Paris in the Present Tense, by Mark Helprin (The Overlook Press, 400 pp., $28.95)
“Paris always seemed to me to be the center of the world. The omphalos as they had it in Delphi, the navel.” That’s what Mark Helprin told me as we sat together last fall—not in a Paris café but in New York’s Central Park. The author and journalist was passing through the city to promote his latest novel, Paris in the Present Tense. Later that evening, he lectured at the Albertine bookstore on Fifth Avenue, itself a “navel” of French culture within New York.
I had not expected to encounter such Francophilia in Helprin. The American creative world is full of people who spread Paris pixie dust, contrasting its allegedly superior lifestyle with drab American ways. By contrast, Helprin’s novels depict often heroically American characters. As a prolific political essayist, Helprin often writes of great American follies in domestic and foreign affairs and unabashedly in defense of American interests. Patriotism is not beneath his dignity.
Yet Helprin’s Paris-centrism is not the typical stuff designed to flatter a certain subset of American literary consumers. As a young child in the early 1950s, Helprin lived with his parents in Paris. The city, he recalls, was frozen in time from before the war. Recovery efforts had not yet begun in earnest, and many buildings still contained bullet holes. A few years later in New York, a French couple, Louis and Marie Mignon lived in the Helprin home. Louis had been a poilu in World War I, fighting at Verdun. As a baker in Reims during World War II, he hid Jews in his attic. Turning the couple into characters in the book, Helprin honors their memory.
Over the years, Helprin has had other interesting Paris moments, particularly during the student demonstrations of May 1968. He witnessed these not in the typical way of many baby boomer intellectuals—from the street—but alongside a young friend who was a government official. He knew then that he would someday write something set in the French capital.
Gripping and often poignant, Paris in the Present Tense was worth the wait. Though Helprin draws evocative images of the City of Light, this is a thick novel of the old-fashioned kind, with well-wrought depictions of love and friendship, music, the experience of aging, and the memory of World War II and the Holocaust. Helprin also compellingly portrays the social fractures that plague French life today.
The novel tells the story of the later days of Jules Lacour, a Jewish violin maître who lives in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris. He had been hidden during the Holocaust and barely survived. His parents did not. Though the war certainly left its mark, Lacour has lived a life of unassuming dignity. We first meet him as an exceptionally vigorous 74-year-old widower who runs and swims, and rows in the Seine. A brilliant musician and composer, he is uninterested in theory, which held back his advancement at the University of Paris; Lacour aspires to an unfiltered, “non-theoretical” experience of the essential phenomena of life, on which his music builds. The plot’s main action concerns his effort to raise money to purchase the best medical care for his cancer-stricken grandson, a struggle that eventually brings him to America. In the midst of his efforts, he happens upon a violent scene at one of the bridges of the Seine; the resulting incident makes him a hero as well as a fugitive.
In centering his story on a man of intelligence and integrity, Helprin continues what has become a trademark of his fiction—depicting distinctly admirable protagonists. Helprin does not avoid portraying the ugly, seedier parts of life: the novel features, for example, a horrific scene involving the SS in Occupied France. Overall, the author chooses to dwell on the more ennobling aspects of human nature. I asked him if this optimism was a deliberate literary strategy; he said that he merely writes in the same way that he looks at the world.
The most striking aspect of the book, from a literary point of view, is Helprin’s success in writing what is essentially a “French” novel, with French characters, set in France. It’s true that, as an American, the author focuses on details that a French novelist might not. He includes a charming portrait of two police officers, flics investigating a murder case, that seems more reminiscent of a Billy Wilder film than genuine Parisian life. In large measure, Helprin pulls it off. His characterization of Saint-Germain-en-Laye is particularly rich, capturing the regal history and placid beauty of this town.
Elsewhere in Lacour’s France, however, the signs of decay are hard to miss. Lacour is a Holocaust survivor, and he looks with sadness (but not shock) at the country’s crisis of anti-Semitism, festering in the suburbs of many big cities and growing in elite opinion. The novel features the brutal attack of a religious Jew by hooligans and recalls other alarming anti-Semitic events of recent years, such as a march in Paris a few years ago that began with cries of “Death to the Jews” and almost led to a pogrom. French through and through, Lacour urges his religiously observant daughter and her husband to take their grandson to America—not only for better medical care but also for a better future altogether.
As a reader, I was surprised that the question of Israel did not come up in this context, as another option for Lacour’s children. Tens of thousands of French Jews have moved to Israel over the last decade, in part due to the increasing hostility that Helprin depicts. Helprin is himself a strong supporter of the Jewish state and an astute analyst of it. When we digressed from discussing his novel to talk politics, he told me that even as things in Israel have never looked better, he worries that the country is “on the top of a cliff” looking down—and may always remain on that precipice. Helprin himself lived in Israel a few decades ago. Ultimately he found the country too small, lacking the openness and expanse of America. Lacour will stay in France, but he wishes for his grandchildren the safety and freedom of America.
An old college professor, Helprin told me, used to ask students “why the Irish write short stories, rather than novels.” Novels, he says, “are the product of a confident culture, big scope for the imagination.” The fact that so many American novels today are obscure or unambitious is a sign, in Helprin’s view, that “our civilization is on its knees.” Paris in the Present Tense shows that Helprin is determined, as a novelist and an American, not to go down without a fight. If America, France, and the rest of the West succeed in revitalizing their political and literary culture, one sign of it will be more writing that approaches the elegance, intelligence, and grandeur of Helprin’s work.
Photo by slowking (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons