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A Soldier of the Great War (1991)

por Mark Helprin

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1,793379,663 (4.29)105
From acclaimed novelist Mark Helprin comes a lush, literary epic about love, beauty, and the world at war. Alessandro Giuliani, the young son of a prosperous Roman lawyer, enjoys an idyllic life full of privilege: he races horses across the country to the sea, he climbs mountains in the Alps, and, while a student of painting at the ancient university in Bologna, he falls in love. Then the Great War intervenes. Half a century later, in August of 1964, Alessandro, a white-haired professor, tall and proud, meets an illiterate young factory worker on the road. As they walk toward Monte Prato, a village seventy kilometers away, the old man-a soldier and a hero who became a prisoner and then a deserter, wandering in the hell that claimed Europe-tells him how he tragically lost one family and gained another. The boy, envying the richness and drama of Alessandro's experiences, realizes that this magnificent tale is not merely a story: it's a recapitulation of his life, his reckoning with mortality, and, above all, a love song for his family.… (mais)
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Imagine a novelization of Giorgione's renaissance painting, La Tempesta. In Mark Helprin's interpretation the man in the painting is a soldier on leave from a war still brewing in the background, represented by the storm. His salvation and sanity are preserved by the woman and child - the beauty in the world. In the novel the soldier is Alessandro, who in 1964 is an aged figure grown wise as a professor of aesthetics. Helprin is also playing with the 'great war' appellation usually describing World War I and the setting for this novel, encompassing also the struggle with mortality and its meaning.

In some respects this is a fairy tale for adults like 'Winter's Tale'. This one strips away all of the magical realism, but Alessandro leads a charmed life in which when things go well they go ecstatically well, and when they go wrong it can be hilariously wrong or provides opportunity. Alessandro feels that, and he lives his life with tremendous risk and daring. His true talent is for rolling with the punches and finding beauty everywhere he turns. He is especially keen on discovering it in women, and it is the women he meets who empower him to persevere more than anything else. But he finds it as well in children, in art, in poignant moments with his father, and in the spirit of the men who fight alongside him on the Italian-Austrian front.

Alessandro's outlook is optimistic without being naive, and in passing through the madness of war it is subjected to one of the most rigorous tests a man can know. He leaves his sanity open to question without resisting the madness, and in this way it washes over him. His unshakeable faith in a god also helps to see him through, without the need for organized religion. If there is any confusion about how his philosophy informs his life story and vice versa, Helpin makes it all subtly clear in the final part. Bravo. ( )
  Cecrow | Oct 21, 2022 |
I just finished reading A Soldier of the Great War and think I'm going to remember this as one of the best books I've read. I know this is personal but it spoke to me on a bunch of levels I'm interested in like aesthetics, religion, mountaineering, WW1, father-son relationships, love, adventure, the pointlessness of war, etc. However this novel was much more than the themes. The writing kept me going with zippy, interesting and often unexpected dialog, delightful observations of small details, a story structure that was unusual but in the end, it might have been the only way to spin this yarn. I identified with Alessandro as a young man, an old man and almost everything between. At about 800 pages, I don't think this book could have been much shorter -- author Mark Helpin has just so much to say, it is breathtaking.

Some people have criticized it as being too long, the use of magical realism, excessive, etc but I think, personally, that they have missed the point of the book -- which was to describe a remarkable life that was buffeted and shaped by events totally out of his control, and also a world that was just plain out of control. Yes, it's unrealistic that Alessandro survives some of the events and experiences but if he didn't, the book would have been exactly that much shorter. Only those who survive get to write their story, but hopefully they bring the dead along with them and that is exactly what Helprin does with Alessandro. To me, there was one use of magical realism, maybe, in that of the character Orfeo. I believe Helprin is saying it is the only possible explanation for the inexplicable lunacy of Italy's military decisions during the Great War.

A worthwhile, memorable and rewarding read, in my opinion. ( )
  lawrence | Jul 11, 2022 |
read as audio book - much fun and learned a lot about Italy ( )
  Overgaard | Jun 23, 2022 |
A "Heavy" book in many ways - 860 pages! Very philosophical especially on beauty, war, and love. It took me forever to read this because it is so long and complex from the perspective that when the author is wandering on one of the multitude of philosophical thoughts one must be very focused to even remotely understanding. It was worth the perseverance because it's a good story and some of the philosophy is useful for reflecting on. I wonder how historically true the story is on the various part of WWI it covers as I have not hear of much of this. If it is pretty true to history this is even more a a condemnation of war and of the futility and fumbling of Italians in pursuing it. We all know of the ridiculous trench warfare in France and Germany, but not of the crazy things this depicts in Italy and other areas where Italians were involved. ( )
1 vote ZachMontana | Sep 24, 2021 |
The Great War in Italy had its share of trench warfare, but most of the fighting was up north in the mountains, where Italy abuts what was then the AustroHungarian Empire. The soldier of this story, Alessandro, grows up in Rome, and is studying aesthetics when the war begins; he enlists because he feels he can better avoid the worst of it if he volunteers.

Alas, that was not to be. While he leads what seems to be a charmed life, the war in all its cruelty and fatality whirling around him in various venues and battles.

The story is enclosed in the simple adventure of an old man walking to a distant village with a young man, to whom he tells the history of his war and also much more. Helprin uses the character's love of beauty as permission for vivid and often beautiful descriptions of even ugly and terrifying events, but does not forget to show how Alessandro learns, hardens, and finds meaning in life in spite of, or because of, the war.

There are funny scenes as well as tragic ones, some of them just short of magical realism; some villains get their comeuppance promptly, some long after it does any good, some not at all. Many good people die, some almost by accident, some quite deliberately. Ultimately, Alessandro is left with the idea of beauty as that with which God comforts his broken children, and the idea of life as the balance of risk and hope. ( )
1 vote ffortsa | Mar 5, 2020 |
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Mark Helprinautor principaltodas as ediçõescalculado
Torberg, PeterÜbersetzerautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
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On the ninth of August, 1964, Rome lay asleep in afternoon light as the sun swirled in a blinding pinwheel above its roofs, its low hills, and its gilded domes.
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Numbers, as you well know, are delicate illusions. You don't have to have Archimedes talking about rabbits and turtles to know that when you start in with negative numbers, as we do with young schoolchildren, you are singing like a Druid.

In war, the terror, the compression of eschatological questions, the abridgement of the laws of man, the lack of sense in it, the confusion, the entropy...All combine to demolish completely the meaning and integrity of numbers.
"If you think you've said everything you have to say," his father told him, "talk to the opposition."
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From acclaimed novelist Mark Helprin comes a lush, literary epic about love, beauty, and the world at war. Alessandro Giuliani, the young son of a prosperous Roman lawyer, enjoys an idyllic life full of privilege: he races horses across the country to the sea, he climbs mountains in the Alps, and, while a student of painting at the ancient university in Bologna, he falls in love. Then the Great War intervenes. Half a century later, in August of 1964, Alessandro, a white-haired professor, tall and proud, meets an illiterate young factory worker on the road. As they walk toward Monte Prato, a village seventy kilometers away, the old man-a soldier and a hero who became a prisoner and then a deserter, wandering in the hell that claimed Europe-tells him how he tragically lost one family and gained another. The boy, envying the richness and drama of Alessandro's experiences, realizes that this magnificent tale is not merely a story: it's a recapitulation of his life, his reckoning with mortality, and, above all, a love song for his family.

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