Alessandro Giuliani, athletic, well muscled, handsome, professor of aesthetics, and fictional protagonist of Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, declares that fighting in the Great War was the most formative episode of his life. Soldiers from other times and other places have often left similar testaments. Oliver Wendell Holmes, soldier of the American Civil War, observed poignantly: “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war, we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top. In our youth our hearts were touched with fire.” What sets Alessandro apart is that his wartime experiences were both numerous and fantastical; they rival those of Odysseus. Also, his experiences were not importantly connected to actual events in the Great War. In most respects (excluding machine guns and high explosives), he could have been a soldier in any European war. Perhaps he was only doing what soldiers sometimes do. They create exaggerated memories of their actions, thoughts, and feelings as a strategy to fend off the horror of it all.
I admit to having had the expectation that a novel with the title A Soldier of the Great War would incorporate the Great War in some identifiably historical ways. My expectation has gone unrealized, but the novel is entertaining and provocative nonetheless. If it isn’t about the Great War, what is it about? That’s a tangled question.
The story is narrated by Alessandro at the age of 74 as he and a 17 year-old boy, Nicolo, walk from the outskirts of Rome to some villages about forty miles away. Having just met, they have little in common initially. Alessandro is old, educated, refined, a man of the world, and an exhausted volcano. Nicolo is young, illiterate, poor, sexually innocent but hormonally erupting. Over the course of thirty-six hours, Alessandro tells Nicolo the story of his life, tells him about the birds and the bees, and introduces him to notions of love, beauty, morality, truth, and God. Through the process of dialogue, he and Nicolo begin the boy’s education. The unformed youth, like the slave in one of the Socratic dialogues, proves an apt pupil. At the end of their journey, Alessandro sends Nicolo on his way having begun to come of age. Then the old man chooses to die in the open air rather than to compromise his principles by going to a hospital. Perhaps Alessandro was channeling Socrates who was also a soldier, athletic, and handsome. He was also thoughtful about truth, beauty, love and educating young men. He also walked and taught. He also chose the manner of his dying.
Similar to Socrates, Alessandro is an enchanting if tediously wordy character. For me his enchantment lies more in his imaginative and comical wartime escapades than it does in his philosophizing about aesthetics. For Alessandro, however, the two cannot be disconnected because, after all, this is a morality tale. He tells Nicolo that he, Alessandro, was a natural-born soldier. He was proud of his soldiering during the war. He was courageous, enduring, effective, and inspirational to other soldiers. However, he declares that his dedication to human love deflected him from otherwise persisting on a soldierly trajectory. He opted for a higher calling. Helprin’s construction of Alessandro’s motivation tells us several important things about A Soldier of the Great War. To start with, there is little disillusionment with the war or war in general. Alessandro doesn’t join the Italian army in order to save the world or to make it better; he claims that his enlistment, indeed his whole life, is apolitical. The main point stands: while the Great War casts a long shadow over Alessandro’s life, the shadow is only a shadow, not a metaphor for destruction, nihilism, or modernity gone wrong. Equally important is his realization that while war is seductive “it has no aesthetic”; it isn’t beautiful. But love is. For Alessandro beauty is essentially mysterious, but human love is knowable. We can all experience beauty through love. And so, after the Great War, Alessandro sets out to apply aesthetics to his life and family. “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” – Neal Ferguson
Also available by Helprin: Winter’s Tale; In Sunlight and in Shadow; The Pacific and Other Stories; Freddy and Fredericka; Ellis Island and Other Stories; Refiner’s Fire; Swan Lake (with Chris Van Allsburg); Double Down, Game Change 2012 (with John Heilemann); A City in Winter (Van Allsburg); The Veil of Snows (van Allsburg); A Dove of the East and Other Stories; Digital Barbarism, A Writer’s Manifesto.