Rink Murray's Reviews > A Soldier of the Great War

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
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Jan 02, 10

Read in February, 2009

This is the best book I've read in recent memory.

Read by me, February, 2009, as a recommendation from Doug Curtis.

This is a novel of beauty and light. Or horror and sorrow. Of loss and redemption. Of boundless love. These themes contract and expand, contract and expand musically, as on an accordion playing a sweet song that sweeps you back into your most tender, precious and painful memories.

This book is so vast and sweeping that I could not summarize it well without rewriting it, almost word for word. So what follows will fall well short.

I could summarize this book as the story of Alessandro Guiliani, the son of a Roman lawyer, who was raised in a house of love and grew strong and was strong because of his ability to see beauty in the world. He became a student of beauty and it’s what nourished him and saved him during his moments of greatest danger. For it gave him peace and presence of mind and helped him to reconcile truth or at least speak the truth.

The story starts with Alessandro as an old man, catching a bus to visit family. He is turned off the bus by the driver, for tricking the driver stop to pick up a boy who was desperately chasing the bus to get a ride. The boy (Nicolo) and the old man now contemplate a four day journey to their final destinations. These four days will be the boy’s education, and ours: about the First World War, about life, about beauty and about what we really want from eternity.

Throughout this novel, Alessandro loses nearly everyone he cares for. Yet in that loss, the loss itself, he finds a great beauty.

“One of the categories of beauty,” Alessandro said not so much to Nicolo as to an unseen audience of his peers, “that Aristotle and Croce inexplicably neglect, is the beauty of that which is lost. How intensely, and with such great loyalty, do we take to heart a life that has no chance of revision.”

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