Mark Helprin’s ‘Paris in the Present Tense’ a novel of getting the best of death

Published November 1 2017
Updated November 1 2017

Jules Lacour wants to die for a good reason.

The protagonist of Mark Helprin’s new novel, Paris in the Present Tense, is 74 years old, so thoughts of his own mortality are normal enough. That’s especially true since the death of his adored wife, Jacqueline. He has been haunted since he was a small boy by the deaths of his parents during the Holocaust. He has had a good life in many ways, but his career as a music teacher at Paris-Sorbonne is winding down without ever having soared — he’s a talented teacher but, as a cellist, he never became a star performer or composer as he had once dreamed.

Jules, however, is in splendid health, thanks to his daily routine of swimming, running and rowing in the Seine. "Had anyone seen him on the river, glistening with sweat in the August heat, he could have been mistaken for a muscular athlete in his late forties or early fifties," Helprin writes. "It took work, a lifetime of discipline, showing up when miserably cold and rowing or running through snow or sleet, never eating quite as he might like, and losing precious hours he might have spent in furthering his career. But Jules had resolved from early on, even before he knew it, that until the day he died he would be strong enough so as never to be unable to defend himself."

The reader will learn that Jules feels not only the need to defend himself but to come to the defense of others — an instinct that will involve him in shocking violence, an instinct whose source deep in his childhood will be revealed only slowly.

Helprin has written other novels that focus on an older protagonist looking back on life, such as A Soldier of the Great War and Memoir From Antproof Case. He is also a conservative political commentator who writes often for the Wall Street Journal and other publications, but politics are not in the foreground in this novel.

Instead, Helprin focuses on Jules’ personal life in both present tense and past. In the present, one of the loves of his life is his grandson, Luc, who is gravely ill. It seems like a miracle when Jules’ old friend Francois, a celebrity philosopher (a species not found in this country but common in France), gets him a gig writing signature music for a vast global insurance company called Acorn. Jules might make a million dollars — enough to send Luc and his parents to Switzerland or the United States for treatment that could save him.

That leads to a cutting comic set piece as Jules flies first to Los Angeles, then to New York for meetings with his Acorn handler, a smarmy American who pronounces his name "Jewels," and the company’s leader and peculiar genius, whose name is, no kidding, Rich Panda.

Things do not go as planned. What’s more, Jules finds out (and tells no one) that, despite his apparent good health, he has a medical condition that could drop him in his tracks.

On one level, Paris in the Present Tense is a caper, like The Sting, in which Jules comes up with an intricate and clever way to make his death pay off, quite literally. It’s also a bit of a romance, as he falls instantly and hopelessly in love (despite his devotion to Jacqueline) with a student named Élodi who is half-a-century his junior.

Helprin’s style, however, elevates the story with sumptuous descriptions and complex characters whose conversations sometimes become analyses of such issues as anti-Semitism or meditations on the nature of music, time and love.

There’s a reason that Paris appears in the title — the novel is also a paean to that great city. Jules has lived for decades in an apartment in the stunning mansion of a billionaire friend in St. Germain en Laye, a beautiful suburb west of Paris whose elevation gives it views of the city’s whole sweep.

There, on the city’s most obscure streets or in the powerful waters of the Seine, Jules is at home and in love with Paris as well. As he puts the pieces of his life’s last work together, he goes to visit the Louvre, music playing in his head from memory. "As he walked through Paris, music deepened the sight of everything. From jets inscribing white lines across a powder blue sky, to leaves shifting only a few millimeters in the bright sun, or the grace of a woman moving through a garden, never had the world seemed so beautiful and forgiving."

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Paris in the Present Tense

By Mark Helprin

Overlook Press, 394 pages, $28.95

Times Festival of Reading

Mark Helprin will be a featured author at the 2017 Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 11 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He will speak at 11 a.m. in the Poynter Institute Barnes Pavilion.

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