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.