Paris in the Present Tense: A Novel

Mark Hel­prin
  • Review
By – March 1, 2018

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.

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