Mark Helprin
Mark Helprin; drawing by David Levine

The novels considered here are very different in manner and effect, but their authors have something in common. David Ignatius and Mark Helprin seem to be about the same age (fortysomething), studied at Harvard and Oxbridge, and have seen more of the world than most of us have. Ignatius was The Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Helprin a merchant seaman, a member of the Israeli armed forces, and a fellow of the American Academy in Rome. In writing about modern war or its equivalent, both rework familiar fictional forms, Ignatius the spy thriller and Helprin the intellectual Bildungsroman. Both seem to aspire to broad readership, and both write at greater length than would seem to be required, as has now become commonplace.

Two instances scarcely prove a trend, but I’m tempted to wonder if Ignatius’s SIRO and Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War aren’t responding to a condition we may be hearing more about in fiction, the challenge to the old expectations of life and art in what increasingly seems an apocalyptic time. Ignatius’s first novel, Agents of Innocence (1987), dealt with the destruction of Lebanon in the early 1970s, brought on, it suggests, by the folly of an ignorant and reckless CIA. SIRO takes a similar sinister view of American innocence in a world that is anything but innocent itself.

SIRO has to do with intelligence operations in Soviet Central Asia during the latter days of the Carter administration, as Khomeini returns to Iran and the Soviets enter Afghanistan. Some secondary characters from Agents of Innocence reappear: Edward Stone, the smooth “old boy” who directs clandestine operations in the Middle East, and Frank Hoffman, a fat, hard-drinking, effective case officer who may remind some of the Agency’s William Harvey, famous for excavating a tunnel between East and West Berlin. But Ignatius adds new romantic leads: Anna Barnes, a young historian of the Ottoman Empire recently recruited by the CIA and of course very attractive (“She had the look of a sleek animal: well bred, but with a distant memory of life in the wild”), and Alan Taylor, the handsome, cynical base chief in Istanbul who’s a “rebellious preppie” at heart.

Stone uses Barnes and Taylor in an unauthorized caper. As the KGB is trying nervously to keep tabs on Muslim dissidents in the Asian republics, the Americans create the elaborate illusion that various Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Tatars are being armed by the US and incited to rise up against their Muscovite masters. Official policy forbids agents from abetting revolutionary efforts among the Soviet nationalities, but both the administration and the CIA are distracted, and Stone thinks he can get away with his dirty tricks.

The outcome is a political and human disaster, especially for the idealist Anna Barnes, who can’t help caring about the pawns who are sacrificed ruthlessly in the Great Game. In a world made more confusing by acronyms like TUSLOG, EXCHASE, and SDROTTEN, it is a relief to hear that SIRO, said to be the State Department’s code word for the CIA, is not an acronym but “in fact meant nothing at all.” It’s useful to be reminded of the meaninglessness that was often at the center of the cold war labyrinth, though it might have been fresher to hear it a decade ago, before we had figured it out ourselves.

SIRO offers authentic-sounding information about how espionage is conducted, or was ten years ago, and its emphasis on the internal fragility of the USSR is of course now very timely. But a reader’s curiosity about how field agents are recruited and controlled, what they actually do, and how ineffective and demeaning most of their work is, fades as the conventions of the genre, as observed by masters like Greene and le Carré, assert themselves. Really to understand the secret world, Ignatius seems to think, we need to know just about everything it contains, from how rooms are bugged and locks picked to the quality of life in Turkish cafés and whorehouses. Some of the details are diverting enough, like the CIA cover firm in Rockville, Maryland, which is named Karpetland (“The World at Your Feet” is their slogan), and I can almost believe in the sleazy, lecherous Iranian double-agent who scoffs at the notion of smuggling subversive Islamic writings into the Asian republics: “Books? Books is bullshit! You listen to Ali. If you smart, you send VCRs and porno tapes. That is what they want in Baku. Debbie Does Dallas.” But the book’s details are mostly serious and they make it twice as long as it ought to be.

Yet if SIRO is finally unexciting, it may be symptomatic of something larger. In it disillusionment contends with the hope that espionage may still appeal to the popular imagination. The now confirmed suspicion that the geopolitical conflicts of the past half century were, on both sides, largely founded in opportunism and moral self-deception has to work against the stubborn hope that they accomplished something worth at least a little of the money and suffering they cost. This may be too complex a response to ask of many readers of spy novels, who prefer to feel they are more or less on one side or the other. SIRO is in fact a thriller in halting transit toward historical fiction.


A Soldier of the Great War considers the life of Alessandro Giuliani, an upper-middle-class intellectual who served in the Italian army in World War I. Alessandro begins and ends the story, telling it to a young and ignorant working-class youth as they walk, in 1964, from Rome to a village seventy miles away where both have relatives. But more of the tale, some six hundred pages of it, is told in the third person by a narrator who sounds rather like Mark Helprin.

Alessandro has had a privileged youth. Raised in comfort and affection, he finds the friends and lovers the war will later deprive him of, discovers his powers of mind as a student of aesthetics at Bologna and of body as a mountain climber in the Alps, and stakes out his intellectual independence as a critic of the 1911 war with Turkey. Yet he scorns the ideological pacifism of working-class socialism as deeply as he scorns the anti-Semitism of the bourgeois establishment. Throughout one sees Alessandro’s fascination with living on the edge, riding his horse too hard, hopping freights and jumping from them into rivers, climbing sheer rock faces.

When his best friend suggests that such self-testing is good preparation for war, Alessandro, who will soon be in the army, replies, “This is not just for war, you see, it’s for everything.” The narrator returns to the respective claims of war and “everything,” after the debacle of Caporetto and as Alessandor’s beloved father lies dying in Rome:

It seemed appropriate that the Italian lines had collapsed, as if the attorney Giuliani and millions of soldiers were fighting the same losing war on entirely different fronts, but they weren’t. The wars were different. Alessandro’s still allowed for strength and will. It listened to young men and paid heed to chance and desire. His father’s was the great war, less a contest than a mystery…. No one had been victorious in the war his father was fighting, except by faith and imagination, and of these victories no one could really be sure.

Great wars seem here mostly a deployment of great abstract nouns—strength, will, chance, desire, mystery, faith, imagination—a characteristic of Helprin’s prose to which I will return.

If the great war is the war between life and death, the Great War is nevertheless a powerfully literal event for Alessandro. At the beginning he fights the Austrians in the trenches along the Isonzo River. Defeated and driven south toward Venice, his unit is detached for special service and secretly shipped to Sicily, to hunt down outlaw bands of military deserters and Mafiosi. On the return voyage the prisoners escape, and Alessandro, worried about his parents back in Rome, becomes a deserter himself. Captured and sentenced to death, he survives, in an operatic scene in which he is mysteriously reprieved just as the firing squad prepares to take aim. Sent back to duty, he fights in the Tyrolean Alps, is captured and taken to Hungary and then Vienna in the dying days of the Habsburg Empire, and comes home after the armistice to an Italy bereft of nearly everyone on whom his hopes once depended, though we eventually learn that he has found his lost beloved and their child and got back some of the family wealth.

Helprin crowds more into this story than it can hold. The novel includes a closely observed, knowledgeable, and often very tense account of what war is like and what it does to a sensitive yet resolute and resourceful man, not to mention his more ordinary comrades. To this account is added a strand of moral satire which owes something to Johnson’s Rasselas and Voltaire’s Candide. (After losing nearly everything in war Alessandro works more or less contentedly as a professional gardener.) By themselves, the satiric episodes are amusing, as in Alessandro’s encounter with Field Marshal Strassnitsky, the hard-bitten Austrian cavalry commander who is really an intellectual and a dedicated pacifist, and whose martial exploits exist only in the dispatches Alessandro helps him to concoct.

But comedy seems hard for Helprin to combine with his more sober intentions. Orfeo Quatta is a case in point. Originally a scribe in Alessandro’s father’s law office before becoming a high official in the Ministry of War, Orfeo is a splendid invention, an elderly, dwarfish, talkative, loony presence, a kind of malign William Blake (if played by Danny DeVito) for whom the new-fangled typewriters that threaten to supplant the creative handwriting he so fiercely values are dark satanic mills. For Orfeo, ink is “the gracious luminous sap that falls like the blood of the Cross from the tree in the valley of the bone-white mountains that circle the moon”; during the war, he uses his official position to alter or invent military orders, editing history, as any responsible scribe edits the copy given him, according to his own idea of God’s hidden purposes.


Orfeo’s editing is often benevolent. He arranges Alessandro’s military postings to spare him as much danger as possible, he orders the scarce medicine Alessandro’s sick father needs, he is the source of Alessandro’s reprieve. Yet Alessandro develops an obsessive desire to murder this pitiful fantasist, apparently because he resents being exempted from the death war has brought to his comrades; Orfeo is killed off in a highly contrived scene involving a typewriter and a hand grenade. Orfeo is made to suffer, I suppose, because he has perverted honest warfare through capricious bureaucratic meddling, but it is regrettable that the book’s liveliest and most endearing character is killed for a theoretical reason.

His fate suggests a general weakness in the novel, which is so entirely centered on Alessandro’s story that the other characters get little room to breathe. The mortality rate among those who matter to Alessandro is almost total—even the son whose survival is one of his postwar consolations eventually dies in Libya during World War II. Those who don’t actually die, particularly the women who attract him, simply vanish from the book when they’ve made their contribution to his experience. To be sure, Alessandro is a kind of belated Romantic egotist, and his “comical immunity” to the forces that destroy other people is an important motive in his own moral suffering. But it’s not war, it’s the author who does all this killing, and in a way even Alessandro serves as a prop, a figure whose main function is to utter Helprin’s thoughts about man and the world.

There are few signs of irony about Alessandro’s beliefs. He feels sure that God speaks to us through all beauty, natural or artistic; he discovers the essential patterns of his own life from studying Giorgione’s La Tempesta; he sees in Raphael’s portrait of Bindo Altoviti “a man who had come through time propelled and pressured by the laws of art,” whom he imagines speaking a wisdom that Alessandro comes to believe is confirmed by his own experience:

“When light filled my eyes and I was restless and could move, I knew not what all the color was about, but only that I had a passion to see. And now that I am still, I pass on to you my liveliness and my life, for you will be taken, as once I was, and although you must fight beyond your capacity to fight and feel beyond your capacity to feel, remember that it ends in perfect peace, and you will be as still and content as am I, for whom centuries are not even seconds.”

This anti-secularist, eternalizing impulse is the sum of everything Helprin assigns Alessandro to learn. Though I wonder if Helprin isn’t too young to be thinking such thoughts so insistently, his is a tenable and often powerful perspective; any life does end in stillness, even if “peace” and contentment, and the analogy with art, fudge the issue somewhat. Helprin takes pains to make Alessandro as unresponsive to the vulgar appeal of monarchism or (later) fascism as he is to that of creeds of perfectibility like Marxism. But the long view—in which, as Keynes remarked, we are all dead—is obviously congenial to the deflating rhetoric of practical conservatism, and Alessandro’s are long views indeed. Early in the novel he remembers a parable his father (who heard it from his father) once told him, about a troop of Napoleon’s Grand Army who, to their great surprise, died of the cold in Russia:

“They were too busy, they were too many, they felt safe in each other’s company—but they did freeze to death…. Mortality is like the cold. It cannot be altered by human conceit or solidarity, and at the end you will be on your knees, in shock and amazement, and then you’ll have only one sword, one shield, one great thing to carry you through.”

He refused to say what the one great thing might be—each must discover his own—but when Alessandro himself dies sitting in the sun after remembering another army (his own, in the Alps) marching in the snow, he sees that his own great thing has been “the unification of risk and hope” in the love of everything he has had and lost, which makes even grief a form of timeless beauty.

“Human conceit or solidarity” may not be wholly discredited by their failure to annul our mortality, yet it’s not the doctrine but what it does to Helprin’s writing that strikes me as depressing. Aesthetic indifferentism is one thing, but the portentous and abstract eloquence that infects this novel when it most wants to be serious seems much less forgivable, especially since Helprin can write vigorously and sensitively about people, places, and things, all the objects that the short view might take in. Like SIRO, A Soldier of the Great War reflects a secular disillusionment that may discredit old forms of belief or art. Helprin’s response is to look beyond secularity entirely, into an imagined heroic past that, with the usual certitude of hindsight, is made to show that secular activities, considered under the aspect of eternity, never did anyone much good. Helprin’s is much the more talented and interesting work, but I wish it were less determined to make everything it touches the occasion for an important announcement. Max Beerbohm once warned against such loftiness: “If you hear a voice from afar, do not take the message seriously,” he wrote. “Wisdom is a thing that can be expressed only in an under-tone.”

This Issue

August 15, 1991