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A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR by Mark Helprin Kirkus Star


by Mark Helprin

Pub Date: May 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0156031132
Publisher: Harcourt

An old Italian professor of aesthetics recounts his experiences in WW I to a young acquaintance as they trudge along the road from Rome to Monte Prato 50 years later--in this ebullient, elegaic novel of destruction and survival. "When I love someone, that person disappears," says Alessandro Giulani after having lost not only the objects of his expected early infatuations--the little girl, "whose name, of course, was not Patrizia," he meets in a fairy-tale encounter in the South Tyrol; high-spirited horsewoman Lia Belloti, whose father has bought some of his bourgeois family's land; Janet McCafrey, the Irishwoman who shares a sleeping compartment in the train that takes him to the front in 1914--but also his parents, most of his regiment, his beloved friend Raffaello Foe, and finally his lover Ariene, pregnant with his child, killed in a bombing run on the hospital where she's tending the sick. Ariane's death turns Alessandro's mission in life from survival (on the northern front fighting the Austrians, in Sicily fighting deserters, in Rome and the prison of Stella Marls after the murder of his colonel forces him to turn deserter himself, as a prisoner of the Austrians on his return to the front after a last-minute reprieve from execution) to revenge for Ariane's death, and then--when he suspects she may have escaped after all--to an impossible search through Italy for her. The fondness for magic realism apparent in Winter's Tale turns up in Alessandro's repeated confrontations with querulous old scribe Orfeo Quatta, whose terror of being replaced by newfangled typewriters led him to develop a weirdly beatific model of a universe held together by heavenly sap that turns diabolical when his mechanisms single-handedly unleash the war and all Alessandro's bereavements; but most of this story is in the more old-fashioned mode of the Victorian triple-decker. Tender, optimistic, and sumptuously presented: a feast of a novel, right down to Alessandro's tender lingering over the final course.