Paris in the Present Tense, by Mark Helprin, Overlook, 394 pages, $28.95
Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER
Mark Helprin is a fabulous writer of the sort that makes you want to capitalize the word, a justly acclaimed master whose elegance is both an asset and, at times, almost an annoyance.
Where lesser novelists would describe an action and move on, Helprin dawdles, painting word pictures of places and times past and present — even of bubbles in an Air France glass of champagne — and of protagonist Jules Lacour’s thoughts as he moves through his seventh decade.
In Paris in the Present Tense, Helprin frequently provides extravagant dialog — long well-composed paragraphs that made me think: “Nobody talks that way.” But they’re beautiful, as are his descriptions.
For example, Jules’ internationally famous philosopher best friend: “Neither as smart as Einstein nor as charismatic as Rasputin, he was a lot more charismatic than the former and a lot smarter than the latter.”
And of a struggling insurance salesman, ridiculed for his corpulence: “The world is full of men and women with souls like swallows and bodies like buffaloes,” adding how much worse this is for a woman.
Jules’ memories surround almost all his activities. In 1944, at age 4, he concealed himself in his family’s attic hideout in Reims when — even as American tanks were entering the town — an SS squad stumbled upon the family and took his parents, shooting them dead.
That past haunts him at 74. A superb cellist whose stage fright prevented fame, he’s an adjunct college teacher who gives lessons and is a non-practicing Jew. He finds music in the sounds of everyday life.
His beautiful, adored wife Jacqueline has died of a sudden illness. His religious daughter has a son dying of leukemia who Jules wants taken to the United States for treatment, which is beyond the family’s means.
That problem seems solved when he happens into a deal to write a corporation’s music logo for 1 million euros. When he’s cheated of the money, he plots a revenge that will leave his daughter, husband and son able to do whatever they want.
Returning home one night, he happens upon a Hasid being badly beaten by three young men of Arab descent who are about to stab him. Jules, in youth a soldier and who, after 60 years of running and rowing resembles a muscular athlete, attacks the assailants, killing two. The third flees.
So Jules flees also, in a way too good to reveal.
As a crime story — if saving someone’s life by killing his assailants is a crime — Paris is masterfully done, without the usual false clues; knowing who did it, we are left to admire how deftly Jules covers his tracks.
Many writers would have tossed this off at half Helprin’s length, but his elaborations provide strong senses of place and of Jules’ habits and emotions. At times, this seems a bit too much, too slow moving, yet Helprin holds reader attention, directing it to things we see but ignore and to the inner life of the mind. Helprin, 70, masterfully conveys the outlook of a septuagenarian’s reluctant resignation to age’s inevitable foreclosure of possibilities.
A complaint: long sentences that I sometimes had to re-read to get their point. One paragraph has a 40-word sentence followed by one of 63. Later, there’s one of 70! It’s enough to give an old-time newspaper editor the vapors. Another: Helprin’s too-frequent use of French words. I doubt many readers want to pause to consult a French-English dictionary, if even they have one. I don’t, and my high-school French evaporated decades ago.
An additional twist is that Jules, while having been faithful to Jacqueline, feels love almost instantly for almost any attractive woman. This becomes complicated when an exceptionally beautiful, intelligent socially naive beauty half a century his junior becomes one of his students.
So much is going on in this entrancing novel that I’ll say no more lest I spoil the experience. Get a chapter or two into Paris and you’ll likely find it very difficult to put down.
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.
(American Jewish World, 10.20.17)