“What is war, that rolls through history and is more terrible than death, but in whose folds life is vitally compressed more than in the most glorious peace?”
Mark Helprin's sprawling, capacious, beautiful novel is nothing less than one of the great books of our time and perhaps the best war novel of the last 25 years. Set before, after, and mostly during World War I, it follows the story of Alessandro, a romantic and lover of beauty, who enters a brutal war, in which he is soldier, prisoner, deserter, and survivor. One of the blurbs one the back compares it to "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "A Farewell to Arms," but screw that, Helprin's book is bigger and better, encompassing a wide range of emotions and experiences that is truly breathtaking. Why this isn't a more famous and celebrated novel is baffling. Also, check out "Winter's Tale" and "Memoir from Ant Proof Case."
I first encountered Helprin when I read his "Digital Barbarism", an artist's take on the very negative influence of the denizens of the internet on the culture of intellectual property.
Which lead me to "A Soldier". I could not put this tome down. Helprin's prose flows effortlessly off the page into the imagination. He skilfully established a sense of place and time, down to the details of the scent of the air and the song of a bird, paragraph by paragraph. He spins a great yarn, drawing the reader to turn the pages of this WWI epic moral tale. So much humanity and Italia pour off these 800 pages, one wonders where Mr Helprin gained inspiration for his tale. This coming from one who doesn't usually entertain war stories.
I must mention that if there is any alpine in you, you'll soar to dizzying heights as Helprin takes you through the southern Alps bordering Italy and Austria, climbing impossible spires and negotiating glaciers and the elements.
Jason Kenney, Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism tweeted in 2011: "Finally got to read Mark Helprin's brilliant novel, A Soldier of the Great War. In my opinion, Helprin is one of the most compelling writers of our time."
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