Staying Aloft

Mark Helprin's latest novel draws a four-square map of existence

THE arrogance of this book is matched only by its humility. Mark Helprin's previous books - two story collections, two novels - have all been greeted by superlatives. ``A Soldier of the Great War'' will be no exception. As a writer, Helprin has few handicaps. He excels at natural description, at suspense, at battle scenes, at moral observation. Occasionally a sentence goes soft, or an intrusive voice points out something to the nodding reader. Helprin knows the important things: how to pace a big book, how to relieve moral symbolism with fantasy and even frank absurdity.

The title ``A Soldier of the Great War'' refers to an Italian professor of aesthetics named Allesandro Giuliani. The book opens in 1964, 50 years after the Great War; Allesandro is joined by an illiterate young factory worker and together they make their way on foot toward a mountain village on what turns out to be the professor's last adventure.

On the trail, Allesandro tells his life story. It's a life packed with incident, a life that seems to sum up the 20th century.

Allesandro has carried his beliefs in truth and beauty, beliefs wrought from both experience and books, into the hell of World War I and out the other side. He has also carried with him a little book about Giorgione. This Renaissance painter's weirdly luminous picture of a soldier, a woman, a child, buildings, all under a stormy sky, keeps him going.

At one point, imprisoned as a deserter and condemned to death, he argues with his cell mate, a Marxist, about the suitability of economics as an inspiration. ``Giorgione painted a painting that flatly contradicts you.... In the painting, a woman quiets the storm and is the soldier's only hope.''

Though a die-hard aesthete, Allesandro is also a fine soldier. Inured to danger and hardship by a youth of strenuous horseback riding and Alp climbing, Allesandro needs action as much as he needs contemplation. He needs body-hardening exertion to see what he needs to see.

At one point he becomes part of an old-fashioned cavalry. ``To ride this way is almost as taxing as if the rider were carrying the horse.... For eight hours he had thought nothing save what the physics of plunging forward forced him to think. He had been like an eagle or a hart, with no power of reflection, no time for the future, no time for the past, but only an unbearably rich profusion of motion, color, scent, and sound. He loved it.''

Later, long after the war, he admires the swallows carving air out of the updrafts. He says to his companion: ``How could I feel superior to something like a swallow, that rises so fast and falls with such abandon again and again and again, learning quickly and simply what life demands, and staying aloft despite what it knows.''

Allesandro fights as a patriot. He fights so that he may enjoy the sunny squares of Rome as an old man. He fights even after he thinks he has seen the love of his life killed during a bombing raid on a hospital. His mind is full of images. ``Thousands, hundreds of thousands of images,'' he tells the boy. ``Each one glows.''

Not only images from the paintings he has studied and written about, but images from life, images provided ``by the sun as it sets or shines on saffron-colored buildings, the sight of perfectly proportioned squares,'' and amongt them he sees ``the faces of the people I love,'' his parents, his soldier companions, his beloved.

Fighting, seeing, knowing, being: The four-square map of existence conjured up by this book stands as a rebuke to many more fashionable ideologies. Facing death many times, Allesandro becomes a hardened believer in something he cannot prove. He calls it by the name of truth. Once, reflecting on his miraculous safety, he says, ``God is directly in charge of all things relating to life and death. That I've learned in the war.''

Not that Helprin glorifies war itself. Along with horrific scenes of trench warfare, of air power in a war in which cavalry still played a part, and the randomness of death by impersonal, far-off guns, Helprin covers the absurdity of modern war from many angles, in the hunchbacked scribe who rewrites the orders coming from the Italian state before they go out to commanders in the field; in the Hussars who are kept alive by their commander, who composes stirring reports of battles that never happened, su btracting the dead from a list of names stolen from soldiers whom he had earlier released from duty.

Rome stands as the still center of the storm. An aristocrat of the waning Austro-Hungarian empire tells Allesandro: ``Rome is a training school for the heavenly city, a jumping-off place. You take earthly pleasures and gracefully translate them to the language of the Divine.''

Having survived the war and found his lover, and child, alive in Rome, Allesandro cannot adjust to life among pedants and proto-Fascists. He lives modestly, works out-of-doors, and spends treasured daylit hours with his son. He summarizes his thought: ``all the hard and wonderful things of the world are nothing more than a frame for a spirit, like fire and light, that is the endless roiling of love and grace.''

Arrogant in its assertion of the values of personal experience over comforting social abstractions, humble in its patient provision of convincing images of truth and beauty, ``A Soldier of the Great War'' bears witness to the joy of falling. It will surely strike many of the professionals of our literary culture as a pathetic failure to revive an old order.

But remember the swallows, how they fall. Reading this book, one becomes a soldier in the great war against meaningless violence and death, one becomes, at times, a swallow, ``staying aloft despite what it knows.''

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