There are books to read and reread; some annually, some only after enough time has passed, the cycle or frequency unique to book and reader. Mark Helprin’s 1991 masterpiece is a rereader. This year is its 25th anniversary, and I reread it for the fourth time—the first was in 1992 when it came out in paperback. I am writing this on Memorial Day—fitting.
Simply, and simplistically, A Soldier of the Great War is the story of Alessandro Giuliani as a young man in World War I, his experiences, his adventures. It fits on the shelf with other war experience novels with their horrors, deprivations, absurdities, insanities, deep bonds forged under trying circumstances, et cetera, et cetera. And like the best of these it is about more. Yeah—you’ve heard it all before: it is about beauty and truth and the transformative powers of love—and so on, like many moving novels. War DOES transform everything it touches. While always bad and too often necessary, war is one of the big bangs whose radiance affects all it touches. This is all true and all applies to A Soldier of the Great War and to Alessandro Giuliani.
Helprin and Alessandro Giuliani transcend the rest.
A Soldier of the Great War is a work of great beauty, grand ideas, poignancy, humor; solid, real and realistic, its gravity leavened with an air of magical realism. It is deeply satisfying.
We meet Giuliani in 1964, an old man on his way to visit his granddaughter and her family. He is taking Sunday’s last trolley from Rome, and the driver is racing through stops, intent on speed—not his job. When Alessandro sees a boy running towards the stop with the driver clearly uninterested in stopping, Alessandro insists that the driver halt but is thrown off. With the boy, Nicolò, he is left to walk the 70km over two nights and a day towards their destinations.
Alessandro,74, is old and weathered, learned and experienced. Nicolò is 17, the sort of young man that we no longer seem to make any more. He is innocent, naive, a simple, not stupid, boy with simple dreams and simple emotions. The sort that calls his father “papa” and is not too old to be comforted when his heart is broken. He is also ignorant and illiterate. Alessandro was never such a boy or man.
Alessandro was a boy, youth, and young man of action, derring-do, intellect, heart and mind, romantic by nature, possessed by life and living.
The two walk. Alessandro remembers and talks, Nicolò listens and asks questions. Alessandro is already walking among his war memories, gently touching and thinking about events in his life when he and Nicolò meet. The memories rise episodically and are related forthrightly—like Hemingway—but with richer descriptions, and a dash of García Márquez.
Like all World War I novels there are the trenches, but Helprin and Giuliani are too dynamic to be stuck in ditches. Their war is the Italian WWI experience from one end of Italy to another, from Sicily to the Alps. From sea to volcano, from glacier to Venice, from Rome to Hungary and Vienna and back. Giuliani is sailor, soldier, alpini, cavalryman, prisoner for conscience, prisoner of war, and always and nothing-but Italian. Helprin leaves the big battles to the history books; his interest are the eddies swirling throughout wartime and the people caught in them.
It is such a ripping and gripping read, full of details, feats, skirmishes, battles, warfare, prisons and escapes, death and hope, plus, importantly, works of art and music and architecture, places, foods and action, artists and names that you want to know, live and know more about. Hemingway had the same effect on me. My first forays into wine and alcohol were valpolicella and aquavit, only because of Hemingway. Helprin’s Italy is that of Hemingway, but richer, more beautiful, more detailed and experienced. Hemingway dropped names and experiences, actions, and emotions in passing with practiced and artistic carelessness. Helprin stops to look and see, experience, appreciate, and absorb what Hemingway so specifically lets fall. In Hemingway these matter because they are there. To Helprin they matter because they matter.
On the road the old man tells Nicolò of the Great War, World War I, and of his life and of what they mean—not in general, but specifically to him. It is a man’s story—his maleness matters.
Alessandro Giuliani is a man that climbs mountains, hunts, rides, swims seas, fights in trenches, kills, saves, loves, savors life. He is never divorced from his body or his mind or his soul. Here, in his seventies, he is still manly, masculine, and a professor of aesthetics, the philosophy and study of beauty. Nicolò is another opportunity for Alessandro to be a Man—passing on some of what it means to be a man to another.
As in other such books, war is neither glorified nor celebrated. Nor is it in itself vilified. This is not a work supporting pacifism, though it does excoriate the bureaucratic and command perversions that betray those that serve. So should we all. War is a part of the Human condition and within the sphere of being a Man. It is something to be done when necessary, and done well.
Certainly, there is the glorious, beautiful writing, but it is ideas that make A Soldier of the Great War not only great literature, but a book that sticks. Helprin treats the Big Subjects as normal, to be pondered and lived with. God, His creation, Man, love, life, war, their meaning and how they all fit together.
I was living in Europe when I read Soldier for the third time. Venice and the Dolomites, the Alps and Apennines, Rome and Vienna were experienced through and influenced by it. Now, back in the States, older, traveled, more experienced and weathered, known love, loss, friendship, death, faced and facing mortality, knowing beauty, seeing ugliness, Soldier is more poignant, real, inspiring, heart-breaking and laugh-out-loud funny.
I don’t remember it having the deep spiritual impact before. I know little of where Helprin stands, and this is not an overtly theological book. But God in the full Trinity is present. Perhaps it is the honesty, the trueness of the book where I see God the Father’s majesty and omnipotence, the effect of the Cross and Christ and Redemption, the moving of the Holy Spirit in Alessandro’s life, and his awareness of all of this. I am refreshed by the understanding here of God being more and above the too often mercenary and gimcrack take of our era. Giuliani’s God is not too small, not boxed, not tame and certainly not safe—but is good.
By the end of their journey, Nicolò is more than he has been or would have been without Alessandro. His vision has opened, literally and metaphorically; Alessandro lent him his glasses, and for the first time Nicolò realizes how limited his vision was. He sees the stars for the first time. As with his eyes so with his mind, and clearly his soul is touched. Mine, too.
Mike Scoggin lives, writes, edits, and illustrates in the Pacific Northwest.
Photo Credit: German soldiers and Italian POWs during the Battle of Caporetto, October 1917. Via Wikimedia Commons.