he ironic mode, one of contemporary literature’s prevailing orthodoxies, is of no interest or use to Mark Helprin. His fiction, while flirting with the downright metaphysical, aims directly for—it is hard to find another word or avoid the cliché—the heart. His concerns are with truth and beauty. Helprin is an unashamed romantic.
It has been said that the romantic temperament was never better expressed than in this sentence from Madame Bovary, written of the eponymous young heroine, doomed to a dull husband in the dull sticks: “She wished at the same time to die and to live in Paris.” This is a predicament similar to that faced by Helprin’s newest hero, an aging cello teacher named Jules Lacour: “He so much wanted to live, and he so much wanted to die.” Paris in the Present Tense is the story of how he resolves these warring wants.
Why does an American novelist wish to set his story in France, with French characters? Helprin’s Jules Lacour is not only French but also Jewish, a Holocaust survivor, and Helprin wants to set his story amid today’s rising tide of European anti-Semitism, evidenced in populist movements of both left and right. One of the reasons Lacour wants to die is to be able to leave enough money for his daughter and her family, including critically sick grandson Luc, to move to the United States, both to get treatment for the child and to find a place of safety.
I want Catherine and her husband to have the option of leaving France, and not as poor refugees either. Now Jews are kidnapped, tortured, and murdered here…. Jewish students must hide their religion in school. The far right, far left, and the Arabs have found a common enemy in us. Our synagogues are desecrated and our shops are burned.
Lacour’s epigrammatic language, and interest in grand abstractions—there are endless rapturous meditations on love, beauty, death, music—would not work so well coming from the mouths of Americans (indeed, the Americans portrayed here are on the whole shallow types, typified by a CEO of an insurance company who goes by the name of Rich Panda). Somehow, the French we can forgive. Moreover, the city of light provides Helprin with opportunities to indulge his descriptive skills, which, while often startlingly observant, do sometimes wander into the realms of questionable personification—as when he writes that music has “a mind and heart of its own.”
Music, including sound itself, plays a central part in the drama: “Jules Lacour was born in 1940, while his parents were hiding in an attic in Reims. His mother prayed that he would not cry, he seldom did, and in the four years that followed neither he nor they spoke above a whisper. That was the beginning of a long story.” The first music Lacour hears is his cellist father playing Bach’s motet “Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren” (the sound of which is described as “joy expressed through mourning”). It runs through the novel, this sound of the “destroyed world” of his childhood, where his loyalty lies. Perhaps there is an intended nod to another Jewish novelist, Marcel Proust, whose hero Swann is entranced by a “little phrase” from an imagined sonata that recurs throughout À la recherche du temps perdu.
When we first meet him, Lacour has been engaged by an American conglomerate to compose a 60-second-long piece of music to be used as its corporate signature. He is assured that the tune will be used and given a payday of a million euros, but the promise is broken. He had taken the commission in order to provide much-needed financial support for his ailing grandson. So he hatches a plan to avenge himself on the company and in so doing provide his daughter with funds of a potentially life-saving and life-changing magnitude.
Along the way, Lacour falls in love with pieces of music, landscapes, architecture. Most of all he falls in love with women. Unfortunately for the reader, these women are all so perfect that they remain almost inhuman, as though they are figments of Jules’s idolatrous imagination. There is his “shockingly beautiful” deceased wife Jacqueline, whom he wants to follow faithfully into death, and then the “utterly beautiful” Elodi, one of his music students, 50 years his junior, with whom he wishes to make love, and finally “a most wonderful woman” in Amina, a Muslim divorcée and history professor with whom he dreams of spending his end days (Amina has returned from Stanford where she was “guilty of what had become its gravest sin: she thought and spoke freely”). Nor should we forget “the beauty and charm” of Air France’s flight attendants or a woman Jules passes for an instant in a hotel lobby in Los Angeles or even a woman, “beautiful in every detail,” in a Fragonard painting.
Despite his 74 years, Jules has the physique of a 50-year-old: He rows, he swims, he runs, he walks. He has a full head of hair. He is attractive to the student and the professor; love is instantly mutual in both cases. At the same time, he has a medical condition that will allow him to dictate the moment of his own death. Lacour’s determination to die—his scheme is an insurance scam—has a high moral purpose. In some degree, he desires to assuage the guilt he feels for the deaths of his parents and his wife. How this is worked out and developed provides the plot, which has enough satisfyingly unexpected twists and Dickensian unlikelihoods for those in search of a Good Read.
urrounded by beautiful women, in top health and with an almost godlike power over his own mortality, Jules might seem, as a character, too convenient to be true, and he is. This novel is marked by the inescapable voice of its author. When it comes to free indirect speech, whereby the narrator mediates the thoughts of the character, Helprin lacks subtlety. When Jane Austen wants you to see through Emma’s eyes, you do. Here, Jules simply speaks as Helprin writes.
Helprin’s prose is rich and arch: Here is a writer unafraid to use whences, nothwithstandings, partooks, and the like. If you’re prepared to plunge into it, then it will carry you along, only occasionally bringing you up short when you hear an echo of D. H. Lawrence (“Sometimes he had to cross the gap and sit near her, and when he did she reddened and her perfume rose. She was life”). Or you might have the sense that you are reading Tolstoy in translation, or even an interesting Dan Brown novel (oxymoron though that might be).
The metaphysical passages are leavened by a sure comic touch in other parts. There is a pair of rude mechanicals in the shape of two cops investigating a crime in which Jules is involved. One is a Jew, the other a Muslim. They might come out of a Tarantino film script, concerned as they are with the details of dentistry or the best place to eat lunch.
Helprin’s ambitions are grand; this really is a book about truth and beauty. The reader finishes Paris in the Present Tense with the sense of having read a eulogy to important and neglected mysteries, “self-evident yet elusive of explanation,” and convinced that Helprin has had a pretty robust go at tracking them down.