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A Soldier of the Great War

4.35  ·  Rating details ·  5,564 Ratings  ·  626 Reviews
From acclaimed novelist Mark Helprin, 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.
Paperback, 860 pages
Published June 1st 2005 by Mariner Books (first published 1991)
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Jan 26, 2017 rated it it was ok
Confusing ‘epic’ with just ‘very long’, this book has entertaining sections but cannot justify an investment of 860 pages. It tells the story of one Alessandro Giuliani, an Italian soldier who goes off to fight in 1914 and soon shows a propensity for escaping death and injury which is only matched by his proficiency as a rider, his irresistibility to women, his prowess as a mountain-climber, his fortitude, his moral strength, his physical strength, his perceptive art criticism, his religious ins ...more
David J.
Mar 01, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to David by: Dustin
“My father wanted me to join him in the practice of law, but I saw how greatly he suffered the requirement of being clever. It separated him from his soul, and it didn’t get him anything other than a living.”

I suppose it is always true that we gain from books what we can relate to. The themes that dominate our daily lives in our teens, our 20’s, 30’s, and so forth vary radically. These themes are filters over what we read and absorb, creating a different experience for us each time we read. So i
Dec 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
I finished this novel with a newborn baby (my own, if you’re wondering) on my chest. The book and the baby were (literally) roughly the same size, so turning the pages without waking the infant was a challenge. Also challenging was trying to read after having been awake for three straight days. The old saying is definitely true: it’s tough to read while suffering audible and visual hallucinations. (At one point, the heat duct in my room starting lecturing me on the European Monetary Union; that ...more
Dec 09, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: bio, italy, hf, favorites
Whatever I could possibly say cannot do justice to this book. How Helprin uses language is magnificent - the dialogue, the thoughts he evokes, the humor, the beauty he paints for the reader. I have to give this book five stars, although I have only read half. Well now I have completed the book and this makes me so sad - I don't want it to end.

Jul 31, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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 soldi ...more
Lewis Weinstein
Dec 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
A Soldier of the Great War is a compelling read and I was left with a marvelous portrait of a thoughtful man whose life has been horribly distorted and, despite his heroism and accomplishments, and his own longevity, largely wasted by the experience of meaningless war. This is mankind's history ... over and over again, from time immemorial to the present day.

Helprin's writing technique (at least in this book and Refiner's Fire, which I read a year or so ago) is to tell a sequence of what seem t
switterbug (Betsey)
Feb 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A friend recommended this epic book to me despite knowing I wasn't fond of Helprin's novels. Well, he certainly perceived my taste fittingly, and I am forever indebted to him for persuading me to read this beautiful, evocative, deeply resonating story of a soldier-scholar living through WW I.

This is not like any other war novel I have read, and I've read a number of them. Although you are taken inside the reality of war--in the muddy trenches, in the grasp of grenades, marching with battalions,
Dec 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
It's taking me a long time to read this. Not because it's bad. Just the opposite. The writing is so exquisite that my heart is breaking over and over again and I realize I'm not making the time to read. Yet I'm drawn back every day, and then wonder why I'm avoiding it. Against the backdrop of the brutality and idiocy of war, the beauty of life and the spirit are awesome, awesome as in the mysterious majesty that raises us to ecstasy.

100 more pages and I don't want it to end.

Breathtaking. My god
Mark Linehan
Jul 30, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This book puts Erich Maria Remarque to shame. Beautiful prose highlights a forgotten front of a forgotten war as a student of aesthetics becomes a soldier of World War I in the Italian army. The characters brought to life by Mark Helprin are perfectly tragic in their hope and optimism. As you read, you desperately try to connect yourself to Alessandro, but as you press on, you come to realize that we are all Nicolo, his companion on the road away from Rome in 1964, ignorant and selfish, thinking ...more
Raeden Zen
May 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A Poetic Journey During War and Peace

“Alessandro grieved. His punishment was that nothing in the world could touch him. His punishment was that God had put him into battle and preserved him from its dangers.”

In summer 1964, after the operator of a streetcar denies a fare to a young boy, an elder man, Alessandro Guiliani, walks off in protest. Alessandro joins the boy, and in their journey from Rome to a far away village, he tells the boy the story of his life; from his early days living as the s
I tend to race through books, which was a huge mistake with this one. A Soldier of the Great War needs to be read slowly with each description and each passage savored. It is a gorgeous, almost achingly beautiful book. If someone could "paint" a book, this would be it. True art. Reading this book is like taking a drug... you walk away seeing everything from a different -- and spiritually deeper -- angle. This book makes me realize how asleep we are, and how much richer life is than we ever stop ...more
My pick for the best American novel of the late 20th century. Dramatic, engrossing, a long and poignant read, an amazing journey in the midst of war, the discovery of love, all anchored by heartbreakingly beautiful prose.

From the Mark Helprin web site (used with permission)

In the summer of 1964, Alessandro Giuliani, an old and partially lame professor of aesthetics —white hair and mustaches, white suit, cane— is thrown off a trolley on the outskirts of Rome after he comes to the defense of a yo
Tamir Damari
Dec 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Helprin is not for everyone. He's moralistic, his female characters are an afterthought, much of his philosophy is better suited for the 19th century and his books invariably involve military conflict. That being said, he's is the most talented writer I've ever read. He can make the most mundane event sound poetic, and his gift for metaphor is staggering. There are passages within each of his books which almost literally take your breath away.

There is a relentless optimism to all of his stories.
Rick Slane
An old man was reminiscing mostly about his WWI experiences as an Italian soldier. At times I wished he would hurry up and get on with the story lines that interested me. Then at others I wanted to know more about his life and his thoughts. This book is not for everyone. If you like Joseph Heller (Catch-22),Vonnegut & Remarque you might enjoy this novel. It is about 800 pages so I recommend it to patient readers.
Kyle Mcclure
Sep 09, 2007 rated it it was amazing
You win, Mr. Helprin. Your fine novel transcends my smart-ass review. Even so, I give you five out of five pitons driven into the rock face of an impossible cliff in the Italian Alps by a soldier we have come to love on his way to rescue his friend who we hope is not dead. You get extra credit for your humorous inclusion of the roller-coaster decorating profession.
William Clay
Jul 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I always liked books where the protagonist confronts whatever obstacles confront him and overcomes in the end. Reading this book,and reading Mark Helprin in general, is like listening to a Mozart Symphony. I feel arrested by it's melodies until it's conclusion. Helprin's gift for prose is unparalleled. His descriptions are so vivid I felt like I was watching a film. What I don't particularly like are books, or films that try to portray "true life" as it were. These are ones where the bad guy get ...more
Dec 29, 2007 rated it it was amazing
So...this would probably be the greatest novel ever written. It is a war story and a love story, a story about God and beauty, a story about perseverance, and it's really funny and quirky at times. Mark Helprin is our most intelligent writer, and our most underappreciated. I don't read many books more than once, but I've read this one 3 times and some of the passages countless times.
Jan 15, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Judith Giuliani
Shelves: own, fiction

The novel probably deserves more than 3 stars. Parts of it are very moving, and Helprin has important things to say and creates a wonderful, deeply humane character in Alessandro Giuliani. But it was a long, looooong slog. It felt like a 40-mile hike. More chore than fun.
Ahmad Sharabiani
A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin
Oct 22, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Never was I MORE RELIEVED to be done with reading a book as I was with this one. This tale, in which Alessandro Giuliani, an aging First World War veteran in his dotage, speaks about his life to a young lad (Nicolo) in his late teens while the 2 make their way on foot from the countryside to Rome during August 1964, is ponderous and tiresome. Alessandro, who grew up and lived a life of ease and comfort up til the First World War, loves to pontificate on just about any subject. In this respect, h ...more
Captain Sir Roddy, R.N. (Ret.)
A lyrical, enchanting and sweeping tale that was simply impossible to put down once I started reading. This is the story of a human life, the life of a young Italian, Alessandro, at the very beginning of the 20th century, learning to live and love with his family in Rome, mountain climbing in the Italian Alps, and then becoming a man on the battlefields of World War I. I don't quite know how to describe it, but there is something almost Tolstoyan in Helprin's wordcraft and the breadth and scope ...more
Feb 18, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: floor-joists
This is a beautiful story. Allesandro’s tale of his life is a love story to his family & comrades in arms. The author, Mark Helprin, makes us care for the characters in this book and grieve for them & their families. Allesandro tells his story with charm and humour and he’s shown to be a man of substance, feeling and loyalty.
He travels with a young, uneducated young man who he defended. Niccolo is enthralled with the story that Allesandro tells of the war, his part in it, and his loves.
Feb 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: wwi
An interesting and well-written book, but not one of my favorites. Helprin is a skilled writer, but not brilliant; the story is engrossing and the setting is well-chosen, but I think in the end what really bothered me is that the main character, Alessandro, fails to become truly lovable. He is admirable in a super-hero way: infinitely competent, succeeding when he should and failing when he must. Although we experience nearly every minute of his long life, his strange and frightening experiences ...more
Sam Negri
Nov 27, 2012 rated it liked it
My copy of this book was 860 pages. I read 400 pages and finally came to the conclusion that it was a waste of time because I had practically no curiosity about the main or subordinate characters. I tossed it.

This book was a bestseller when it came out. I have no idea why. It is essentially a collection of 1,500 word anecdotes with a thin film of connecting glue.

Most of what came out of the characters' mouths was implausible. There's an awful lot of inflated dialogue that sounded to me like word
May 21, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
This is a difficult to categorize book, as it swings from serious to farcical and much of it strains credulity, but oh, what a tale! It is fascinating to read about life in Europe around the turn of the century and into the Great War, or what we now called World War I.

The world was turned upside down by that war, and it is apparent in the book. The dynasties die, the nobility fade away, and what is left is the modern world. Helprin has a deep awareness to the way the setting of the book allows
Sep 16, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is really a beautiful and moving story, full of descriptions for all your senses and great dialogue. At times, it almost read like a screenplay for some sweeping, dramatic, big-screen film. The 800-page story moved quickly in short theatrical scenes and, like in real life, important characters could (and did) emerge at any time.

I'm still trying to figure out one of the recurring themes, and I know some symbolism was just lost on me entirely. Still, the book was full of rich stories and vig
Dec 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
Ok, I had moments when I considered this book sluggish and long but I always picked it up happily and with interest. Overall, I really enjoyed this one. This story takes you through the life of a man before, during (mostly) and after WWI. I'm sure this one will stick with me for some time to come.
Aug 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I love this book. I am head-over-heels, blushing when I look at it, butterflies in my stomach, giggling like a school girl, in love with this book. This is the first book I've ever read that I wanted to start again as soon as I finished the last page. It has adventure, romance, philosophy, religion, art, nature and so much more. Breath-taking descriptions of both natural and man-made beauty, hilarious satire, heart-stopping scenes of danger and heart-breaking scenes of loss. Lovely descriptive w ...more
Rink Murray
Jan 02, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: re-read
This is the second time I've read this long book. Re-reads generally fall into two categories: those that speak to me less the second time through, likely because time, age, and experience have changed my metrics for literature, and those that speak to me more. This book falls into the second. As with the first time through, I was struck with the oddity of Alessandro's experiences--in the River Guard chasing Mafioso, cutting marble, in the mountains, the heroic and beautiful and heartbreaking sc ...more
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Mark Helprin belongs to no literary school, movement, tendency, or trend. As many have observed and as Time Magazine has phrased it, “He lights his own way.” His three collections of short stories (A Dove of the East and Other Stories, Ellis Island and Other Stories, and The Pacific and Other Stories), six novels (Refiner's Fire, Winter's Tale, A Soldier of the Great War, Memoir From Antproof Case ...more
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