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

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Excerpt: A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin, Part 3

You can read Part 1 of Book Excerpt: A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin here and Part 2 here. 

In this my concluding post on this novel, I wanted to highlight three motifs within the novel that are striking.  Let me be up front here, I don’t claim to fully understand their full significance after only one reading, but I’ll bring out what I do understand and document it for further scrutiny when sometime in the future I may do a second reading.  The three motifs are the relationship to children, the significance of birds, and the significance of colors.  I’ll highlight the three motifs by excerpting three passages.

In the last chapter of the novel, where Alessandro recites his history to Nicolò, Alessandro explains to him why it took so long to go back to teaching in the university after the war was over.  Alessandro explains:  

“At the time, I had no way to be a professor or even to teach in a subsidiary position.  The universities were in lock-step with fascism.  Real intellectual independence simply wasn’t tolerated.  I had an appointment here or there, but I didn’t stay.  At first I simply could not stand the conformism and the cowardice, and then, with the results predetermined, I came up against the loyalty oaths and informers.  I would have left anyway.  After having gone through the war, I couldn’t quibble and take offense over the meaning of a passage, or to live, die, and divide for their idiotic theories and schools.  And nearly everything they said seemed to be in contradiction to the truth of what I’d seen.

“And yet if you ask me what that was, I can’t tell you.  I can tell you only that it overwhelmed me, that all the hard and wonderful things of the world are nothing more than a frame for the spirit, like fire and light, that is the endless roiling of love and grace.  I can tell you only that beauty cannot be expressed or explained in a theory or an idea, that it moves by its own law, that it is God’s way of comforting His broken children.

“Such a point of view does not lend itself to the lecture hall.  No.  I returned to the university only after the Second World War, and, even then, not having been in the resistance, I had political difficulties.”

“Why weren’t you in the resistance?”

“I was tired.  And you have to have a certain temperament.  You have to be fixed on the point.  You need what politicians have, which is the absence of a sense of mortality.  It comes, like a drug, from adoration and deference.  Revolutionaries get it from dreams.  They say that nothing is apolitical, that politics, the bedrock of life, is something from which you cannot depart.  I say, fuck them.

I was interested in birds.  Are birds apolitical?  And I thought the finest thing in my life was being with my son when he was a baby.  People used to look at us when we went around in the daytime, and wonder what a man was doing taking care of a child, but every word that came from him, every expression, every smile, even his tears, were worth a million times an honorable profession.”   [829-30]


Even though Alessandro’s son appears to have an almost insignificant roll in the novel, I think Alessandro’s life altering relationship with his son—never dramatized fully in the forefront of the narrative but as a backdrop—is one of the key themes of the work.  It puts the novel of war in a fuller context, contrasting the struggle of survival and struggle with the tender interaction of love and passing on of instruction.  Notice how many children appear in the novel.  There is Alessandro as a child and the extended narrative with his father, there are Guarilglia’s three children, there is Nicolò, who in many ways is still a child (see p. 852 where Alessandro says he would like to him in his arms “in the way I used to hold my son”), and there is Alessandro’s son.  It is because of his children that Guarilglia deserts, and because of that it leads to his execution.  That little touch of knowing the value (“a million times”) of the love of his son is particularly moving, since I have a little boy and completely understand first hand.  It is through the relationships between fathers and their children  that forms a backbone to the war novel. 

In that passage I quote, the bird motif shows up.  “Are birds apolitical?”  What is Alessandro’s interest in birds?  Birds frequently appear in the novel.  At the exact middle of the novel, page 430 of 860, Helprin puts in this digressive set piece.  Alessandro is home, in desertion caring for his dying father, and steps out for a walk and looks across the sky. 

The trees on the banks of the Tiber had not lost their leaves, and as the wind coursed through them it rattled their brittle foliage and raised fantastic black clouds, for Rome was occupied by millions of birds, perching on every branch , singing as if to warm the wind, hopping about in mad distraction on rails and cornices.  The starlings, warblers, finches, and swallows had come from Northern Europe, the Baltic, and Scandinavia, and were about to cross to Africa, to the deserts and the savannahs, the Congo, and the Cape of Good Hope.

Their journey was so deep and impulsive that even at rest they knew only delirium and drive, and their immediate and explosive rising at any sound or motion was not an indication of fear but rather of the love of flight.  When someone below merely clapped their hands, when a truck lurched by, or when the wind itself became anxious or fierce, they rose in a buoyant cloud that hovered over the trees like a ball of hot smoke and then formed into a wing that rallied back and forth until it broke into a hundred thousand anarchic flights and the air was uniformly colored by birds darting on the winds of catastrophe.

The smaller birds rose with a deafening sound.  Sometimes their flickering mass was shifted by the wind, like a black balloon, but one by one they returned to their perches, gliding to a landing with the seriousness of new pilots, and then they jumped and chirped in the branches until they took to the air once again.

As the warblers and finches filled the skies, people looked up at the weaving above them and felt their more prosaic burdens lighten.  The starlings were a plague, almost like bats, though somewhat smoother as they moved.  They were the birds that formed the clouds that held the sunlight and the air, and hovered gently over the swollen Tiber.  Though they seemed to float with great ease, Alessandro discovered in watching them that the motion of each one was no less a struggle and no less beautiful for their having been caught up in such a way that their individual paths were hard to trace, for if you followed one, and if you had the patience, if your eyes were quick enough to keep him separate and to stay with him in the dizzying turns, you could see that the way he took the air was a great thing. 

But of all the birds resting in the trees along the Tiber at the end of October, none was half the flier, half the sounder, half the whistler, or half the darter of the swallow.  The swallows flew in great circles, picking up speed, and rising like leaves in a whirlwind.  The ascended like madness, climbing up and up, until they flew among the higher and thicker clouds, in a soft and rosy walls of which they would disappear and from which they suddenly burst in surprise.  Though you could barely see them—at those altitudes they were only spots  and flecks that vanished as readily as they came into view, as if they were merely the coloration of the sky—it was very clear that in the high altitudes they encountered something of extraordinary beauty and import, which is why they strained so hard to rise and stayed so long.

Coursing from cloud to cloud, in roseate light, they had escaped, they knew the pure and abstract and were freed from everything saved light, force, and proportion.  The waves of air high above the clouds were more hypnotic than waves in the sea.  The light was a burst of pink and gold, and the color of the sky ran from China blue to the pale white that held the sun.

And yet, though they were taken by the wind, and flew like golden confetti in the clouds, and might have stayed, they descended, they came down, they whistled like rockets as they fell toward the ground.  They chose to return, as if they had no choice, and what struck Alessandro above all was the consummate and decisive beauty of their fall.  It was not a hopeless fall, for as they shot downward they fought the air, and, ascending momentarily with great strain, they sailed off to left or right, and circled about on the plateau they had marked, before another dizzying drop, another spreading of wings, and another partial ascension.

They seemed to fly faster than the imagination could imagine.  They turned with breathtaking force.  They made perfect curves.  The air sang with their passage.

And when they were finished, these small birds that had been flecks of gold airborne on light and wind in a place from which they need never have returned, they settled gently in the dark spaces among the branches, and here, at the end, they sang a simple and beautiful song.          [p. 430-2]

What is the significance of such an extended passage that has nothing to do with the story line?  It is interesting that doves figure prominently at the novel’s opening pages.  And at the very last passage of the novel, Helprin ends the book with swallows being killed.  And so, Helprin has birds figure in the opening, the exact center, and the closing of the novel.  Clearly he is using them as a symbol.  But a symbol for what?  A metaphor for our human limitations and drives?  A contrast to human depravity?  A symbol for their transcending capabilities?  Their similarity to angels and therefore God’s representatives on earth?  A symbol for aesthetic perfection?  Perhaps all those qualities or a combination of some.  I can’t answer it fully.

And finally let me turn to the motif of colors.  In that last chapter Alessandro returns to Giorgione’s painting, La Tempesta, as he tries to articulate to Nicolò the meaning of his life story.  If you want to see the painting La Tempesta, turn here to my blog on the painting.   

“Someday, Nicolò, when you get the chance, go to Venice to look at La Tempesta.  Imagine then that, by the grace of God, the soldier would lose his detachment, and that, by the grace of God, the storm from which he had emerged would pass, and that by the grace of God the child in the woman’s arms was his.

“In Giorgione’s painting you find very little red.  The dominant colors are green and gold: green, of course, being the color of nature, and gold the divine and tranquil color of which, like perfection, so little exists.  The painters of Giorgione’s time, by and large, spoke in these terms.  Red was the instrument with which they portrayed mortality; green, nature; gold, God.  With the notable exception scattered from painter to painter and school to school, you will find this born out subtly and simply.

“You may not even have thought of red as anything more than just a color for decoration, but red is a most precious sign when you’re at the bedside of someone you’ve just lost, for they haven’t a trace of it.  And red is the color of real love between a man and a woman.  Its absence from the flesh in the act of love is far more profound than any protestation or vow, the rest useless and profane.

“I think that had Giorgione painted a sequel to La Tempesta, in which the soldier moves to the woman and child, he would have reddened them and made parts of the landscape reverberate in crimson.  All the gold and the green, the lightening, the reflected sunlight, and the cool colors of the storm, make for a dream like air.  It’s like floating in the clear summer shallows of the Aegean, or the separation of the body from its sensations prior to the separation of the senses from the soul before the soul’s ascension.  That is the natural course, and, upon it, Giorgione, and Raphael, and the others, predicated their work.  In Dante, too, the colors are refined with the soul until, at last, one has risen through lighter and lighter blues, silvers, and golds, and what is left is merely white with a silver glare, far too bright to see or comprehend.”

“What of it?  What of it?” Nicolò asked, thinking that the old man was ranting, and would not be able to bring his talk of colors into focus.

“What if you didn’t want to go in that direction?” Alessandro asked with frightening urgency, so that the hair on Nicolò’s arms and on the back of his neck stood up.

“I still don’t understand.”

“What if, after having come into the presence of God, in voiceless perfection, in perpetual stillness that is yoked to perpetual movement, you asked nonetheless to be released, to go back, to descend, to go down, to revert.  What if you chose, rather than silver and gold, and white that is too bright to comprehend, the lively pulse of red?

“I have felt that perfection.  I have had a glimpse of the light.  I have a notion, perhaps more than a notion, of eternity in its flawless and unwanting balance.  Compared to it, the brightest moments are but darkness; and singing, like silence.  What great sin do I commit, therefore, if I hold that it is insufficient?

“For when I put my arms around her, Ariane was red.  Her cheeks and the top of her chest blazed like a burn, or rouge, and the color spread to her breasts and her shoulders and was only dilute once it had cooled by running, like a viscous waterfall, down the length of her back.

“The baby followed his mother in this flesh of her coloring like a chameleon following the light.  She averted her eyes.  She would not look up.  Her lips trembled as if in prayer or concentration.

“What if that moment had lasted?  What metaphysical rapture could equal it for its substance, its frailty, and its beauty?  Haven’t we been taught that it’s better to live in a simple house overlooking a garden or the sea than to reside in a palace of great proportion?”

“What are you saying, Signore?”  Nicolò asked.

“I’m saying that now I know exactly what I want, and that though I doubt it fits the scheme of things, I’ll chance it nevertheless.”  [p. 832-4]

Colors figure prominently all through the novel.  Let’s see how Helprin uses the colors in this passage.  We see here that Helprin is color coding aspects of human experience: red for physical life, gold for transcendence, and green for nature.  Here in the end, before Alessandro faces his mortality, he desires the red of life with his beloved more than even the transcendence of God.  But he is asking for the impossible.  What Alessandro desires is for that moment of total perfection in Ariane’s arms to exist eternally.  But human beings are not fixed as a painting.  “What if that moment lasted?”  Alessandro asks.  Well, a moment can’t last in life.  It always moves on.  The son is born, they build a life, a new war comes about, the son dies, the wife dies, and Alessandro lives his life in exploration of aesthetics.  The red of life seems to be a passage to the gold of transcendence. 

Notice too that Alessandro describes his life in the diction of how he described the flight of the swallows from the passage at the midpoint of the novel: 

“What if, after having come into the presence of God, in voiceless perfection, in perpetual stillness that is yoked to perpetual movement, you asked nonetheless to be released, to go back, to descend, to go down, to revert.  What if you chose, rather than silver and gold, and white that is too bright to comprehend, the lively pulse of red?

“Released,” “go back,” “descend,” “go down,” revert.”  That runs parallel to the flight of the swallows of that passage at the novel’s midpoint.  And at the last paragraph of the novel, the birds are splattered in red while Alessandro gives a final exclamation:

To the sight of the swallows dying in mid air, Alessandro was finally able to add his benediction.  “Dear God, I beg of you only one thing.  Let me join the ones I love.  Carry me to them, unite me with them, let me see them, let me touch them.”  And then it all ran together like a song. [p.860]

Somehow the colors and the birds intertwine in imagery and symbol.  I do not claim to fully understand it, but if the logic and aesthetics  integral to the novel comprehensively holds together, then this novel should rank as one of the great novels at the end of the 20th century. 


  1. Wonderful insights, once again, Manny. I, too, was struck by the way Helprin painted scenes with vivid descriptions of color. And I usually grow impatient with too much description. I also loved the intensity he put in to all the human relationships. Even the way Alessandro related to Nicolo, a stranger, showed him investing so much of himself, essentially sharing his entire life. I am always struck, and you said it in your conclusions, at how deeply Alessandro lives, on how high of a plane, but all the while, cherishing earthly things. And the struggle to integrate the two.

    I also think this novel is perhaps the greatest I have ever read, because it's themes are higher, more noble and lofty, than the average story.

    So sorry to be the eternal proofreader, but this line, " The red of seems to be a passage to the gold of transcendence." -- in the 6th paragraph from the end -- seems to have a word left out.

    Nice job on the book, Manny. I am so glad someone else appreciates it the way I do!

  2. "The red of life..." Thanks for pointging that out. I'll go fix it.

    Well, I'm happy I reviewed this novel. It had been on my reading list for the last couple of years but never got to it. I didn't know you held it so highly. It's a nice coincidence that I read it the year I started this blog so you can hear what I thought of it.