A Soldier of the Great War

( 31 )


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. Then the Great War intervenes. Half a century later, in August of 1964, Alessandro, a white-haired ...

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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. 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.

From the bestselling author of Winter's Tale comes a novel that encompasses the horror of war and the triumph of love. A septuagenarian war hero and scholar recalls his most terrible adventure: World War I, a surreal parade of horrors that devastated and defined his existence.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Energetic prose, poetic images of great intensity and an antic imagination combine in this gripping moral fable narrated by a septuagenarian irrevocably altered by WW I. This BOMC main selection was on PW 's hardcover bestseller list for eight weeks. (May)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156031134
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 6/28/2005
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 880
  • Sales rank: 99,849
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 8.04 (h) x 1.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Helprin

MARK HELPRIN is the acclaimed author of Winter's Tale, A Soldier of the Great War, Freddy and Fredericka, The Pacific, Ellis Island, Memoir from Antproof Case, and numerous other works. His novels are read around the world, translated into over twenty languages.


Mark Helprin, a novelist, is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal. He is also a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and a fellow of the American Academy in Rome. In 1996 he served as a foreign policy adviser to presidential candidate Bob Dole.

His books include A Dove of the East & Other Stories, Refiner's Fire, Ellis Island & Other Stories, Winter's Tale, Swan Lake, A Soldier of the Great War, Memoir From Antproof Case, A City in Winter, and The Veil of Snows.

Mr. Helprin was raised on the Hudson and in the British West Indies. He has degrees from Harvard College and Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Author biography from The Wall Street Journal.

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    1. Hometown:
      Upstate New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 28, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      A.B., Harvard University, 1969; A.M., 1972. Postgraduate study at Oxford University, 1976-77.

Read an Excerpt


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. The city was quiet and all was still except the crowns of a few slightly swaying pines, one lost and tentative cloud, and an old man who rushed through the Villa Borghese, alone. Limping along paths of crushed stone and tapping his cane as he took each step, he raced across intricacies of sunlight and shadow spread before him on the dark garden floor like golden lace.

Alessandro Giuliani was tall and unbent, and his buoyant white hair fell and floated about his head like the white water in the curl of a wave. Perhaps because he had been without his family, solitary for so long, the deer in deer preserves and even in the wild sometimes allowed him to stroke their cloud-spotted flanks and touch their faces. And on the hot terra cotta floors of roof gardens and in other, less likely places, though it may have been accidental, doves had flown into his hands. Most of the time they held in place and stared at him with their round gray eyes until they sailed away with a feminine flutter of wings that he found beautiful not only for its delicacy and grace, but because the sound echoed through what then became an exquisite silence.

As he hurried along the Villa Borghese he felt his blood rushing and his eyes sharpening with sweat. In advance of his approach through long tunnels of dark greenery the birds caught fire in song but were perfectly quiet as he passed directly underneath, so that he propelled and drew their hypnotic chatter before and after him like an ocean wave pushing through an estuary. With his white hair and thick white mustache, Alessandro Giuliani might have seemed English were it not for his cream-colored suit of distinctly Roman cut and a thin bamboo cane entirely inappropriate for an Englishman. Still trotting, breathless, and tapping, he emerged from the Villa Borghese onto a long wide road that went up a hill and was flanked on either side by a row of tranquil buildings with tile roofs from which the light reflected as if it were a waterfall cascading onto broken rock.

Had he looked up he might have seen angels of light dancing above the throbbing bright squares-in whirlwinds, will-o'-the-wisps, and golden eddies-but he didn't look up, for he was intent on getting to the end of the long road, to a place where he had to catch a streetcar that, by evening, would take him far into the countryside. He would have said, anyway, that it was better to get to the end of the road than to see angels, for he had seen angels many times before. Their faces shone from paintings; their voices rode the long and lovely notes of arias; they descended to capture the bodies and souls of young children; they sang and perched in the trees; they were in the surf and the streams; they inspired dancing; and they were the right and holy combination of words in poetry. As he climbed the hill he thought not of angels and their conveyances, but of a motorized trolley. It was the last to leave Rome on Sunday, and he did not want to miss it.

THE ROAD traveled relatively straight to the top of the hill, but descended the opposite side in switchbacks that, unlike their mountain counterparts, cupped fountains in the turns. Stairs cut through its shuttling, and Alessandro Giuliani took them fast and painfully. He tapped his cane at each step, partly in commemoration, partly in retaliation, and partly to make it a metronome, for he had discovered long before that to defeat pain he had to separate it from time, its most useful ally. As he went down, the walking became easier, and a short distance from the crossroads where he would board the streetcar he found himself on ten flights of gradual stairs and landings in a thick green defile. Through a confessional grille of tangled trees in a long dark gallery penetrated at intervals by the blinding sun, he saw the pale circle of light that marked his destination.

Drawing closer, he knew from the open blue awning that-unlike everything else in Rome that day-the cafe that seemed to exist solely for people who awaited the rarest streetcar in Italy had not shut its doors. He had neglected to buy presents for his granddaughter and her family, and now he knew that he would be able to take something to them. Though his great-granddaughter would not be pleased by gifts of food, she would be asleep when he arrived, and in the morning he would walk with her to the village to get a toy. Meanwhile, he would buy some prosciutto, chocolate, and dried fruit, hoping that these would be appreciated as much as his more elaborate presents. Once, he brought an expensive English shotgun to his granddaughter's husband, and at other times he arrived with the kinds of things that were to be expected from a man who had many years previously outrun any possible use for his money.

The tables and chairs on the terrace of the cafe were crowded with people and bundles. The overhead wires neither vibrated nor sizzled, which meant that Alessandro Giuliani could walk slowly, buy provisions, and have something to drink. On this line the cables always began to sing ten minutes before the tram arrived, because of the way it gripped them as it rounded the hill.

Walking through the thicket of chairs, he glanced at people who would ride with him on the way to Monte Prato, though most would leave the streetcar in advance of the last stop, and some even before it lowered its whip-like antennae, switched to diesel, and ran far beyond the grid of electrical wires from which it took its sustenance on the streets of the city. It had rubber tires and a pantograph, and, because it was a cross between a trolley and a bus, the drivers called it a mule.

A construction worker who had made for himself a hat of folded newspaper thrust his right hand into a bucket to encourage a listless squid that Alessandro knew would have to die within the hour from lack of oxygen. The headline running along the rim of the hat said, inexplicably, "Greeks Make Bridges of Gold for the Rest of 1964." Perhaps it was related to the Cyprus Crisis, but, then again, Alessandro thought, it might have had something to do with sports, a subject of which he was entirely ignorant. Two Danes, a boy and a girl in blue-and-white student hats, were at one corner of the terrace, seated next to German army rucksacks almost as big as they were. Their shorts were as tight as surgeons' gloves, and they were so severely and brazenly entangled in one another that it was impossible to tell his smooth and hairless limbs from hers.

Several poor women of Rome, perhaps sweepers or cafeteria workers, sat together over glasses of iced tea and were overcome now and then with the hysterical giggling born of fatigue and hard work. Sometimes they were free for a few days to go back into the country, where they had once been sylph-like little girls completely different from the obedient cardigan-covered barrels they had become. As Alessandro went past they lowered their voices, for although he was courtly and deferential, his age, bearing, and unusual self-possession awakened their memories of another time. They looked down at their hands, remembering the discipline not of the factory, but of childhood.

At another table were five strong men in the prime of life. They were truck drivers, and they wore sun glasses, striped shirts, and faded army clothing. Their arms and wrists were as thick as armor; they had huge families; they worked impossibly hard; and they thought they were worldly because they had driven over the high Alpine passes and spent time with blonde women in German bordellos. Without thinking, Alessandro formed them into a squad of soldiers in a war that had long been over and would soon be forgotten, but then, catching himself, he disbanded them.

"It hasn't arrived yet, has it?" he asked the proprietor of the cafe.

"No, not yet," the proprietor answered, leaning over the copper bar to glance at the wires, for he could read their vibrations as if they were a schedule. "It's nowhere near; it won't come for at least ten minutes.

"You're late, you know," he continued. "When I didn't see you coming, I thought you had finally given in and bought a car."

"I hate cars," Alessandro said, without the slightest energy. "Would never buy one. They're ugly and they're small. I'd rather ride in something airy and open, or walk, because to be in a car gives me a headache. Their motion frequently makes me want to vomit, although I don't. And they're so cheaply made I don't even like to look at them." He made a gesture in imitation of spitting. He was too refined to have done this in normal circumstances, but here he was speaking the language of the man behind the counter, who, like Alessandro, was a veteran of the Alpine War.

"These automobiles," Alessandro said, as if he were conceding the existence of a new word, "are everywhere, like pigeon shit. I haven't seen a naked piazza in ten years. They put them all over the place, so that you can't even move. Someday I'll come home and find automobiles in my kitchen, in all the closets, and in the bathtub.

"Rome was not meant to move, but to be beautiful. The wind was supposed to be the fastest thing here, and the trees, bending and swaying, to slow it down. Now it's like Milan. Now the slimmest swiftest cats are killed because they aren't agile enough to cross streets where once-and I remember it-a cow could nap all afternoon. It wasn't like this, so frantic and tense, everybody walking, talking, eating, and fucking all the time. Nobody sits still anymore, except me."

He looked up at a row of medals displayed in a glass case above a battalion of liquor bottles. Alessandro had medals, too. He kept them in a brown Morocco-leather folder in the credenza in his study. He hadn't opened the folder in many years. He knew exactly what they looked like, for what they had been awarded, and the order in which he had earned them, but he did not wish to see them. Each one, tarnished or bright, would push him back to a time that he found both too painful and too beautiful to remember, and he had never wanted to be one of the many old men who, like absinthe drinkers, are lost in dreams. Had he owned a cafe he probably would have put his medals in a case above the bar, because it would have been good for business, but for as long as he could, until the last, he would keep certain memories locked away.

"Let me offer you something," said the proprietor, "compliments of the house."

Copyright © 1991 by Mark Helprin

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Table of Contents

i. Rome, August 1
ii. Race to the Sea 94
iii. His Portrait When He Was Young 211
iv. The 19th River Guard 249
v. The Moon and the Bonfires 297
vi. Stella Maris 388
vii. A Soldier of the Line 490
viii. The Winter Palace 634
ix. La Tempesta 733
x. La Rondine 782
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 31 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 31 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2001

    The book I'd want, if stranded on a desert isle.

    I'm a reader who tries to stay away from just about anything on a 'bestseller' list. I pride myself in discovering the hidden jewels...E.Annie Proulx,Thomas Mcguane,Mark Helprin, to name a few. There are so many great writers out there who are not churning out lawyer,detective,occult,and lust books,it's hard to get excited about the latest work of some formulaic writer. I was intrigued by the story synopsis on the inside cover of 'Soldier', so decided to give it a whirl. There are few books that are nearly perfect from beginning to end...A Soldier of the Great War is one! Mark Helprin composes, he doesn't write,and some of the passages in this great novel are so stunning in their beauty, I found myself rereading to savor the lines. Someone should tell Oprah's Book Club about this one! Mr. Helprin's masterpiece deserves to be read by anyone and everyone who considers a great novel one of life's treasures. Epic in scope and granduer, Awe inspiring in its prose. This is without a doubt one of my favorite books of all time.

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2010

    A book I will never forget

    This was my first Helprin book (I've now read them all.) It'a about WWI based on the memories of an old man. I've never read such amazing description of war in any book. As a young soldier lay wounded on the battlefield with horrors surrounding him, I could almost feel what that would be like. I said then that no words had ever made me understand what it must be like to be in battle like Helprin's did. His writing is perfection. But this book is about much more than war. It's about life and looking back on it (from one character's view) and forward to it (from another's.) It's a moral tale in the guise of an adventure. This book will really make you think. You will relish every page.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2010

    This is magic realism????

    It truly pains me that people read this book as if it is true magic realism and consider it to be a masterpiece. This book is nothing but one enormous coincidence after the other. It's one of the most memorable "stories" I've ever read, but the way in which it is told is so butchered that I simply could not enjoy it. A scribe that controls the entire world war? Please. And how can we really believe that Alessandro truly loved the lady he married when he instantly fell in love with every woman he ever laid eyes on including his sister. Helprin does nothing but takes the easy way out and tries to pass it off as one of the most sacred forms of writing that ever existed. I'll never read him again. Read Marquez if you want to know what Magic Realism is, because this sure isn't.

    4 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 11, 2009

    A beautifully written book

    Rarely do you see a life story written so beautifully. It presents a point in time with a point of view that really causes one to examine one's own view of life.

    Helprin is a great writer.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2001

    Truly moving and exquisitly written!

    In my endless search for great literature I have found a beacon of hope! This astounding book is an exciting adventure into the life of a soldier of The Great War. It's descriptions are perfect. It's emotions are subtle but heart wrenching and so true to real life. The past and present of the main character's life was woven throughout this book. This gives the reader the satisfaction of knowing the details of the main character's life which a reader so often needs and rarely finds in a book. I truly found myself reading until the wee hours of the morning.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I see my life differently now, having read A Soldier of the Great War.

    Actually, I have read this book in its entirety four or five times... chapters and paragraphs scores more. The idea from Helprin that moves with me in a living way is this: the greatest danger to the human soul is the lack thereof.

    I am exquisitely flummoxed by the depth of feeling I experience while reading Helprin. It's all joy to find in me a me I did not know.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2005

    Perhaps the finest work of fiction I have ever read

    Regardless of your age, gender, or political persuasion, I predict you will love this book like no other. It is, pure and simple, the classic story of a life well lived. You will be constantly challenged by the exhilirating episodic revelations.In just a single word, it is AMAZING!!!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2001

    Exquisite writng!

    I came across this book in my own research on shell shock and the First World War. Of all the fictional accounts I have read, this one is the most memorable. The contrast between the beauty recognized by the protagonist, who is a professor of aesthetics and the savagery of the war in which he finds himself is remarkable. The section where Alessandro is taken to the marble quarry to cut gravestones is something I will never forget. I absolutely loved this book.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2000


    I found this book quite interesting. It had a magnificent plot that combined both the expected and unexpected throughout. Helprin did a superb job of weaving the life-story and thougts of a single man with history and life as a whole. The book focuses not solely on WWI bu instead on life and beauty. The book illustrates how much there really is to the simplist things and how beautiful our world really is. It cruises from aesthecis, and heroism, to love and anti-war feelings. Helprin did a wonderful job, and I enjoyed reading this book. Also. I noticed that in Alesandro's travels he meets a man in a white suit, walking with a caine. This tough gentleman does nto want nor need the help offered him. He pints out that when Alesandro is older he will understand. Even if the novel didn't begin with Alesandro in the state of the old man, it stil would ahve forshadowed him becoming that man later in life.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2001

    One of the Best of All time

    This book is one of the best I have ever read. Helprin is a master of language, tone, character, setting. You will be amazed.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 22, 2015

    Outstanding, lyrical

    This, without a doubt the best book that I have read in a month of Sundays... Not that it took me that long. I think it was approximately 3 weeks total. 860 pages is a fairly hefty book!
    While every page wasn't what I expected it to be it was more or less interesting.
    The story as a whole is a page turner and the ending--- IMO the ending comes before the final chapter...a good ways before the final chapter. I won't give the ending away. I will say however that the beginning of the ending starts when the protagonist begins searching Casualty lists.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2013

    I suppose one could say it is a fantastic story--which it is--bu

    I suppose one could say it is a fantastic story--which it is--but it became tedious for me fairly early as I just couldn't connect with the characters. I found myself continually seeing what page I was on because I choose to never abandon a book once I've started reading it. Nonetheless, the descriptions of World War I were magnificent and, for that alone, I'm glad I spent my time finishing it. Never again.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2013

    What could have been good got lost in too much vividry

    A lot of overembellished poetic crap that after suffering through enough I tossed it across the room and farted.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2013

    best WW1 novel that I've read.

    Fantastic novel. I'm sorry that 'anonymous' got so bent about the furious insane dwarf in the war department, but all he was there for was to underline the madnes and idiocy of war. So there other good WW1 novels to read - go read them! Then come back and write an objectiive review that helps. You don't have to like it but please do a better critique next time,

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2008

    11 years too late...

    I just have to say...I read this book for the first time in 1997, my junior year in high school. This was my first book that challenged me to actually think while reading. Since then, I have read the book 3 times from cover to cover. An amazing book!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 29, 2004

    Hope is infinite

    This book will utterly destroy the reader at times, and then rebuild him stronger. In light and motion, and how they reflect and move through ourselves, are the keys to understanding life. By being TRUTHFUl with oneself, and holding out against all hope, man can endure. Mark, in a very direct way, I have strengthened my faith in God, with what I have taken from your book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2000

    My new favorite

    Helprin is a gifted writer that tells the tale of Allesandro with exquisite detail. The sheer beauty of certain passages required that I stopped in mid plot just to re-read them. Rarely have I encountered a book that has the ability to draw the reader into the scene with such vivd descriptions. I felt Allesandro's pain and joy as if it were my own. A lengthy read that is well worth the effort.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2000

    A Great Book About Life

    Mark Helprin's book covers an entire generation affected by WWI, but it is not just a book about war and its horrors. It is a book which uses both truth and humor to discuss the whole gamut of growing old from a childs' view to an old man's view of this entire experience we call life, from the jobs we do to the experiences which shape our thoughts. It deals with the random meetings of people in different places and the absurdities which make us laugh. The title speaks not only of Alessandro's life but of his father's life in surviving the tempests and changes which occur around us. I read this book long before becoming a father and it continues to touch me today with its wit and wisdom.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2000

    A Wonderful Book

    'A Soldier of the Great War' is about a man named Alessandro Giuliani and his memories of World War I. The earliest memories are from when he was eight or nine years old, and every memory is something that becomes intertwined during WWI. The memories of what he did after the war are all about the direct impact the war had on him as a soldier. <p> Mark Helprin does a wonderful job on illustrating the depredations and frustrations of a soldier in WWI: from the insanity of a trench assault to the stupidity of the Generals and Home Office. It also shows the bonds that forms between soldiers of the line no matter how different they are. He also does a wonderful job in describing the terrain in which Alessandro travels. This book is excellently written and I highly recommend it.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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