140 of 148 people found the following review helpful
One of the truly great works of American fiction. I will go so far to say as it is the finest work of fiction I've read written in the last half of the 20th century.
In "A Soldier of the Great War" Mark Helprin creates a story encompassing the whole of humanity weaving reality with a world of fantastic wonder. The unbelievable becomes real and what seems simple is only deceptively so and bends into the fascinatingly complex.
Helprin's style is enigmatic; his tale told in equal parts masculine bravado and contemplative delicacy. It is nothing short of astonishing.
Beginning with the preparation for a visit to his daughter, we follow the elderly Alessandro Giuliani on a seemingly routine bus journey. Things turn and a short journey turns into adventure when the old man comes to the aid of a teenager and he begins sharing his story and the lessons learned over a life rich and eventful. A life of youthful privilege gives way to the horrors of WWI and discoveries of love, loss and destiny.
Helprin elevates American fiction to that pantheon we reserve for storytellers the likes of Dickens, Cervantes, Dumas and Hesse. With this book (and to a certain degree "Winter's Tale")- he tightens the gap between great writers of "then" and "now" bringing contemporary fiction a true and rare respectability.
All adulation would, of course, mean nothing if this were receiving accolades solely on style and structure and ignoring the "readability" factor. On that front, I can only say this is a book I cannot imagine anyone not falling in love with and that, my friends, is the rarest book of all.
285 of 308 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2004
Mark Helprin once offered this advice to an aspiring writer on how best to construct a work, to grab the attention of the reader (and here I can only paraphrase, as I have misplaced the source document): "Treat your story as if a stone thrown into a still pool, coming to rest at the bottom. Then dive in after it." The paraphrase is accurate enough for my purposes, and the message is clear: Know well the end of your journey before you begin it.
Little did I know then, when I had meandered across Helprin's advice, that it would be central to my ability to write my thoughts on "A Soldier of the Great War." For about the same length of time as that advice had been imprinted somewhere in my brain, I had also been faced with the daunting prospect of commenting on a thrice-read book, now bulging with scores of page markers as reminders to me of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and even full pages, all worthy of comment. And, it seemed, the longer I put this task off, the more daunting it became.
Fortunately, this block was broken in the recent past, when I needed to give careful thought to a birthday gift for a friend. The gift couldn't appear to be too lavish, except in the riches of its contents. It needed to be something that would be new to this friend (and here I was at some risk), and at the same time something that would not soon - if ever - be forgotten. In the end, I decided to chance it with "A Soldier of the Great War," enclosing a brief note regarding what was in store. And the working through of that note was the curative that I needed for providing my comments on this Helprin work. So I threw my own stone into the pool and dove in after it.
"A Soldier of the Great War" flows over with great themes, the long arc of which is the relating of its protagonist's - Alessandro Giuliani's - life story, told in retrospect from Alessandro's memories of that life to a youth who accompanies him on a seemingly short journey from Rome to a near-distant village. And, following his own advice regarding the stone thrown in the pool, Helprin's lyrical, singing prose begins with the story's first paragraph, drawing the reader, too, to dive in, and doesn't let up until the very last page (where it then lingers for a very long while).
The overarching themes are classic: love and war; of love discovered, then lost, then found once again; of the blunt impersonality and the lunacy of war. They - and others - are all juxtaposed with typical Helprinian brilliance. There are maniacally funny set-pieces, interwoven so seamlessly into the narrative that one is not aware at first of Helprin's skill with the set-piece device as one is drawn in. (These include an excursion to the plains of Eastern Hungary that is one of the most remarkable of such pieces ever written.) There are passages of heartrending grief quite beyond one's ability to deal with them. And the story teems with characters both bigger than life and smaller and meaner than dirt.
But, at its core, "A Soldier of the Great War" is a story about love and beauty and the permutations one can make of those two words. And it is for this reason that I chose it. If you're like me, it will take you forever and a day to read it, as you find yourself re-reading - often several times, and on occasion out-loud just to hear what Helprin's words sound like - passage after passage after soaring passage.
This book is, also, everything that has already been written about it. Like Helprin's other major works, it has autobiographical content of both experience and opinion interspersed throughout. (One need not be aware of this before the fact; it is inessential to the story.) The story is indeed a classic Bildungsroman - a "novel of formation" that traces Alessandro Giuliani's growth in spirit over his life - and one of the very best of its genre. There is a certain convenience that, at least alphabetically, Helprin fits comfortably between Heller and Hemingway. But use this convenience wisely, as when browsing under "Helprin" in a bookstore: This story is every bit the equal of "Catch 22" in its often manic depiction of the lunacy of war, but is far more lyrical; a love song where Heller's work clearly is not. And, if "A Farewell to Arms" captured the Great War from Hemingway's uniquely American perspective, Helprin, by opting for an Italian protagonist, finds a universality that eludes Hemingway, and with prose that a century hence will continue to sing, unlike Hemingway's, which already seems stilted by comparison.
Finally, I am unsure as to whether I envy those who, like my friend, are experiencing this work for the first time (but I think that I do). Newcomers likely will be torn between lingering on each page and turning to the next, as the story races to its astonishing, yet in hindsight, perfectly-crafted and satisfying end: Helprin's stone indeed has landed in the deepest part of his pool. For re-readers like me, it matters not that one knows in advance how the story ends; there is a distinct pleasure to be derived from a lingering journey that is its own reward.
So, at long last, and not without solemnity, I can carefully remove those scores of page markers, needing them no longer. And thus I begin my fourth traversal of this work, this time with a sixth sense that a guiding force will keep my friend and me on the same page. While there are factors which make it an uncertain thing that we will read these pages aloud, perhaps in my meanderings I will find evidence elsewhere that this gift, like Helprin's stone, has come to rest at the right place.
93 of 101 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 1998
Format: Mass Market Paperback
After scrolling through endless "10"s, eloquently written, it's hard to know what to add to the accolades heaped upon this novel by your readers, but I'll try!
Mark Helprin has written the 'perfect' book! This novel has everything - philosophy, adventure, great drama, pathos and tragedy, surrealism (of the John Irving type), comedy, romance, art history, riveting characterization, imaginative plotting and structure, and evocative writing.
As an English and history teacher, with a grim fascination for the horror that was WWI, I was astounded by the brilliance of having the main character, a student of aesthetics, confronting the ugliness of the war. This novel just worked for me. The sweep of the character's wanderings, from the Italian Alps, to the dusty hills of Sicily; from the catacombs of Rome to the back streets of Venice, are especially appealing to those who have visited Italy. There are scenes that are seared into my mind - like the one in the Carrera marble quarry, where the marble that once supplied the great Renaissance masters now supplies gravestones for a million dead Italian soldiers.
This novel inspired me to go to Venice to view "La Tempesta" myself. It's that kind of book. Read it. You WON"T be disappointed.
38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2000
I'd read many of Helprin's editorials in the Wall Street Journal and was impressed with the literary skill he exhibited. So, when I ran across this book I thought I would give it a try. I really didn't know what to expect, although I did know it had had some glowing reviews. I read about thirty of the previous reviews here and nearly all of them contain valuable insights, including those mentioning the book's flaws. However, none of the reviews I read explicitly mentioned the fact that this is one of the better anti-war books written this century. It is best because of its optimism. Helprin describes, vividly, how war degrades or destroys all that is beautiful and lovely in our world: idyllic childhoods, family relationships, precious traditions, neighborhoods, society and its mores, love and romance, religious sensibilities, art - even the seemingly impregnable mountains are violated. Yet, despite numerous horrific experiences, Alessandro is saved in the end because he never lost his appreciation for "beautiful things", symbolized throughout the book by Giorgio's painting. There is much humor in this book. Some of it is bawdy. There are also many scenes of heart-wrenching sadness and exhilarating joy. However, there are sections that drag on too long, and after at least one of Alessandro's lucky breaks I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking, "Oh, brother." Despite these flaws, Mark Helprin is a gifted writer who has the rare ability to make you completely lose yourself while reading his work. Highly recommended!
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2001
Format: Mass Market Paperback
This book came highly recommended to me and I was not disappointed. It is difficult to define what makes books such as this great, but for me it was Mark Helprin's brilliant portrayal of the things that make us all human; our struggles to make sense of a senseless world, the conflict of morality with practicality, our emotional and sometimes physical battles with mortality, our quest for peace and our longing for love. There is a lot of the author in this book which gives substance to the eloquent writing, and his use of the First World War provides a great framework for his story.
That said, I do have two criticisms of the book: the author gets a little long winded, which was not the sense I got from another similarly brilliant book, Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Often more is less. To me, the truly great books are believable, and I felt the author wandered across the line of plausibility on occasion.
"A Soldier of the Great War" is a deep, thoughtful, and moving book, and is a very enjoyable and memorable read. It will go on my "favorites" list.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2001
Format: Mass Market Paperback
This is a classic bildungsroman - that's a German term for a novel which portrays the development of an individual character, as he or she seeks to discover meaning in life or a place in life, often in the face of an inflexible social system.
But this dry description does no justice whatsoever to this amazing novel of love, war and dwarves who hate typewriters.
In recounting the life story of Alessandro Giuliani through the tragedy of the First World War and beyond, Mark Helprin has created a masterpiece of literature, unique, immensely rich and utterly unputdownable.
As Alessandro journeys through the war, from Rome, to Sicily, to the Alps and deep into the Austrian Empire, he gradually discovers three things: first, it's impossible to tell what the purpose of war is. Second, Alessandro himself is not going to die, which makes the loss of those he loves even harder to bear. Third, hope is not the opposite of despair, rather it's what we make of despair in order to live our lives.
This is a cross between Catch-22, Captian Corelli's Mandolin and Baron Von Munchausen, and in many respects is better than them all. Alessandro finds himself in so many amazing (and often unbelievable) brushes with death that this reader lost count and simply marvelled that each episode surpasses its predecessor.
Yes, like any great work the book has its flaws. I think it would have benefitted from a sterner editor as it is probably a hundred pages too long. The difficulty of course would be in deciding which hundred pages to cut. Having said that, I gave a copy to my father, who is a stern critic of war novels. He was utterly gripped.
It is long, though. Don't expect to be able to put it down, either. This is a book you have to make space in your life for. But you won't regret it.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2004
Soldier Of The Great War is simply marvelous, exciting reading.
Alessandro tells his story so beautifully, I fell in love with the character and dreaded the turning of each page as I knew it brought me closer to the story's end.
There is pathos here, and great irony as when, for example, as a soldier, Allessandro has performed acts of astonishing heroism, then is given the ultimate punishment for his desertion. And yet Mark Helprin has the ability to have us chuckling even as we feel pain and fury for Alessandro's unfair treatment.
Perhaps this is the strongest messge within this Great book: that Life is seldom fair, that the good guys don't always win- at least not in the way we want them to- and yet Life still maintains it's beauty. Alessandro never loses his love and appreciation for Life. It's also so lovely to experience the wonder Alessandro feels toward those he loves, especially the message of women as healers.
Lastly, Mark Helprin's prose is so beautiful at times this book reads like poetry. The imagery is incredible. Prepare to relish this book and thoroughly enjoy yourself; to laugh, cry, hate, and most of all to feel a sense of love and joy. If you haven't read Soldier Of The Great War yet, I envy you the experience.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2005
I never would have thought I would read a book that has words in the title like "soldier" and "war." But I was urged to give this a look and I knew the writer's other work, which was never short of wonderful. This novel is amazing in scope and power. Helprin is a true craftsman; his words seem to almost sing off the page. And the main character is someone I came to care about deeply, his life and loves, his friends, the tragedies, and even the deep humor. Yes, there is war here and even some exciting sequences which normally I tend to skim, not being a fan of "action." But the way Helprin writes draws you into the story and never lets go.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on August 12, 1998
If you want to know why the recent list of the 100 greatest 20th century novels is such a farce, then read this book. Mark Helpin has more talent in his pinky than most of the writers who made that list. This book is stunningly awesome.
I am fascinated by turn-of-the-century Europe and the Great War, and Mark Helprin managed to lock into my mind and take me back to that period. Unlike others whose only critique was the slow build-up, I couldn't get enough of the long journey that Alessandro and Nicolo embarked upon. Alessandro was in the Great War and I hung on his every word and memory.
This book is powerful and moving. Helprin, through Alessandro, pleads with us to remember all of the soldiers who lie under the white crosses. Their lives were meaninglessly thrown away, but we have the power to restore meaning just by remembering them. The ending of this book is so perfect that I wanted to cry but I was too awestruck by the beauty and the power and the meaning of the book as a whole.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 1999
Very few books merit a re-reading by me...Eight years ago I read the first edition hardcover of this novel. What a beautiful book! La Tempesta, a picture central to the tale of the book, adorns the book jacket. I have re-read all Helprin's novels, stories and fables over the years, they each hold a cherished spot in various bookshelves throughout the house. This was the last book to be re-read. I thought about it many times but my resistance came from a sense of not wanting to alter or destroy my first reading of the book. It was too wonderful and exquisite. The second time was more so, a more profound joy and understanding. This is the finest book by the finest writer writing today. I am still appalled when I mention his name in "learned literary" circles and there is no response or recognition, not appalled at the lack of taste and depth of most readers, but appalled at their loss for not having read this author.