Excerpt from “A Soldier of the Great War” by Mark Helprin ~~Beauty~~

picture-SoldieroftheGreatWar-HelprinThe train passed great and small cities and pushed on toward the mountains. The harvest, the sun, and the October light had made Italy a chain mail of fields, their richness, and tranquillity shattered only by the railway, and even then, after the trains had passed through, contentment would close-in the way cold blue water fills the trough made by an oar.
The Italian conductor would be replaced in Bolzano by an Austrian Schlafwagenmeister. He therefore felt keenly his vanishing prestige, and he eyed Alessandro and Janet with eyes that could not have been shiftier or more wary had they been given to a weasel. His peaked hat and waxed mustache exaggerated the effect. Here were a man and woman of sexual age, together in connubial quarters, unmarried, and perhaps even unacquainted.
“Does anyone wish to exercise the right of complaint?” he asked.
They stared at him blankly.
“It is within my competence to adjust malfeasance and to see to the comfort and dignity of the passengers, for example, while the train is in the field of maneuver at Bolzano.”
When they made no requests, he punched their tickets, made a nervous bow, and backed out the door, knocking a fat Austrian woman against the windows.
“What do you do when you’re not selling toothbrushes or making geography mistakes?” Janet asked as they knifed through a village where bells were ringing and the birds flying around the steeples to wait them out.
“I will have been delayed by military service, but I was about to take a position at the university in Bologna. I’m supposed to explain to undergraduates, while in the process of discovery myself, what is beautiful and why. Of course, neither I nor anyone else can do it, but I can try, and to do so I have to know the theories of beauty from Aristotle’s forward, and before I die I’m supposed to come up with one of my own.”
“Well,” she said, “It’s a nice toothbrush.”
“Thank you. I could cite one of the many laws of contexts and contrasts. For example, associated with a cavalryman’s saddle, rifle, bayonet, and curry combs, let us say, pictured in brown and golden tones hanging haphazardly on a worn stable door, with the smooth lines of the horse itself vanishing off the canvas, and the cavalryman, in his bright colors, standing to the center, it might in fact be beautiful, but if in association with, for example, your masses of red hair, your white teeth, your extraordinarily beautiful mouth, and your bare shoulders, it would, of course, be ugly.”
“That’s all in reference to me or to you. It might have a better chance if seen in another eye. An octopus is a hideous, baggy, slimy, thoroughly disgusting creature. Which is worse, its sharp beak hidden within folds of soft flesh, its pod-like eyes, its flaccid sack, or its bumpy tentacles? Some have cited it as proof that God did not create the universe, but, at a distance, swimming smoothly through the water, it’s as graceful as a prima ballerina. Sectioned under a microscope, it presents patterns of inexhaustible brilliance. And to an octopus of the opposite sex, or even to an adolescent squid who needs someone after whom to model himself, it can be handsome or beautiful, as the case may be.
“Throw in some Latin and Greek; magnify, enlarge, draw back now and then to get your bearings; and show that, despite context, position, and point of apprehension, nothing, in fact, is relative, and all beauty is absolute; and you have the basis for a lecture.
“That’s what I do.”
“It’s totally unnecessary,” she said.
“No one knows better than I that it’s all here, and need not be explained or interpreted – just seized. What we see from the window of the train as it slowly alters our perspective and speeds across different registers of color and form; the light in this bottle of water; the rhythm of the engines; the way the clouds are pushed on waves of wind; you yourself, Nurse Janet, your entire body, apprehended in toto, part by part, in the light, in the dark; your smile, the way you move your eyes and lean upon your arm; the coincidence of colors in your dress and in your hair; the very angles of your teeth; that they glisten with moisture; your long fingers as they rest in your palms; like the radians of a nautilus; the pace of your breathing; the sweetness, I presume, of your breath, and the taste of your mouth. Such things, and I have only brushed the surface, render my profession totally unnecessary, and I know it.”
“Lock the door,” she said.
He leaned over and flipped the lock.

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1 Comment

Filed under Fiction, Literature

One response to “Excerpt from “A Soldier of the Great War” by Mark Helprin ~~Beauty~~

  1. Mark Helprin was born in Manhattan, New York on 28 June 1947.
    “A Soldier of the Great War” was published in 1991.

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