Paris in the Present Tense: A Novel
“Paris in the Present Tense deserves to be read and devoured. It is nearly a perfect contemporary novel.”
Above all else, this well-plotted and engaging novel—filled with thoughtful ruminations on life accompanied by sumptuous writing—is a love letter to Paris. And writer Mark Helprin seems to know the city as well as any Frenchman.
We first meet the protagonist Jules Lacour, a 74-year-old music teacher and cellist, as he’s aboard an Air France jet admiring the dress of the flight attendants. It evolves quickly into a comparison with the city he adores.
“At their best, the dress, the coat, the maquillage, were there to call attention not to themselves but the woman they graced, just as the architecture of Paris, the pattern of its streets, its garlands of trees, and the design of its gardens—every cornice, rail, lamppost, and arch—were there not to call attention to themselves but be part of a chain of beauties leading to unseen realms.”
Ah, Jules Lacour! There is no way not to root for him. At 74 years old, he trains nearly every day life a madman—running, swimming, and rowing the Seine as he has for 60 years. He knows every current and bend, a knowledge that comes in handy later in the novel when he must escape the police after killing two thugs who were beating a Jew.
Lacour is a man struggling to live in the present but so haunted by the past, especially when he sees all around him in his beloved city rampant anti-Semitism. His parents were killed in the Holocaust at the very tail end of the war and Lacour, then four years old, barely escaped the same fate.
Lacour also cannot forget the love of his life, his precious Jacqueline, who has died—but not quite. He thinks about her constantly. And her presence means it is impossible for him to take up with any other women even though a beautiful music student in her 20s makes her interest very obvious.
Helprin is wonderful at description such as when he introduces the beautiful Elodi. “She was extraordinarily attractive, captivating, and graceful. One could tell that despite her striking and unorthodox beauty she was, and might always be, alone. Only part of it may have been that she was so radiant as to be unapproachable. . . . A mane of sandy blonde hair combed back from her high forehead fell in a wave below her shoulders. Her features were even, her cheekbones high, her nose fine and assertive: that is, like her posture, there was an exciting thrust to it. Most distinctive were her eyes, which to Jules, seemed illuminated by the kind of storm light that slips in under a tight layer of cloud. This maybe have occurred to him because, steady and guarded, her expression was almost like that of a sailor peering into the wind.”
This novel is grand in scale with one interesting, fully-developed character after another: Jules’ famous bumbling intellectual friend who betrays and then tries to save Jules; Jules’ daughter who resents her parents for the way they seemed only to need each other and no one else; an American businessman tycoon who commissions a jingle from Jules, all the while pronouncing his name Jewels; Jules’ elderly benefactor who allows Jules to live in his mansion which has been taken over by his spoiled sons; and the two police detectives who are pursuing the killer of those two young thugs, a murder the occurred on a bridge over the Seine.
All of these characters cross paths with Jules as he tries desperately to raise a million Euros or more so his grandson, suffering from a possibly fatal disease, can be treated in Switzerland or America. It is that bleak future—that his grandson might die without the money—that haunts Jules every bit as his past and causes him to do what he does.
To say any more would be to spoil the plot and Paris in the Present Tense deserves to be read and devoured. It is nearly a perfect contemporary novel.