The “present” of this novel’s title is an infinitesimal point between the reverberating past and the endless future. Life, Helprin shows, is not about being in the moment — it is about reckoning with the past, and shaping a future for the lives that touch our own.
Jules Lacour’s life began in Nazi-occupied France, where his mother and father were murdered before his eyes. The loss of his parents at age four haunts him, as does the early death of his wife many years later. His inability to prevent those deaths, and his ensuing feeling of powerlessness, leaves him determined to be prepared to save those close to him from a similar fate. He fortifies himself through sixty years of strenuous exercise that give him a preternaturally strong and fit physique even in his mid-seventies.
Two events arouse Jules’s instinct to save others from a cruel, unfair death — the brutal attack of a Hasidic Jew in the streets of Paris by three Muslims, and the diagnosis of his own grandson’s leukemia. Each spurs Jules into an unrelenting effort to prevent fatal outcomes that seem inevitable.
The first incident becomes a police procedural, featuring an almost comical pair of Parisian detectives. Their questioning leads them to Jules, in a suspenseful and entertaining series of episodes. At the same time, Jules devises an elaborate plan to save his grandson’s life through a financial scheme that also takes revenge on a soulless international insurance conglomerate that had abused him in the past.
This captivating novel offers the old-fashioned pleasures of imaginative prose, intricate plotting, and striking characters. But there’s much more. Paris in the Present Tense pointedly describes a city that has been unable to break the chain of anti-Semitism, from Dreyfus to wartime betrayals to present-day kidnapping, torture, and mass murder.
At the same time, the novel contemplates eternity, alluding to an unseen world that lies beyond the reality we perceive. Helprin first showed his preoccupation with eternity more than forty years ago, with the publication of his short stories. In Paris in the Present Tense, he speaks of “the good and beautiful world that a child remembers for a time after he has emerged from it with inchoate knowledge of a perfection from which he has been separated.” Jules Lacour, a musician to whom music is part of God’s language, looks forward to joining his late wife in a “separate, inviolable world.”
Above all, Lacour believes deeply in the pleasures and responsibilities of love. He has a habit of becoming infatuated at first sight with women of all ages, yet he also possesses an uncanny ability to sense when his feelings will be long-lasting. For Jules, the experience of love is like an encounter with the divine. That may be the key to understanding everything he does in this thoroughly engrossing tale.