A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin – a Commentary
Dazzling, Powerful, Breathtaking, Giant, Monumental, Magnificent, Extraordinary, Ambitious, Brilliant, Vivid, Gripping, Poignant, Intense, Superb, Rousing…
- Publisher: Avon Books (May 1992)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0380715899
- ISBN-13: 978-0380715893
Above are just a few of the superlatives used to describe this book by those obsequious gnomes who live in those small cubicles in newsrooms and magazine publishing houses the world over. They’re paid to make pronouncements such as these in response to their supposed personal experience with the author’s work sitting on the desk in front of them.
I’ll not be so bold as to say that I can sit and read a book of this magnitude and then find words sufficient to actually describe the emotions I felt while reading it and as the back cover closed for the last time. My poor command of the language is such that I could not even approach Mark Helprin’s artistry with words, light, shadows, music, and colors in order to describe his art here in this place. I would feel like I were drawing distorted stick men in an attempt to describe the colors and vibrancy of Leonardo’s Last Supper.
It will ever be beyond my artistry to describe such art.
Using my meager skills, though, I would like to, in some meaningful fashion, try to show you, dear reader, even a small glimpse of the beauty of this story and how it affected me as I read it and possibly forever afterward. Yes, it’s one of those books; one of the rare ones that is ever so much more than just an entertaining distraction from the pressing issues of every day life.
I’ve read a lot of books since becoming literate at a very young age; thanks to my mother, who spent time and effort in teaching me how to read and instilling in me her own love for books. After reading a book such as Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, I actually feel very sorry and sad for those who don’t read books. They will never know what they’re missing. Never.
In all my years of reading, there have only been a very few books that really, really touch that deep, secret place in my soul; that place where fears, loves, regrets, past joys reside and are occasionally re-experienced in poorly preserved and fading memories. This book took me to that place. I’ll bare my soul here and admit that I actually cried after closing that back cover. The tears had been working their way to the surface during the last 20 pages or so.
I haven’t cried in 15 years; the last time being two or three days after my mother died. I have not cried often since I was a child. It isn’t manly to cry, supposedly. Plays hell with the big burly biker image, too. ;)
About this book, though…
Helprin has used a fine brush on a vast canvas to paint a portrait of life, death, love, hate, fear, joy, and any other emotion you could possibly experience in a lifetime. He managed in just over 700 pages what it took an old man sitting and dying on a hillside in Italy nearly 75 years to accomplish. Using words that border, and often cross over into, the realm of artistry he fashions a tale so deep and vast as to literally suck the reader into the life it’s describing.
The life is that of Alessandro Giuliani, an Italian fellow, a professor of aesthetics from Rome who one day begins a bus ride that will become a journey of personal reminiscences, a mentoring of a young traveling companion, and a profound understanding of life and death which culminates on a sunny hillside in peaceful rapturous splendor.
Alessandro tells the boy Nicolo of his life and loves; of his horrors and losses; and of his understanding and feelings on beauty and art, particularly his appreciation of Giorgione’s La Tempesta. All this takes place as the two companions walk along roads and across fields and hills on the way to their destination. The bus ride didn’t work for Alessandro and Nicolo as they had initially planned. Isn’t that just like life?
I read many reviews of this book to try to get a feeling for how others would describe it. I did not find any review that even came close to what reading the book made me feel; neither do my own poor choice of words, as predicted, even begin to elicit from you the feeling I felt while reading this book. It’s just going to be something you’ll have to experieince for yourself.
Books are subjective things ultimately. You may not get past the first 20 pages before you decide the book is not for you. That’s the way it goes sometimes. No reviewer can ever fully transfer his own feeling on reading a book to his readers. It’s an exercise in futility. It’s like me trying to explain to you how delicious the salad I had for lunch was or how much it hurt when I hit my thumb with the hammer the other day. No. Words are poor substitutes for experience.
Get this book. Experience it for yourself. That’s all I can say.
Image credits: generic book cover – Avon Books paperback version