Oh this is a long novel, 860 pages long. After about six weeks of reading I’m only a little more than half way. I am a slow reader, and so I anticipate this will be a three month read. I don’t like to stretch books out that long. For one, it takes me away from other works, but, two, I just get tired of the same work lasting that long. I wish I were a faster reader, but I think I would lose my close attention to a work if I weren't. If a work were not worth the entire read, I would quit a long read somewhere around a third of the way through. This book is worth the read.
Still at this point I cannot tell if this is a great work or not, just that the characters, the situation, and the writing style hold my attention. I will give some initial thoughts, but do keep in mind I am doing this from not having finished the novel.
If you have never heard of Mark Helprin as a novelist, you may have heard of him as a Conservative commentator. He has churned out essays, mostly regarding foreign policy, in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and The Claremount Institute. He has been a soldier himself, serving in the British Navy, the Israeli Army and Air Force.
A Soldier of the GreatWar is a coming of age novel centered on the character Alessandro Giuliani, an Italian, son of a wealthy Roman attorney, who as a young man serves as a soldier in World War I. Alessandro’s great love of life is the study of aesthetics, and before entering the war he was a professor on the subject at a university. The war—a war he did not support—creates great hardships for him and his family. And so we have two parallel motifs that seem to run through the entire novel, the analysis and understanding of the beauty around him and the pain and misery that he is subjected to during wartime. The novel’s central theme seems to be the coming to knowledge of how beauty and misery exist side by side.
Helprin starts the novel in a fashion I particularly don’t care for. He starts the novel in 1964 when Alessandro is an old man. In a odd set of circumstances he meets a young man, Nicolò—I think he’s under twenty years of age, but I can’t quite remember exactly—and having been kicked off the bus they are on they take a walking journey from Rome to two destinations that are on the same road. They have an extended conversation on life, love, aesthetics, politics, and then war. When I say “extended,” it’s really extended. In an 860 page novel there are only ten chapters, so the chapters average over eighty pages each. After the conversation turns to war, Alessandro is pushed to tell the story of his war experience, the experience that has shaped the man. And so the novel's real story then starts, and I assume will end in a circular fashion returning to Alessandro’s conversation with Nicolò. In effect then Helprin is presenting his themes and his values up front. The story then is a fleshing out of those themes, and the values are what the character learns as a result of his experience. I’m not a huge fan of this structure. For me it subtracts from the reader’s immersion into the story. I would have preferred the novel start in medias res, by thrusting the situation right before the reader. Let the values and themes emerge as the story develops. I’ve never seen the real advantage of that looking back start.
Second thing that irks me about the novel (again it becomes a delaying strategy from getting to the real story) is the frequent development from one thread to another. Until the novel really gets started with the war part of the story, it seems Helprin suffers from ADHD. He develops an incredible number of threads of story line. Here are a few story threads that I remember. There’s a meeting of an Austrian princess when Alessandro and the princess are children; there’s the taking care of the Austrian musician on a ski gondola ride down when it’s thought the musician had a heart attack; there’s the meeting of the beautiful young lady, Lia, who happens to be his neighbor; there’s the horse ride through Rome being chased by the Carabinieri, all to meet Lia by the beach; there’s the meeting with Orfeo, the midget hunchback, who is the scribe at his father’s office, along with the discussion on how typewriters will do away with scribes; there’s the meeting with the man, Rafi, who will be his friend and his sister’s betrothed (not sure yet if they ever get married), who is attacked for being Jewish; there are the extended mountain climbing trips with Rafi, where Rafi learns to be a world class climber; there is the meeting with the Irish woman on the train and their trip to Munich to look at a painting in a museum. And so on.
What do all these threads have to do with the story? Well, they serve two purposes. It shows the myriad of life’s activities before the war. Once the war starts and Alessandro is immersed in it, life essentially changes, and so does the narration. The war is the life altering event, and that is not just told but felt as the novelist generates thread after thread which ultimately stops. Second it creates a character in full, a man who has lived a complete life. If the novel were only about a war experience, then the character becomes limited to fighting and camaraderie. Helprin wants Alessandro to be more than that. He wants to create a character that has lived the life of the early 20th century and has something to say about it. Alessandro does not represent an idea or a concept. He is flesh and blood, and so the novel’s assessment, I think, rests on how well Alessandro, the values he espouses, the wisdom he has learned, engages the reader as a likable and real character.
Let me add here that what has always impressed me about Helprin’s writing is his wonderful prose style. This is the second of Helprin’s works that I’ve read. A number of years ago I did read Memoir From Antproof Case, and while I didn’t think it was a great work (I may not have understood it) I reveled in Helprin’s delicious prose. Let’s give a couple of examples from this novel. Let’s start with the novel’s opening paragraphs.
On the ninth of August, 1964, Rome lay asleep in afternoon light as the sun swirled in a blinding pinwheel above its roofs, its low hills, and its gilded domes. The city was quiet and all was still except the crowns of a few slightly swaying pines, one lost and tentative cloud, and an old man who rushed through the Villa Borghese, alone. Limping along paths of crushed stone and tapping his cane as he took each step, he raced across intricacies of sunlight and shadow spread before him on the dark garden floor like golden lace.
Alessandro Giuliani was tall and unbent, and his buoyant white hair fell and floated about his head like the white water in the curl of a wave. 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 and not only for its delicacy and grace, but because the sound echoed through what then became an exquisite silence.
As he hurried along the Villa Borghese he felt his blood rushing and his eyes sharpening with sweat. In advance of his approach through long tunnels of dark greenery the birds caught fire in song but were perfectly quiet as he passed directly underneath, so that he propelled through their hypnotic chatter before and after him like an ocean wave pushing through an estuary. With his white hair and his thick white mustache, Alessandro Giuliani might have seemed English were It not for his crème-colored suit of distinctly Roman cut and a thin bamboo cane entirely inappropriate for an Englishman. Still trotting, breathless, and tapping, he emerged from the Villa Borghese onto a wide road that went up a hill was flanked on either side by a row of tranquil buildings with tile roofs from which the light reflected as if it were a waterfall cascading onto broken rock.
Had he looked up he might have seen angels of light dancing above the throbbing bright squares—in whirlpools, will-o’-the-wisps, and golden eddies—but he didn’t look up, for he was intent on getting to the end of the long road, to a place where he had to catch a streetcar that, by evening, would take him far into the countryside. He would have said, anyway, that it was better to get to the end of the road than to see angels, for he had seen angels many times before. Their faces shone from paintings; their voices rode the long and lovely notes of arias; they descended to capture the bodies and souls of young children; they sang and perched in the trees; they were in the surfs and the streams; they inspired dancing; and they were the right and holy combination of words in poetry. As he climbed the hill he thought not of angels and their conveyances, but of a motorized trolley. It was the last to leave Rome on Sunday, and he did not want to miss it. [p 1-2]
[Excerpts from A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin, Harcourt Books, Inc. 1991.]
You can see in that passage the focus on beauty, on the flesh and blood man, on the values he holds, and even subtly on the life lived in the 20th century. The hardships that will test and shape him are not there yet, but they will come.
Here’s a wonderful passage of Alessandro at University where he attends operas, which shows the silly unruliness of students and the beauty of music.
Young singers of little experience and old ones of poor voice often found themselves in Bologna in a theater that was supported by huge tresses and timbers arrayed against its bulging outer walls. The architectural decorations on the façade of this doomed opera house had been so worn down by wind and water that the devils were toothless, the gargoyles faceless, and the cornices round, but Italy had always been full of buildings that seemed just about to fall down, and this one, in its timber girdle, waited until Alessandro had left the city.
Three times a week, Rossini and Verdi marshaled sufficient force and beauty to shut the students up and bring them to the kind of rapt attention that the singers of La Scala thought the natural state of mankind. When one singer questioned another about a run in this theater the query was, “For how long did you clear the air?” meaning for how many minutes in his aria was he able to rid the sky of the paper airplanes that crossed and collided over the orchestra in a traffic unlike any that had ever been seen on earth. They were sometimes ten or twenty layers deep, they would meander in circles, or zigzag, a hundred or more sailing about unimpeded.
Everyone kept his eye on his own craft or his favorite. As the planes darted through the huge empty space, the singers looked out not only upon the missiles themselves but upon a thousand boys whose heads, as if in a completely anarchic tennis match, moved back and forth in may different directions—and not only back and forth, but slowly and gradually down. Singing there was like performing in a hospital for nervous diseases.
On occasion one or more students who knew the lyrics and were gifted with powerful voices stood in their seats and competed with whatever wretch was unlucky enough to be on stage. Whether it was done as a compliment or derision was immaterial. The result was the same. Worse, perhaps, was the unfolding of several hundred newspapers, signaling an insulting neutrality. Bombardment by eggs and vegetables, shouted insults, and the occasional shoe that landed next to a terrified soprano, were, of course, unambiguous.
But should a young singer with heart and courage to face these things and keep on singing, sing well, a thousand boys as unruly as animals and as jumpy as unbroken horses or caffeinated bulls on a festival day, would suddenly become still. The house electrified, beyond the footlights a thousand faces would show expressions of sadness, longing, and desire, and some would sparkle back at the lights, in tracks that ran down the cheeks from bright eyes that caught the light. Ands when the aria ended, after a few seconds of silence the students would erupt into a roar of appreciation that put the audiences of major opera houses to shame.
After a lively overture with a orchestral signature attributable mainly to the fact that theatrical impresarios have known for ages that adolescents can be quieted by hunting horns, the curtain rose, crushing several paper gliders in its fold. An extraordinary painted backdrop lowed in the light. Giotto’s blues and Caravaggio’s shadows had been united to portray a tranquil forest in neither night nor day but, rather, in a condition of the spirit. In combination with the overture, the weak and dream-like blue, the clouds of dark green that marked the tops of the trees, and the motile and confusing shadows, several forms of art kept the students as quiet as the dead. [p. 156-7]
That is a funny scene, charming and beautiful and so realistic I can swear I’ve been to something like that as a college student myself.