Paris in the Present Tense is a love story about a gentle older man reflecting back on his life while grappling with current frustrations and trying to arrange a future that does not include himself. It is also an ode to a Paris of the twentieth century from a perspective shaped by a love of music, artistic brilliance, and a profound appreciation for the beauty of its geography. A city awash in antisemitism yet peppered with the sparkling sophistication of the ignoble. A city on the Seine that provides Jules his lifeblood through rowing and a refuge from the insanity of his current dilemmas. I adored this book.
In Jules, Helprin has birthed a philosophical, relatable soul with a fierce love for his family, a man welcoming of romantic love who denies himself the passion of its fruition, and a man who struggles for relevancy when his profession abandons him and his home is taken away. Paris also represents the past, the world of his beautiful late wife and a post-holocaust exuberance that defines all Jules’ accomplishments. It is now a place where his friends succeed without him, and somewhere that bears no promise for his ill grandson and his only daughter. In trying to fashion a miracle for his family, Jules enters the fickle realm of music jingles and insurance fraud, subsumed in a murderous rage, and encircling catastrophes that challenge his integrity and identity, along with his notions of religious freedom and redemption. Helprin writes “What he didn’t know and surely could not have imagined, and what his tormentors did not know and surely could not have imagined, was that watching from the shadows was Jules, a man who was thrown back seventy years as if no time had passed, whose whole life had been a compressed spring in wait for just the trigger they had pulled. Although it was true, he wasn’t aware that here was a chance to kill in just the way as all his life he had wanted to kill, and to die in just the way all his life he had wanted to die.”
Jules’ story sails on a sea of gorgeous prose aswirl with Helprin’s lyrical language and allegorical wit. He holds true to Jules’ unique voice, wrapping his words in crisp sentences and precise analogies. “The replacement was due in a minute and a half. As if to hold the new man to account either for being late or so rigid as to be exactly on time, Jules stared at his watch, ready to form an opinion. Thirty-five seconds before the appointed hour, there was a quick soft series of knocks, as if a woodpecker had a boxing glove on his beak. Jules got up, went to the door, and opened it slowly as if it has been the heavy door of a vault.”
Paris in the Present Tense is a mystery and a memoir, a love story and a literary accomplishment that should be savored slowly and allowed to unfold on the senses like a beautiful wine or a ripening rose.