A Soldier of the Great War

A Soldier of the Great War

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781602833128
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Publication date: 09/25/2007
Edition description: Unabridged Edition
Pages: 24
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

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.


Upstate New York

Date of Birth:

June 28, 1947

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


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.

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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A Soldier of the Great War 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 45 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Atthebeach More than 1 year ago
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.
Duganforrest More than 1 year ago
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.
daivep More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
bru888 More than 1 year ago
The book itself I would give three stars - the story is great but the metaphysical blather is a bit too much at times - but I deduct a star for the eBook version. I counted at least 108 typos and I greatly doubt that these were from the original print edition. No, I believe that when they transcribed this book to electronic format, they neglected to closely proofread the result. There are misplaced hyphens and quotes; missing apostrophes; inappropriate paragraph breaks, particularly right in the middle of words but also in such ways as to confuse the speakers of dialogue; and most interestingly, typos like "ail" for "all," "so rar" for "so far," "weil" for "we'll," and "batde" for "battle" which seem to indicate their OCR needed some calibration. And it's not my reader device. I looked into the source html and found every typo in there, just as it was displayed on screen. Really a sloppy, disgraceful job.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is one of the best I have ever read. Helprin is a master of language, tone, character, setting. You will be amazed.
Anonymous 10 months ago
Such rambling and rambling and then more rambling
janoorani24 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have counted Mark Helprin among my favorite authors since reading "A Winter's Tale" sometime in the early '90s. I put off reading this book for a long time because of its length, but I finally finished it. While it was slow in parts, I still really enjoyed it. Helprin employs such beautiful language in his descriptions, and his stories are always so bittersweet. I think part of the reason I love his books is that they always make me cry, and I can't help loving a book that makes me feel great emotion. I've read a lot of books (both fiction and non-fiction) about World War One, and this was one of the only ones that was set in Italy. The other one I can think of is "A Farewell to Arms," which was also very sad. I think part of what another reviewer didn't like about the pointlessness of the book was probably intentional on Helprin's part, since WWI was a pointless war. Anyway, I really enjoyed the book and am glad I finally made the time to read it.
JudyKenn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a long book, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I never read a WW I novel written from the perspective of an Italian soldier. Alessandro Giuliani tells his life story to an illiterate young man as they walk miles upon miles after being thrown off a bus. As the story unfolds, we are treated to the vagaries and whimsical turns that life can take which lead us into uncharted waters. This book made me laugh out loud and cry real tears. It is a true depiction of life with all it's crazy twists and turns. Long read, but worth it.
brizzlehound on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most exquisite books I have ever read. It has a strong narrative, but at the same time it is a paean to beauty, to love, to friendship, to Italy, and in particular to the city of Rome and the Italian Alps. The whole thing is deeply moving, the language is astonishing, and the book begs to be read slowly, and then to be read again and again.
drsnowdon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Helprin is one of my favourite authors of epic and adventurous life stories; and this book is an excellent embodiment of that.
Joycepa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 1964, Alessandro Giuliani, an old man who is a professor of aesthetics, catches the last streetcar from Rome to Monte Prato, where he wishes to visit his granddaughter and her family. Through a bizarre circumstance, he finds himself walking to Monte Prato along with Nicoló Sambucca, a 17 year old illiterate factory worker. Taking the high road over the mountains for a journey of days and nights, Alessandro tells an increasingly fascinated Nicoló the story of his life.Alessandro Giuliani is the son of a well-to lawyer who is enthralled by beauty--not just the classical beauty of art, but also of music and nature, of life itself. He is exuberant, living life as he finds it, and reveling in the beauty that is everywhere around him. His family is a close one, and Alessandro loves them passionately. He races locomotives on his horse Enrico, he rows, he climbs mountains. He lives, utterly.But in 1914, war engulfs Europe and Alessandro is drawn into the conflict. For four years, Alessandro is a soldier of the line, fighting in the trenches under unspeakable conditions, a hero, a prisoner, and finally a deserter. He falls deeply in love--only to lose his beloved to the war as he has lost everyone else he has loved to the war in one way or another. But Alessandro never loses his exaltation in beauty even in the midst of unimaginable horror, his quest for a God in which he alternates belief and disbelief with utter serenity, and his realized hope of redemption and resurrection.As far as I¿m concerned, there is no way to summarize this book adequately in a review, because I personally can not find a way to describe the dazzling richness of the prose, the always off-center viewpoint of Alessandro who is both deeply affected by the war and yet unscathed at his core, the lyrical descriptions especially of the mountains the sheer exaltation of the prose. In hands less skilled, Alessandro would be a caricature, a joke. Instead, for 860 pages, Alessandro burns as brilliantly as any of the stars over the Alto Adige, totally believable, completely real, in a world gone mad.The other characters in the story, both major and minor, are utterly real and unforgettable as well: his gentle father, his fried Rafi, his wartime comrades in his regiment, the brief, searing acquaintances with other Italian soldiers whose names he doesn¿t ever know but whose memories stay with him, his beloved Ariane, and most especially, because he epitomizes the insanity of war, the dwarf Orfeo. All are etched with prose that is as lucid as it is extravagant, no mean feat.The last chapter is so heartbreaking that it is painful to read.I have never read a work of fiction that so deeply moved me, both when I read when it was published in 1991, and now, in a much different time, in 2009. It is magnificent, a tour de force, both an epic saga and a paean to love of family. Written by an American, it is also very Italian, and captures that skeptical attitude that Italians bring to war in particular. Its descriptions of the war are searing. The people in it are unforgettable. It is a masterpiece.
BFiabane on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Probably my favorite book and one of very few that I've reread just to refresh the images and memories of my initial read almost 10 years ago. For any of us with any association with Italy during WW I, this wonderfully written story is a must read.
AmberA on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of my all-time favorite books! Interesting, and beautifully written, "A Soldier of the Great War" brings laughter and tears each time I read it.
SamTekoa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
His writing is often beautiful. I liked this book. Some parts were so good they are to be read over and over. Lacked the humor and self-effacing tone of Don Quixote which I compare it to. A thoughtful and challenging book none the less.
dchaikin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An old man looks back on his terrible, angry, defining experiences in WWI... with a mixed wonder. It's a strange mixture. Very powerful parts, but also a bit long and winding. In some ways it is really thoughtful and complex, in some ways it's profound and really disturbing and yet in some ways it was a little cheesy and gung-ho soldier. When I read it I was bothered by the length, but now a year away I couldn't care less about the length, it's the good parts that stick. On a side note, I see a lot of extra meanings behind the old man's walk, but I'm not quite sure what to make of it.
dhogue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of my favorite books. I have read it three times and recommended it many times. This is the book that gave me a character I mourned for, weeks after I finished the book.
Honestus More than 1 year ago
"A Soldier of the Great War" was the finest novel I have ever read.  At times, Mark Helprin writes lng sections of lyric poetry.  I was amazed at  the control the author maintained over his work.  Annovel which is hundreds of pages long is wrapped up in a few paragraphs on the its tpage
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I saw the movie WINTERS TALE written by Mark Helprin and loved the beauty and touching story he told. So I wanted to read another of his works. This, too, is a beautifully told story and I would highly recommend it.
Cyrille More than 1 year ago
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.