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A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

Because of Alessandro’s spectacles, Nicolò was able to see that the moon had mountains and seas. His sudden apprehension of the moon, so close and full, riding over them like a huge airship, endeared it to him forever. For perhaps the first time in his life he was lifted entirely outside himself and separated from his wants. As he contemplated the huge smoldering disc he was easily able to suspend time and the sensation of gravity, and a sort of internal electricity overflowed within him. It came in waves, and grew stronger and stronger as the moon glided from orange and amber to pearl and white. And then, after only a few minutes, the soul that had taken flight returned to a body in which the heart was pounding like the heart of a bird that has just alighted from a long fast flight.

“What happened to me?” he asked, with a convulsive shudder.

“When I was your age,” Alessandro said, “I had already learned to compress what you just experienced into bolts of pure lightning.”

Nicolò didn’t know what to think, so he stared ahead.


“When a great sight comes to sweep you down, fight it. It will take you, for sure, but keep your eyes open, and you can beat it, like molten steel, into beams of light.

“I used to take long walks in the city, and when I was able to immerse myself in a cross-fire of beautiful images I would ignite just as you did. It has many names, and is one of the prime forces of history, and yet it keeps itself hidden, as if it were shy.

“A favorite trick of mine, that I have since abandoned, was to concentrate the overflow upon the horses of the carabinieri to make them rear up on their hind legs and whinny. They’re very sensitive to human feelings, and when they know that you are greatly moved they will often react in sympathetic fashion.”

“How did you do that?”

“It wasn’t hard. I had to be all worked up, but when I was young I was like a perpetual lightning storm. I would concentrate upon the horse as if he were the emblem and paradigm of every horse that ever was or ever will be, and then throw the current across the gap.

“The horse would turn his head to me and draw it back, widening his eyes. Then he’d shudder as if a sudden chill had come over him. At that point I’d open the gates to let the power sweep out all at once, and he’d rear and cry out the way horses do, with a sound that seems able to pierce through all things.

“I’ll never forget the surprise of the carabinieri, the fall of their coats, and the banging of their swords as they stood rigidly in the stirrups so as not to be thrown. They were never angry. After the horses had expressed themselves so completely, they and their riders always seemed to regard each other with awe. More often than not, as I passed I would hear the rider saying to his agitated mount, ‘What got into you? What has moved you?’ You could see them patting the horses’ necks to calm them down.

“I don’t do it anymore. I’m not sure I could.

“But the moon, what a lovely thing. To see it makes me very happy. My wife’s face, especially when she was young, would have been perfect -- in the sense that she could have been a star in films -- had her eyes not been so full of love. When she smiles,” he said, indicating the cool glow that had begun to climb steeply into the sky, “it was as lovely as that.”

“This is how you’ve never left her,” Nicolò said.

Alessandro made a curt bow, closing his eyes for an instant. “In this and in many other ways, but they are not enough. My symbols, my parallels, my discoveries, cannot even begin to do her justice and cannot bring her back. The most I can do is to make the memory of her shine. So I touch lightly, ever so gently, seeking after gentle things, for she was gentle.

“Now look for the apposition,” he said, drawing himself up from what might have made him falter, “of the moon on the one hand, and the city of Rome on the other.”

Comments (11)


A great reading. Helprin creates magical, moving moments that inspire readers to experience life and the world as the wonders they are.

Helprin's my favorite living fiction writer and "A Soldier..." is his best novel, imo; easily my favorite fictional work of the past 25 years. No thoughtful person, "conservative" or otherwise, should miss it, or Helprin in general for that matter. If you don't want to start with a big novel, read his collection of stories called The Pacific.

I like Freddy and Frederika as an intro; it's funnier and less sardonic than a lot of his more recent works.

I reread F&F last year. I liked it a lot more than I did the first time I read it, mainly because I more adequately "got" what he was doing in it (my fault, not Helprin's) but I'd be hesitant to recommend it as an intro precisely because it's so atypical.

Dad, it only took me two decades to follow through on your recommendation about this novel, eh?

I enjoyed it greatly. While consistently brilliant in description and metaphoric imagery, the richness of the language grew a bit wearying at times; but the dialogue and characters were fantastic. Helprin also managed to introduce some marvelous humor and unexpected twists. It certainly conveys with power and horror the utter calamity of the First World War, but without degenerating into nihilism. The bizarre character of the dwarf-lunatic/scribe-tyrant Orfeo provided a singular perspective on the murderous caprice of bureaucrats in modern total-war militaries.

"While consistently brilliant in description and metaphoric imagery, the richness of the language grew a bit wearying at times"

Unlike many contemporary fiction writers who take a more minimalist approach to language Helprin goes the opposite direction. This requires that he be read slowly and attentively, because if you read him "at speed" he may come across as cloying, which indeed can be wearisome.

Fascinating sample!

This sounds like the kind of book I would want to send someone to read for me ahead of time, someone who knows me well, and then ask, "Do you think I would like it?" Before reading it. :-)


I agree with Nice, Helprin requires reading slowly in order to savor his prose. I intend to do so with his new novel, "Paris in the Present Tense", while in Bay View this summer.

Lydia, are you looking for a kind of Hays Code reader rating? The book does contain some sexuality and graphic violence, a fair bit of off-color humor among soldiers, as well as a number of heartbreaking, ghastly or horrifying descriptions of catastrophe in war.

I agree, Paul, but if I were giving it a rating I'd probably go "PG-13" rather than "R", as it's by no means as graphic/explicit as some of today's hyper-realist fiction, which I dislike heartily.

Paul, that's certainly relevant, since I do have a low tolerance for that kind of thing. But it's only part of it. I also have a "is this too weird?" axis along which I evaluate things for my own enjoyment. I have a "is the ending just too sad?" axis. There's a "do I care enough about the characters?" axis. And so forth. These aren't all necessarily judgements of literary quality (though the last one is). There are very great novels that I don't enjoy. I tried rereading the Brothers Karamazov about nine years ago and just could not enjoy it. Yet I acknowledge Dostoevsky's greatness.

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