The renowned City of Light is as much of a character in Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense as the protagonist, Jules Lacour. Likewise, Helprin explores how the past rarely remains pinned in the past.
Publisher’s Summary: Mark Helprin’s powerful, rapturous new novel is set in a present-day Paris caught between violent unrest and its well-known, inescapable glories. Seventy-four-year-old Jules Lacour―a maître at Paris-Sorbonne, cellist, widower, veteran of the war in Algeria, and child of the Holocaust―must find a balance between his strong obligations to the past and the attractions and beauties of life and love in the present.
In the midst of what should be an effulgent time of life―days bright with music, family, rowing on the Seine―Jules is confronted headlong and all at once by a series of challenges to his principles, livelihood, and home, forcing him to grapple with his complex past and find a way forward. He risks fraud to save his terminally ill infant grandson, matches wits with a renegade insurance investigator, is drawn into an act of savage violence, and falls deeply, excitingly in love with a young cellist a third his age. Against the backdrop of an exquisite and knowing vision of Paris and the way it can uniquely shape a life, he forges a denouement that is staggering in its humanity, elegance, and truth.
In the intoxicating beauty of its prose and emotional amplitude of its storytelling, Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense is a soaring achievement, a deep, dizzying look at a life through the purifying lenses of art and memory.
Critics have called Paris in the Present Tense a “tour de force,” “epic,” and “dazzling.” Each of these adjectives are true, in addition to complex and an insightful view on the pendulum swing of contrasts that compose the human existence. Max Byrd said it best in his New York Times review:
This is only the first of the innumerable contrasts wrapped helix-like around the story of Jules Lacour, a septuagenarian cellist of extraordinary sensitivity and gloominess (he is French, after all). There is the contrast of the evanescence of music — “born into the air only instantly to die” — and the absoluteness of silence. There is the contrast of men and women (he is French, after all), of coarse America and subtle Europe, of Jew and gentile, of the Nazi past in which his parents perished and the ominous present in which his grandson, Luc, lies dying of leukemia. And finally there is the contrast of youth and age, for although Jules falls in love instantly and often — in Raymond Chandler’s words, he’s about as hard to get as a haircut — he falls most hopelessly for his beautiful young student Élodi, who is entering life just as he is increasingly aware of his own evanescence. In other words, “Paris in the Present Tense” is a novel about love, and therefore about loss.
There is also the contrast of the privilege of wealth and the costs of poverty as seen in the motivation of Lacour to provide money so his grandson can have access to the highest quality medical care. It is easy to become entangled in this multi-layered novel and Helprin’s fully formed characters. Paris in the Present Tense is a tribute to love, music, and the pursuit of beauty. It is also a social commentary on the inheritance of racism and intolerance.
At its core, however, Paris in the Present Tense is a luxurious literary excursion to contemporary Paris with all of its history and mythology – a perfect vacation from the winter’s chill.
Happy Reading, Susan C.
Also by Helprin:
Winter’s Tale – One winter night, Peter Lake–master mechanic and second-story man–attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks it is empty , the daughter of the house is home. Thus begins the affair between a middle-aged Irish burglar and Beverly Penn, a young girl dying of consumption. It is a love so powerful that Peter Lake, a simple and uneducated man, will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead.
In Sunlight and in Shadow – Returning home after serving in World War II to run his family business in New York, paratrooper Harry Copeland falls in love with young singer and heiress Catherine Thomas Hale, who risks everything to break off her engagement to another man.
Freddy and Fredericka – a brilliantly refashioned fairy tale and a magnificently funny farce—only seems like a radical departure of form, for behind the laughter, Helprin speaks of leaps of faith and second chances, courage and the primacy of love. Helprin’s latest work, an extraordinarily funny allegory about a most peculiar British royal family, is immensely mocking of contemporary monarchy and yet deeply sympathetic to the individuals caught in its lonely absurdities.
Ellis Island and Other Stories – A novella and ten stories cover an extensive geographical range, from the German Alps to the Indian Ocean, the title novella pertaining to an immigrant whose over-active imagination gets him in and out of trouble.
A Soldier of the Great War – A Roman student is torn from his carefree life when World War I breaks out, and fifty years later, recounts the triumphs and tragedies of his existence to an illiterate factory worker.
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