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A Soldier of the Great War (1991)

Mark Helprin

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#1 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 11 January 2012 - 09:38 PM

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I'm currently reading it, crying for a bit, then reading some more. Where else would you find a novel about World War I primarily devoted to discussing theology, philosophy and aesthetics? Nowhere. It's captivating. The discussions that take place in the book are worth reading aloud to friends over a few glasses of wine. The descriptions in the book, just like in Winter's Tale, are masterful. The description of how different characters in the story resign themselves to the fact that, once they get to the trenches, they only have, at best, a couple more weeks to live - leave me a little dumbfounded. When I was in Iraq, my friends and I all had to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we had just a chance of not making it back - and that was hard enough. Imagining what it would be like to be stuck in World War I is difficult - but Helprin brings you there.

I also strongly identify with how Helprin describes, from the character Alessandro's point of view, how soul-numbing war and military life can be. If you don't have the right temperament for it (and I never did) it can feel like a crushing weight on your shoulders. The ability just to think and reflect is discouraged in the military (whether on purpose or just by the grueling routine). You would think the time would be there in abundance, but it's strangely not. The fact that this story is about a guy who insists upon it anyway is making it a book after my own heart.


Edited by J.A.A. Purves, 13 March 2014 - 01:34 PM.


#2 Overstreet

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Posted 11 January 2012 - 11:43 PM

Pretty much equal with Winter's Tale in my mind when it comes to Helprin masterpieces. Both of them would be on my 10 favorite novels list.

Edward Norton's wanted to star in a film version for a long time. I doubt it'll happen at this point.

Edited by Overstreet, 11 January 2012 - 11:44 PM.


#3 Tyler

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Posted 11 January 2012 - 11:47 PM

I read this a few years ago when I was reading all the Helprin I could find. I liked it a lot, but didn't connect to it as directly as you are.

I know Overstreet and I had a brief discussion about it in a thread about aesthetics and art, but I can't find it now.

#4 John Drew

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Posted 12 January 2012 - 02:14 AM

I have a hard time when it comes to marking up books, underlining passages, dogearring corners. A Soldier of the Great War is one of those books where it becomes a compulsion to do all those things. As with J.O., this is a top 10 for me... perhaps top 5. It's kind of sad to say this, but I have a specific passage from this book preserved for Helprin's eventual passing (which I pray is decades away).

I just picked up a copy of Memoir from Antproof Case off a shelf from Goodwill, and will be reading that as soon as I finish my current book.

#5 Crow

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Posted 12 January 2012 - 04:09 PM

This is my favorite Mark Helprin novel, even more so than Winter's Tale. And he has three or four that easily rank among my favorite novels of all time. A Soldier of the Great War is truly epic in its scope and the beauty of its language.

#6 Andrew

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Posted 12 January 2012 - 06:32 PM

I also strongly identify with how Helprin describes, from the character Alessandro's point of view, how soul-numbing war and military life can be. If you don't have the right temperament for it (and I never did) it can feel like a crushing weight on your shoulders. The ability just to think and reflect is discouraged in the military (whether on purpose or just by the grueling routine). You would think the time would be there in abundance, but it's strangely not.


Jeremy, this statement makes me strongly believe that you would greatly appreciate Karl Marlantes' nonfiction work, What it is like to Go to War. This failure of introspection and lack of opportunity for it within the warring culture is a major grievance running throughout Marlantes' eloquent, moving treatise. (He was a heavily decorated Marine in the Vietnam-America war, by the way.)

#7 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 28 March 2012 - 01:20 PM

Pretty much equal with Winter's Tale in my mind when it comes to Helprin masterpieces. Both of them would be on my 10 favorite novels list.

Edward Norton's wanted to star in a film version for a long time. I doubt it'll happen at this point.

It may not happen for Norton, but maybe after Winter's Tale makes it onto the movie screen, there will suddenly be more demand for a film version this book as well.

I have a hard time when it comes to marking up books, underlining passages, dogearring corners. A Soldier of the Great War is one of those books where it becomes a compulsion to do all those things. As with J.O., this is a top 10 for me... perhaps top 5.

I do that naturally already, so my copy of the book is pretty ragged - and I've already lent it to a friend who seems to be tearing through it.

Jeremy, this statement makes me strongly believe that you would greatly appreciate Karl Marlantes' nonfiction work, What it is like to Go to War. This failure of introspection and lack of opportunity for it within the warring culture is a major grievance running throughout Marlantes' eloquent, moving treatise. (He was a heavily decorated Marine in the Vietnam-America war, by the way.)

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll give it a try, and, since it looks like he's only written one other book, a novel about Vietnam, I'll probably get pick both of them up together.

So I finished this a couple months ago. I can't get over how this is a novel that reaches heights of greatness and is also so recently written. I've never studied how many authors or artists are actually recognized in their own time, but I'm convinced without a doubt that, one hundred years from now, Mark Helprin's name will dominate American Literature of our time period. This book does more than just wonderfully describe each scene, from the WWI trenches to the Alpine Mountains to the sunrises over the city of Rome, but it interweaves so many deep questions and insights into life and history and then explores them, often unexpectedly, with a whole cast of colorful and loveable characters, that I've been still been thinking about and remembering things I read from it days, weeks and months later.

If anyone has not started reading Helprin yet, it's time to start. I have a few more of his books to go through, but after reading A Soldier of the Great War, it looks like I need to start reading a little more Wilfred Owen, David Jones, Siegfried Sassoon and, oh, perhaps some Benedetto Croce as well.

#8 John Drew

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Posted 18 April 2012 - 11:39 PM

Just finished reading Helprin's Memoir from Antproof Case. I found it to be a little too disjointed, with a main character that was bit too much like Alessandro Giuliani from A Soldier of the Great War.

I'm fairly sure that this isn't a book I'll be picking up again, so if anyone is interested in having it passed onto them, send a message my way and I'll make arrangements to get it to you.





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