'Paris in the Present Tense' is stuck in the past

Monday, October 30, 2017 - 8:43pm

“Protagonist” is not a strong enough word to describe Jules Lacour, the central character of Mark Helprin’s latest novel, “Paris in the Present Tense.” Jules is a hero, in the most traditional and exaggerated sense of the term: A soldier who hates war, a prodigious artist who disdains fame and fortune, a survivor who is determined to sacrifice himself for others. He at once represents the values of western masculinity — strength, courage and a stiff upper-lip — and the values of the romantics: Truth, beauty and the belief that “love is absolute.” It’s not enough for Jules to be a hero; he must also be a tragic hero who, despite his outsized virtuosity, is dragged time and again into senseless violence and loss.

Set in modern Paris, the novel follows Jules as, in his old age, he attempts to reconcile the tragedies of his past with those of his present. Born to Jewish parents during the Holocaust, Jules is haunted by guilt over his childhood losses. This guilt is compounded by the death of his beloved wife, Jacqueline, and his inability as a gifted but unrecognized musician to financially support his terminally ill grandson, Luc. So when the opportunity arises to save Luc, Jules seizes it and is drawn down a path that leads to fraud, murder and an affair with a woman fifty years his junior as he attempts to fulfill his lifelong wish “to save a faltering life by giving his own.”

Like all heroes, Jules has a tragic flaw: His loyalty to the past and the people he’s been forced to leave there. As flaws go, it’s akin to telling a job interviewer that your worst trait is working too hard; indeed, Jules’ heroics require a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Helprin doesn’t seem all that interested in human quirks, vulnerability or folly. Instead, he operates on a mythic scale, exploring grander themes such as the way the past can color the present, the perennial nature of injustice and violence, the impossibility of a truly safe and secure world order, and the ways people react when confronted with their own mortality. Much of the novel operates as a vehicle for Helprin to play a game of intellectual chess against himself. His characters speak in soliloquies rather than conversations, and the plot serves as an accessory for what is otherwise a philosophical meditation. The result is a novel that is sometimes rambling, but often brilliant.

Despite his obvious intelligence, it’s clear that Helprin suffers from the same ailment as his hero. They are both stuck in the past. Thematically, “Paris in the Present Tense” retreads old ground, albeit in thoughtful, eloquent and sometimes captivating ways. The traditional aspects of the novel aren’t themselves particularly off-putting, but they carry with them an unsettlingly regressive treatment of masculinity and femininity. Masculinity and its attendant virtues are praised, and male characters are allowed to experience complex motivations, ambiguity and ambivalence. The women of the novel, however, are largely interchangeable and incomplete. There are no ordinary-looking women in Helprin’s universe; every woman, no matter how fleetingly she appears in the narrative, is astonishingly beautiful to an almost comic extent and is an object of lust, which Jules interprets as love. The most important women of the novel — Jules’s dead wife Jacqueline and his inappropriately young lover Élodie — are half-baked at best. They are more fantasy than person — the fantasy of a genius, certainly, with extreme intelligence on top of their essential beauty, but fantasy nonetheless — and they function symbolically rather than actively. This element is jarring enough to call into question the traditionalist foundation of the entire novel. In the end, readers of “Paris in the Present Tense” must question if it’s possible for a writer to tell such a masculine-centric story without being unfairly reductive to both genders in the process. And if it isn’t possible, is there still a place for such stories in the modern canon?

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“Paris in the Present Tense”

Mark Helprin

October 3

The Overlook Press