A Soldier of the Great War

It’s not the most inspiring of titles, especially for someone who isn’t typically interested in books about war. Had I not read it praised effusively, I wouldn’t have bought it.

But I did, so I bought it. And now I’ve finished. The journey took about a month, as A Soldier has almost 800 pages.

The novel begins with an elderly Alessandro Giuliani before going back in time to his life as a handsome, carefree Italian youth, a life that was shattered after the First World War began. It then follows Alessandro’s experiences in the war—as a soldier in the trenches, as a soldier hunting deserters, as a deserter himself, as a prisoner, as a soldier again, and as a prisoner again—before recounting his attempts to put his broken life back together after the war and ending, as it began, with an old man.

For me, the most striking thing about A Soldier of the Great War is Helprin’s writing style. I am not sure if I have ever read a writer who describes nature so exquisitely. With some writers, I find descriptions of nature to be boring—a detraction from the actual story. In A Soldier, such descriptions are central to the story—a way for Alessandro, and the rest of us, to cling to the beauty that is still there in the midst of unspeakable horror. It might seem strange that a book about the First World War could be a beautiful book, but it is.

And that’s not because Helprin shies away from the ugliness, or because he somehow glorifies it. I read some things that I’d rather not think about. They’re too awful.

There is blood, shattered bodies, and sadistic cruelty. There is bad language and coarse language and a generous handful of sexual encounters. There is great sadness.

Yet for all that, there is somehow a restraint in much of what Helprin writes. In what was, for me, one of the most horrific scenes in the novel, the focus is less on what is happening to Alessandro and more on Alessandro’s response, which is one of complete self-control, and (believe it or not) singing. As the reader, you know what’s happening, but Helprin doesn’t hammer it into your consciousness.

The grief, too, is strikingly underwritten. It’s a book laced with grief, yet I was only in tears once, because Helprin seems to refuse to play on his reader’s emotions to the extent that he could. In fact, if you want to know how to write about great sorrow in your character’s life without either denying his grief or making it over-dramatic, you would do well to take Helprin as your model.

What is not restrained—where Helprin turns up the volume, breaks out the champagne, and throws open the windows—is the beauty.

The most memorable example for me was his description of Stella Maris, the prison for deserters. It’s a prison where men went knowing they would die, a prison where, if their cells faced the courtyard, they could watch men like them taken out ten at a time and shot, perhaps simply because after two years away from their families, they couldn’t bear the separation any more. But listen to how Helprin introduces Stella Maris:

On all documents, notices, and orders, the vast concrete and stone fortress on a cliff above the sea south of Anzio was called Military Prison Four, or M. P. 4, but never did anyone who had been inside ever call it anything but Stella Maris. It seemed to float above the sea like the plain of stars that on a clear night rides above the waters and the wind. In conversation mysterious and deep, in the crackling, hissing, seemingly inconsequential sounds of the foam, waves, and wind, the stars were talking to the enraptured sea, and, as with many of its greatest secrets, nature entrusted knowledge of this to whoever would not be believed or who could not speak. Staggering volumes of wondrous information were exchanged between the waves and the stars, in traffic so think, fast, and full as to be beyond understanding, in sounds that rose up in fumes and clouds, in musical dialogues, and in uncountable voices speaking to uncountable lights. The condemned soldiers of Stella Maris, with neither reputation to uphold, nor gain to desire, not hope to sustain, knew the soul of the sea at night. It was their compensation and their reward.

And so, there is beauty. The beauty of the world, the beauty in the face of a child, the beauty of a father’s love, the beauty of self-sacrifice. There is hope that comes alive when it seemed as dead as it’s possible for hope to be.

There are, too, questions raised and questions left unanswered—at least for me—of the meaning in the midst of pointless loss of life and unspeakable horror. It’s too much for me.

Listen to the old Alessandro:

“Look up at the Perseids. You can see them flashing many times a second. They reach the end of their long and silent journeys almost more quickly than you can note, but if you watch them for hours you will not see the casualties of even one group of divisions.

Each of the flashes is like the life of a man. We’re too weak to feel the full import of such a loss, and so we continue on, or we reduce it to an abstraction, a principle. It would take more than anyone could give to understand the life of one other person—we cannot understand even our own lives—and more energy and compassion than is humanly possible to commemorate even a single life that ends in such a death.

You cannot know anything but the smallest part of the love, regret, excitement, and melancholy of one of those quick flashes. And two? And three? At two you have entered the realm of abstraction….”

I don’t know how to end this. How can I adequately tie up a short piece of writing on a book so beautiful despite its horror, on a story so alive, so raw, so human?

I don’t know.

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One thought on “A Soldier of the Great War

  1. Helprin certainly does write beautifully.
    I’m not much for war books (at least ones on real wars) myself. Good for you giving it a try 😀

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