Alessandro Giuliani, the Italian hero of Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, spends much of the novel cliff-hanging — clinging to Alpine precipices and leaping chasms — and so does Helprin, literarily speaking. Literally speaking, Helprin has done his own share of Alpine mountaineering, as well as other daring things like serving in the Israeli air force and declaring himself a Republican. His previous novel, 1983’s Winter’s Tale, was an extravagant, reckless hash of urban reality and fantasy. No one can accuse him of playing it safe. If you’re wondering what the exact opposite of the typical, carefully calculated products of academic writing programs might be like, you can’t do much better than this massive, soaring novel of ideas and ordeals, which is magnificent even in its flaws. It’s an Alp among contemporary fictional foothills and molehills.
The story is framed by a long walk. In the summer of 1964, Alessandro, a retired 74-year-old professor of aesthetics, is on his way from Rome to a village 70 kilometers away on the last tram-bus of the day. At the edge of the city he sees a young man running to catch up with the tram as if his life depended on it. The truculent driver refuses to stop, and Alessandro demands to be let off. As their tram disappears, he sternly proposes to the baffled young man, an illiterate 17-year-old factory worker named Nicolò, that they walk to their destination — all night, without stopping. He makes the walk first of all a metaphor for passion and persistence, a rebuke to Nicolò’s complacent innocence. Then, as Nicolò is stirred into curiosity, the walk becomes the story of the war 50 years earlier that so intensified life and death, passion and chance that it separated Alessandro forever from everything comfortable and predictable.
Before the war Alessandro had been a brilliant student, developing aesthetic theories, writing for the papers, disturbing the sleepiness of Rome with headlong horseback rides, climbing in the Alps with a Jewish friend he had saved from anti-Semitic thugs, experiencing thwarted love with a beautiful neighbor and unthwarted lust with an Irishwoman in a train compartment, living a civilized and secure life with his parents and sister. His experience of the war is so thorough as to render it a symbol of loss — of innocence, pride, belief, love. He witnesses the relentless, pointless slaughter of the trenches; he hunts deserters who have joined forces with the Mafia in Sicily and becomes a deserter himself; he returns to the Alps he once climbed for sport to shoot Austrians. As a prisoner of war, he is handed from savage Bulgarians to a whimsical pacifist field marshal; as the war ends, he has a final ordeal of escape over the glacial, sovereign, timeless Alps, and in the Italy he returns to, everyone he loves is dead or vanished, and fascists and communists prepare for further mayhem.
In spite of the Italian front, the rain, and a wounded soldier falling in love with a nurse, this book has little in common with A Farewell to Arms; it’s not about lyrical disillusionment but the lyrical transcendence of disillusionment. It has more in common with Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma, including a witty rendering of cynical diplomats; a vivid evocation of the chaos of war and the persistence of passion; a love for Italy and Italians. But it most resembles Dostoyevski, at his best and worst. Wedged between the narrow escapes and convenient coincidences of the melodramatic plot are enough philosophical reflections and dialogues to occupy a whole platoon of Middle European metaphysicians; even an elderly railway porter seizes the opportunity and comes up with a theory of time. The philosophy, in bare summary, may not sound original: Language and reason can never grasp what is most sacred in experience; history is compounded of illusion and futility; art is about beauty and beauty about intimations of God; truth lies in stillness, not action; the innocence of children has an angelic power; the presence, or memory, of those we love is what ultimately matters. But this vague mix of existentialism, neo-Platonism, and quietism is made eloquent by the sober beauty of Helprin’s prose and the hard-won experience it conveys. And if the plot has its Dostoyevskian defects — a grotesque, mad, dwarflike clerk becomes a little too portentously the symbol of the arbitrary character of war — it has its intense, memorable triumphs in the passages on war, nature, and love. And not least important, the book reminds us that one freedom the 20th century has taken from us is the freedom to ignore politics. A