Book Review: Paris in the Present Tense

Mark Helprin
Overlook Press / 2017
  • ISBN: 978-1468314762
400 Pages

It has been awhile since a novel has changed the way I think about the novel. But Paris in the Present Tense is a lyrical novel that has empowered my faith in the contemporary novel. Let's face it, it has been awhile since A Winter's Tale, when we first fell into the world of Helprin's prose and imagination, and while this book isn't as mystical, it is formidable in his prose and his storytelling.

This novel follows the life an aged cello player named Jules Lacour a cellist and teacher who is facing the end of his days and his life in Paris. And while there is intrigue, mystery, and all the plot points that have grown tired in contemporary fiction, this novel rises above all those expectations. Part of it is the nature of this older, wise protagonist and his vision of the world. But it also sits in the root of Helprin's prose and his ability to position you in the most complex moments of life and find more than just plot point, but more.

Jules is an older protagonist who is eccentric in some ways and contemporary in others. He is suspiciously healthy and can still run, swim, and row. His routines are simple, but his life complex and fraught with pitfalls. He lives as a renter on an estate, and he has a life that has shaped his romantic and often practical vision of the world. His life proves that things like love can still fill our lives through intimacy, music, longing, and fate. It is modern in terms of the world that Jules lives in, but it is also worldly in the connections to the past - through music, personal history, and dynamics of all those relationships accumulated over the years. There were times when the use of more flashbacks may have focused a few more things, but that isn't the point of this book. What we missed is left for the reader to contemplate.

In terms of the prose writing, it is exceptional. Helprin's writing is vivid and so well balanced. As I mentioned, this book is about a lot of plot points that (if I wrote them here) sound trite and typical of a thriller novel. But this novel doesn't run on the answers to plotted questions. This novel is threaded with an emotional quality that comes from Helprin's prose.

And sometimes, the phrasing of his writing just stops you. He writes "That kept me alive. For you, they would say it was trauma, but I wouldn't. I'd say it was simpler, that like everyone else you have a paradise you long to restore, but your paradise is also hell. Although getting back is dark and dangerous, you won't be deterred. Love draws you back. You can't escape." The push and pull of ideas and words is a constant tension. Helprin is constantly playing with opposites - or in this book lyrical dynamics. Paradise is compared with hell. Trauma isn't real unless there is something to lose. And it becomes this kind of vision of pushing and pulling words apart that makes this book feel less a plotted thriller and more like an epic love story.

During a war flashback, Helprin used his descriptive art to describe the sounds of troops moving. This is relevant because music, sounds, and shaping music is thematic to the novel. "The sounds of arrival and departure were always the same: straps slapping against metal, engines starting, tripods folding, the slides and bolts of weapons exercised after oiling, commands shouted, and upon leaving, the blast of a whistle followed by the revving of engines as the vehicles rolled off." One of the hardest parts of writing about music is that the novel lacks the ability to hear music directly. And writers then have to spend time describing the nature of the music without hearing it. While this novel deals with the essence of music, it doesn't stumble with long expositions about music, in fact - like his description, he turns troop movements, thunderstorms, and cafes into music that inspires the sounds of the music.

This novel is based on the later years of an older man - a many with years of experience and vision. When his daughter thinks he is getting senile because he can't remember the name of a film, he argues, "You learn to see with your emotions and feel with your reason. If at its end the life you're living takes on the attributes of art, it doesn't matter if you've forgotten where you put your reading glasses."

This novel is a very human, a very stunning testament to the complexities of living a full and meaningful life. Even with the best intentions, the world has different plans. This novel is about hope, love, and value in our personal history. It is a rare idea so elegantly placed in a contemporary novel.
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