Paris in the Present Tense, by Mark Helprin (Overlook, 400 pp., $28.95)
This is a very ambitious novel, to be read at many levels and thought about for a long time. Mark Helprin is his own master, telling a story that is in part a thriller and in part a reflection on the way of the world, its rights and its wrongs. In intention, he is closer to Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas than to any contemporary novelist I know of.
The choice of Paris as a setting, and French men and women as protagonists, tends toward fable. Descriptions in the freshest of prose of the Seine with the Île aux Cygnes and the Bir-Hakeim Bridge, the Place des Vosges, the Tuileries, and the stately mansions of Saint-Germain-en-Laye convey quite enough authenticity. Naming the several buildings of the Salpêtrière hospital and stations on the RER, the rapid-transport system, looks like overloading.
At the outset of the novel, the path of our hero, Jules Lacour, crosses the path of Jack, a big-shot corporation executive who addresses him as “Jewels” and dangles before him the prospect of earning an urgently required fortune but then does not deliver. In Jules’s mind, “it was always tempting to see Americans as half-baked idiots.” So much for the United States, then. A minor character has similar scorn for her own country, saying, “What is France but a once magnificent house now occupied by ignorant squatters.”
It can be argued, and no doubt will be, that Jules Lacour is an improbable figment from the depths of Helprin’s psyche. Seventy-four years old and white-haired, Jules is still fit and athletic, working out on the river and in the gym. His wife died long ago of cancer, and he feels guilt because he could have been with her at the moment of her death, but for no good reason he wasn’t. The women he meets are invariably young and attractive and he falls impulsively for them, only to find that the memory of his wife obliges him to remain a lifelong widower. Seemingly, love has to be understood as full-time devotion even when or if the costs are high.
Jules’s father was a cellist by profession, and Jules takes after him, being a musician who describes himself primarily as a Maître who teaches cello and piano in the Sorbonne faculty of music. His pupils are a small corps of great musicians. He tells them, “Quite simply, and make of it what you will: Music is the voice of God.” Furthermore, “I know theory but I teach to the sound and the emotion.” Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren is an emotional piece he often plays when alone. He also composes music that “isn’t modern and isn’t in demand — to say the least.” At the same time, Helprin, or rather Jules, his doppelgänger, has evidently had a wide literary education, and refers to, among others, Dante, Croce, Colette, John Betjeman, Cavafy, Babar the Elephant, and, not least, Hamlet. Twice he lets drop the recondite information that Rilke published poems in a trade magazine for butchers. “Beautiful” is the adjective that crops up repeatedly in respect of all the arts, even Le Nôtre’s landscape gardening. In whatever form, then, the pursuit of beauty is another absolute. One of the women expresses Helprin’s philosophy when she says, “Nature has the talent to soften, forgive, and remake, to create something beautiful out of our mistakes, paradoxes, and counterpoints — even when it comes to you invisibly.”
A chapter of intense narrative power recounts what happened to Jules immediately after his birth in 1940. Jews, the Lacours had been fully assimilated, and after the outbreak of war their hope was merely to stay alive. Jules’s parents fled from Paris with their baby as the Wehrmacht marched into the city. In the chaos of the fall of France, they ended up in Reims. Courageous Catholic strangers hid them in the attic of their house. During his first four years, the baby Jules saw nothing of the world outside this room. When at last the German army retreated, Jules’s father came out of hiding and celebrated by playing Bach’s Sei Lob. An SS major finding the way out of Reims was surprised to hear German music played in a France brought to its knees by Germans. Investigating, he caught on that Jules’s father and mother were Jews who had survived in secret and he shot them dead. One of the men in his detachment clubbed the little boy with his rifle butt but failed to kill him.
In due course conscripted into the army, Jules is posted to Algeria, when nationalists there were fighting an ugly war for independence. On sentry duty in the Jebel, he catches an Arab man and a young woman spying out the French camp. Rather than shooting them as he should, he lets them go, an act of conscience that other French soldiers will have to pay for with their lives.
More time passes, and, as Helprin puts it, “French Jews felt the fear and darkness of the Thirties rolling in.” Massive crowds marched in Paris, chanting “Death to the Jews.” Strolling along the Seine one night, Jules comes upon three young Arabs, one of them holding a knife, attacking someone already down on the ground. Spotting that this victim was wearing a yarmulke, or skullcap, and therefore had to be an Orthodox Jew, Jules comes to the rescue. By the time the brawl is over, the Orthodox Jew has vanished and two of the Arabs are dead. Lying to the police, the surviving Arab says he is the victim of a racist who shouted at him in German. It is implausible that Jules’s father would have fled to Reims lugging an inconvenient cello all the way, and even more implausible that a musician in his seventies would have overpowered three young men so easily. Never mind: Fables make demands on the imagination. The young Arab who survives enables detectives to identify Jules as a murderer and he dies without wife or fortune. Helprin might be saying that justice comes at a terrible price; or possibly that people, especially Jews, must kill those who intend to kill them, but only those.
The words most appropriate for this novel happen to come from French: It is a tour de force.