A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Helprin

In A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin has created characters who are so real that they take up permanent residence in your mind. I first read this when it came out in 1991, and I’ve read it again every year.

The novel opens in 1964 when Alessandro Giuliani is an old man, on his way out of Rome on a bus to visit his granddaughter. He ends up walking most of the way with a new acquaintance, and to this young man he tells the story of his life, most particularly the story of the first world war and the way it swept away one world and replaced it with another. It’s a huge novel in its scope, moving from the trenches to encounters with royalty and a dwarf named Orfeo, a darker version of the Wizard of Oz.

The dominant theme has to do with the role of women in the aftermath of war and loss. The theme is a fruitful one for Helprin, although the one thing that continues to bother me about this novel is his tendency to create women who are more symbolic than real, and always extreme in their beauty or lack of it. The love story is not an easy one, but it is powerful.

I was thinking of Alessandro when I wrote the character Francesco who plays such a pivotal role in Homestead (published under the Other name). They are not the same person — their fates and backgrounds are very different — but I imagined them fighting next to each other in the Alto Adige.

This is one of my top ten all time favorite novels.

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One Reply to “A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Helprin”

  1. Sara,

    Just finished Homestead. Loved it. The interconnectedness (sp?) of the village made me think of the many older people I have met who live in the small Greek village my husband is from. I have visited many times for long periods of time before/after/with children. My Greek gets lost when I haven’t visited for a while and comes back when I am there. They also have naming conventions like in the novel. Many names are the same. Petros, Stavros, Yorgos, Yannis etc. So when Greeks are talking they name someone like for instance Thanos then the other says “Pios Thanos?” Which Thanos. Then the other says the Thanos with brown hair or the Thanos with the red car….something like that. Babies are not given their names until after 40 days have passed. A baby is called “to moro” until the baptism ceremony. I heard one story where some kid’s god parent blurted out someone else’s name thus condeming this child to the wrong name for the rest of his life! Also in this village everyone has land. Land from their grandparents and great grandparents that through the years has been subdivided each generation. Dowries deaths etc. These pieces are all patchworked all around. When you sit and listen to people…they have nicknames for all of these patches of land. I don’t think these names are names like we would say in English. They are nonsensical kind of names. There are also many non words that these people use to connect sentences. Like at the end of a phrase someone might say “naa ou me” which means nothing. I have been sitting on many occasions with my (97) mother in law and someone younger not from the village who has laughed at phrases and words she has used.
    The passage where the woman is looking at pictures at the shrine in Grumpy Maries house (?) I have sat at kitchen tables looking at old pictures just like that. Old village pictures from before WW2. There are so few of them because everyone lives were so disrupted from WW1 then the Greek Civil war then WW2 and the Italian occupation. (My mother in law is famous for spitting at the Italian soldiers as they passed through.) No one had cameras nor one hour photo shops. So these pictures are handled like relics. Anyway…..great stories. These women that you met must have been very interesting. Could you tell me a little more about why you were there? (if you have time)
    Cynthia in Florida

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