Published by The Overlook Press
Publication date: October 3rd 2017
Despite seeing his parents murdered by Nazis in a city outside of Paris when he was four, Jules Lacour has remained a loyal Frenchman his entire life. A classical musician, now in his 70s, he lives quietly, teaching at the Sorbonne and spending time with his daughter and her young son, who has leukemia. In short order startling events turn the quiet into chaos and he must right wrongs and help those he loves. When Paris in the Present Tense begins, Lacour is returning home from Manhattan and this story is already halfway through. Author Mark Helprin winds the film of his life backwards to the events months earlier that lead him to the decisions he makes now. This all comes together to make a beautifully told tale; a novel with the feel of fable, where even missteps and evil doers are not enough to deter the simplest of men from making things right.
At the forefront of Lacour’s mind is his grandson, whom he is desperate to save. He believes the only way for the boy to be cured is to leave the country. He is also concerned about the increasing religious tensions in Paris, so when a lucrative opportunity presents itself he takes it, hoping to earn enough money for his daughter and her family to move to America. This single decision is followed by three cataclysmic personal events that not only upend his plans, they call into question the very foundation of his beliefs about his life.
Helprin is known for his love of New York City and his ability to commemorate it with prose that gleams with the same depth and mystery as the city itself. Winter’s Tale is still one of my favorite novels of all time. Now, he’s turned his poetic eye to Paris and he renders it with the same soft intensity that makes you want to live there—even if it is a place of turmoil and violence, as it is in Paris in the Present Tense. The setting is the perfect foil for the variety of events experienced by Lacour, from the rush of love felt when glimpsing a beautiful woman in a secluded courtyard to the terror of coming upon a violent crime on a darkened street. Paris is as important to the novel as is Lacour himself. Both gracefully carry the novel’s emotional weight.
Paris in the Present Tense is an expansive novel and there were moments when I questioned what happened to a character or a plotline, only to remember that, when dealing with a master storyteller like Helprin, it’s an unnecessary worry. There is no such thing as loose ends for authors of this caliber. That the story is couched in immersive prose and explores the larger themes of the smallest lives makes Paris in the Present Tense the kind of reading that is best done slowly for the greatest enjoyment. It’s well worth the time.