Steve's Reviews > A Soldier of the Great War

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
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Nov 16, 11

Read in January, 2009

When we first meet Alessandro, the soldier from the title, he’s an elderly but still vital man who takes a principled stand against a streetcar driver who refused to stop for a would-be rider giving chase. Alessandro ends up getting off as a kind of protest and faces a distant journey on foot with the impressionable young man who’d been left behind. Along the way, Alessandro tells him (and us) quite a story. It’s filled with events and perspectives prior to the war that hint at the kind of soldier he ultimately becomes. Then it’s off to the Great War itself with all the context you would ever need to see it for what it was.

Had the lone theme of the book been “war is hell”, it still would have been very good. We’re made to care about these guys, which is the key to hating whatever can snuff them out. But Helprin expanded way beyond that. I tried to figure out what made it so much better than other books of its type and concluded that it had a lot to do with Helprin’s confidence. He knew his research was good so that Alessandro’s many duties as an Italian soldier seemed genuine. Surviving the front lines, climbing the Alps, chasing deserters, awaiting a death sentence, recovering in a hospital--it all seemed very real. At the same time Helprin mixed in some elements bordering on the surreal, almost silly, but all to good effect. There were even a few laughs, which are not easy to fold into a work like this. What impressed me most, though, in this vein of self-assurance was how Helprin gave this courageous, war-hardened man a heightened sense of aesthetics and love. An intellect like Alessandro’s, which was well-schooled and constantly at work, would come across as stilted in most any other writer’s hands. Thankfully, Helprin knew he had the chops to make it work.

This is one of my wife’s favorite books of all time. Now I know why. Highly recommended for a time you can fully absorb it.

Updated 11/16/2011: Alessandro didn't often drink beer, but when he did, he preferred Dos Equis.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Steve (new)

Steve Great review. I took a stab at this when it first came out, and remember being thrown by the surreal portions of the story, and as a result set it aside. I think now that I'm older, it might be worth another try.


Jason Reeser I read this nearly twenty years ago, and I would have to agree with this review that is was better other books like this. It had a quirky viewpoint on things, that kept you awake. It reminded me of some of those odd war movies made near the end of the sixties. A bit surreal, as Steve pointed out, and always a feeling that the author is chuckling as he crafts each new scene, even the dark, serious ones.


Steve From your profiles, it looks like we're all guys of a similar vintage. Jason, not that you're likely to want to read it again, but I'm wondering if the mid-life you would view it any differently than the younger you did. One of the things I liked was the mature point-of-view of the narrator as he looked back on his action-packed younger days. He'd had time to think about the meaning of it all by then.

I hope you do give it another try, Steve. It'd give meaning to my review for any part it played in you picking it up again.


Susan No! Don't equate Alessandro with that sketch Dos Equis guy!!


message 5: by William (new)

William I have recently read it again having spent a skiing holiday in the Alto Adige....where you can still view the gun emplacements and find rusting shells....if you enjoyed this may I recommend an old classic:
Hervey Allen's Anthony Adverse - a mega seller in the 30/40s...
Bon Chance!


Steve Thanks for the recommendation, William. The Hervey Allen volumes look very impressive, though with 1224 total pages they'd require a commitment. I see they made a movie of Anthony Adverse. It makes you wonder if they could do the same for A Soldier of the Great War. As you can no doubt attest, the Italian scenery would lend itself to some great cinematography. Alto Adige must be great.


message 7: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Paganus de Fish I enjoy both dark tales and dark ales.


message 8: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Paganus de Fish Thanks for drawing this book to my attention.


Steve Sure thing, Ian. This one ends up on quite a few Favorites Lists.


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