” Ariane asked as if she had suddenly realized that she hadn’t remembered. 

“It’s called La Tempesta, and it’s in Venice, in the Gallerie dell’Accademia.  They say, what could it mean, a woman with a child, disrobed, and the soldier, standing apart from her, disconnected.  But I know exactly what to make of it.  Today I saw a lovely sight—the nurses lacing their boots, brushing their hair, fastening their earrings.  If I were a painter, I would have wanted to paint it.  So with Giorgione.  He intended to praise elemental things, and to show a soldier on the verge of return.  I’m not surprised that scholars and critics don’t understand it.  Giorgione live in the time of the plague, and the scholars and critics, for the most part, have had to do without plague or war, which make the simple things one takes for granted shine like gold.  What does the painting mean?  It means love.  It means coming home.”

Alessandro had been ordered to a unit of Alpini far to the north of Gruensee.  “When the war is over,” he said as he held her, full of hope, “we’ll marry, we’ll live in Rome, and we’ll have children.”

She cried.  [p. 569-70]

In my previous post on this novel, I mentioned how Helprin employs a circular structure, the story being  a reflection back starting from Alessandro’s old age, a telling of his experience to a young man, Nicolò.  At the end of the novel, Alessandro tries to explain to Nicolò how the intellect, the spirit, and the flesh come together to give life meaning.  Again it is through an art medium that leads to insight.  Alessandro asks:

“Are you familiar with the ‘Madre, non dormi…’ from Il Trovatore?” 


“When you get home, seek it out.  It begins with a nine-bar harmonic progression from D-flat major through A major and back to D-flat.”

“And what is that?”

“A bunch of tones.”


“And, my son had a top.  If you pumped it up it would spin and generate precisely the sequence from the ‘Madre, non dormi…’  How it dropped and went up again I don’t know.  Perhaps, as it slowed, an internal gate fell back and opened a new passage for a higher register.  I don’t know how it did it, but it did.  It was designed with a mysterious and enchanting brilliance.

“The sequence of notes at the beginning of the song is one of the saddest and most beautiful things I have ever known.  Listening to its melancholy, lucid progression has the effect of stopping time.  It made the faces of the children infinitely touching, infinitely beautiful, and infinitely sad.  When I used to listen to it with Paolo, it transported me to the point where we would separate forever, which I thought would be when I died.

“That simple progression had a power far out of proportion to its elements, for it came close to the elemental truth in which hope, remembrance, and love are joined.  After a lifetime of thinking a great deal about the question of beauty—I have found nothing that illumines or conveys it save another beauty.  No better gloss upon a painting than a song, no better gloss upon a song than its lyric.  And in the end, perhaps nothing is as beautiful as a song, perhaps because nothing can be as sad.

“I realized both too early and too late—a long time ago, and yet when I was old enough to have this tremor in my hand—that what I had been seeking in a thousand beauties was one, and that I had had it, and it might never have been better, sitting on the floor in Paolo’s nursery, helping him push his top.

I asked myself, why do I love, and what is the power of beauty, and I understood that each and every instance of beauty is a promise and example, in miniature, of life that can end in balance, with symmetry, purpose, and hope—even if without explanation.  Beauty has no explanation, but its right perfection elicits love.  I wondered if my life would be the same, if at the end of the elements would come together just enough to give rise to a simple melody as powerful as the one in Paolo’s top, a song that, even if it did not explain the desperate and painful past, would it make it worthy of love.

“Of course, I still don’t know.  God help me to have a moment of his saddest beauty in which I do.

“Perhaps I am wandering.  Perhaps that was my intent.  No matter.  I can wander, because my notion of what it is to come to rest is clear and unencumbered, and I may yet find it.

“The top, you see, that my little boy, at the age of three, twirled round and round, played a beautiful song—a song that, from time to time, I still hear.  What is the song?  The song is love.  [p. 793-5]


What all three very different scenes have in common is that at the heart of understanding human experience is love, and that love is connected to the transcendence.  Let me return to that scene with the Marxist, Ludovico.  An argumentive statement trying to describe the ineffable transcendence to life falls flat, so Alessandro resorts to assertion: “I’ve seen and felt many things that I cannot believe are material artifacts.  They so clearly transcend all that is earthly that I have no doubt that they can run rings around death…Had you been with me, Ludovico, for the last twenty-seven years, I could have shown them to you, one by one.  They exist everywhere.  They’re as simple as music, or the wind.  You need only see them in the right way.”  It is only after reflecting on the two other scenes that we can now make sense of this from Alessandro’s argument.  Love and beauty shape life toward the divine, toward more than the earthly.


  1. I am happy to read your thoughts on this, I was awaiting this second part!

    (I think you mean nuances rather than nuisances in your fifth paragraph. Sorry if I seem a grammar nazi).

    I fully agree with the idea that the entire story, in all it's complications, keeps touching on how love, beauty and faith all are accessible all the time, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. And how the basis for everything is love.

    I so love to have a story laid out in such a beautiful and artful way, so as to paint a picture for the reader, rather than just make uninspiring statements. The facts that God is love, suffering has merit, true courage is fueled best by love, beauty is a gift from God meant to elevate the human spirit -- all those things spelled out are not half so exciting as when shown rather than told.

    Excellent analysis, as usual! It definitely is a book to be read many times, another reason it is one of my favorites!

  2. Thanks Kelly, and thanks for the spelling correction. I definitely want corrections, since I plan on keeping these blog posts for a long time. Though my literature polls don't get many comments (to my disappointment) they do get consistent views, even ones from months ago. So they must be helping someone. Spell check doesn't work when you misspell it into another word. I'll correct that.

    Yes, this is a worthy novel and profound. If it weren't so long, I would read again shortly to nail the nuances down. But I'd rather move on to other readings for now. I'll have one more post on it.

  3. Looking forward to it! I like to read the book about once a year. But I don't devour books like you! :) I read more during the summer, but mostly fiction or historical fiction. I also read the true story, Unbroken (http://www.amazon.com/Unbroken-World-Survival-Resilience-Redemption/dp/1400064163) about Louis Zamperini. I think you would like that one.
    Carry on! :)

  4. You read A Soldier of the Great War once a year? Wow, that's a lot. I'm a actually a slow reader, but I'm always with a book. Unbroken does look like a good book.