Paris in the Present Tense

The journalist is a writer who carries out his education in public.

Someone said it. Maybe many people have. I don’t remember where I first encountered this thought. I just remember it was many years ago. I was reminded of it last month as I read Mark Helprin’s 2017 book, Paris in the Present Tense. And I asked myself, doesn’t a novelist expose his intellectual/social/emotional/spiritual/moral development even more to the scrutiny of his readers?

This was not my first encounter with Helprin. I had read him with some devotion (three titles) in the 1990s, so this time around was a bit like running into an old friend, at once distinctly recognizable yet also significantly changed. (Not to mention how deeply changed I was.) One feature unchanged: Helprin’s penchant for injecting social-political-economic observation/commentary into his narratives. Not so distinctive you might object, yet with views as unconventional and willfully nonconformist as his, the feature truly is distinctive. In Memoir from Antproof Case [1995] his character rails against the evils of coffee throughout the book.

Helprin’s web site avers that the author “belongs to no literary school, movement, tendency, or trend.” We are to understand that he is deeply independent, yet on his Wikipedia page we learn that, in the political arena, he has cast his lot with conservative causes. He is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and in 1996 he signed on as Bob Dole’s speech writer and foreign policy adviser. He has a life as a conservative commentator, but in the pages of his fiction (or at least in Paris in the Present Tense), he comes across more as a traditionalist. Jules, the central character, tells his friend François, “When civilization turned a corner or two, I didn’t. …I wouldn’t make the turn. I’d rather be a rock in the stream, even if submerged, than the glittering scum on the surface.” [56] We get this kind of thing throughout the book.

The child of French Jews, Jules spends the first four years of his life hiding out, speaking in whispers, in the attic of a bakers’ shop in Reims. Just as the city is being liberated by American forces, he witnesses his parents be killed by a Nazi officer. We know of this tragedy from the book’s first pages. We are led to infer that it is the defining event in the seventy-four-year-old’s life. But Helprin makes us wait two hundred pages to learn the details, to appreciate the full painful irony of the event.  When we do, we suddenly understand why Jules is stunted, emotionally stuck in the past, unable to live fully “in the present tense.” And we sense the author shares some of Jules’s malaise.

There is, first of all, their (author and character’s) critique of modernity, specifically, “the illusion of security that modernity affords to advanced nations.” [105] Jules explains to his cello student (and latest infatuation) that “death, pain, and tragedy still rule the world,” despite the wont of rich nations to pretend they do not. [262] In case we (and Elodi) have missed the point, he later compares the world to a jungle, full of both wonderful beauty and great danger–“tigers, jaguars, and snakes lying in wait.” [296] This is Hobbesian state-of-nature conservativism softened by classical aestheticism.

In the inciting event of the story, Jules witnesses a man, a Hasidic Jew, being beaten by three young men, second-generation Arabs. What to do? Jules is physically fit, but there are three of them, they are younger, and one wields a knife. Through the narrator we hear Jules thinking how “well protected citizens” who “eschewed violence” would “close their eyes and wish to be done with it all equally and without the labor and risk of judgment.” [122]  After intervening, he poses his quandary more sharply as a rhetorical question: “Should he have abstained, as required of a good citizen, leaving the monopoly of violence to the state but allowing the murder of an innocent man?” [126] This is a direct challenge to liberals, limousine or otherwise, who talk a good game from afar but shrink from moral action when the situation demands it.

Other allegedly conservative critiques are more small bore. The pre-modern and modern-yet-religious belief in angels: “So what do you think fed [believers’] perfervid imaginations? Where did they get the idea? What were their models? Children, of course.” [129] The current mania for facial hair: “I suppose it hides their callowness. Instead of pretending, they should wait until they’ve suffered and endured.” [295] (Hobbesian realism again.) Cell phones: “Landlines did not double as television sets, pedometers, encyclopedias, atlases, travel agents, or teletype machines….” [323]

Yet other commentary seems standard conservative fare. Bureaucracy is “stupid and monstrous.” [332] “Federal government mismanage[s]” its billions. [167] The majesty of Versailles is a “tribute to humanity.” [257]  Yet Helprin’s “conservatism” is not mindless. He acknowledges paradox, holds opposing truths in tension. Versailles is also a “crime against humanity,” made possible by “the virtual enslavement of a whole nation for centuries.” [257] A private mega-corporation can enact more evil even than the leviathan of government. “Like a whale, [the Acorn insurance company] cruised the markets, sweeping up cash in its baleen.” [167]

Through his character and his narrative, Helprin makes the case for the individual and his capacity to find love and beauty in the world. More: to be loyal to one’s loves (people, art, values) even under the leveling press of modernity. Jules’s philosopher friend, challenges him to explain what he is loyal to…besides, perhaps, “being peculiar.” [136-137] “I’m loyal to a world that was destroyed,” Jules responds. If he is speaking for the author here, it sounds a lot like whining. But not so fast. Don’t we all, even if we did not lose both parents in the Holocaust, grow up into a world we don’t quite recognize? Don’t we all experience the loss of a world we thought we knew and loved? As eccentric as Jules is, he speaks, in a way, for all of us. Helprin gives us permission to stay loyal to our lost worlds. He exhorts us that we must remain loyal.


But let’s return to the casually-mentioned “latest infatuation” with Jules’s cello student. Any American not living under a rock cannot read of an older male mentor falling for a young, attractive female protégé–even in fiction–without cringing. Can this really be? In a book published as the Harvey Weinstein allegations were coming out? As a novelist, Helprin does his thinking out loud, for all to hear and judge. In fairness, Jules “falls in love” (pretty much at first sight) with at least six women–of all ages–over the course of the four-hundred-page book. Most of these are passing infatuations and Jules recognizes them as such. Two are significant to both the character and the plot. One, revealed in a flashback, becomes his wife and the love of his life. Since she has died, Jules remains steadfastly “loyal” to her memory, even if he conducts ephemeral, involuntary infatuations in his mind. Helprin gives Jules an uncanny ability to project alluring qualities on a woman within seconds of meeting her, as he did with Amina, his last infatuation which turned out to be more profound than expected: “mischievous, knowing, innocent, forgiving, loving, comforting, challenging, proposing, curious, seductive, and enthusiastic.” [370] Such quasi-objectification hardly fares better with the #MeToo crowd–or me, either, for that matter. I tired of it.

And yet,  after consideration, I’m not sure Helprin is so interested in romantic, sexual love, anyway. Falling in love may simply be a stand-in for human love more generally. Jules’s frequent love-at-first-sights may seem almost pathological but in Helprin’s fiction, I think, they point to a capacity for love. Others may fear that love “is an illusion that will not last,” but Helprin assures us “it does, and it will.” [104]

Helprin is not at all interested in newly orthodox views on sex and gender. In the first chapter (on the fourth page!), his narrator explains that the stewards and stewardesses are now called flight attendants, “as if they had no sex.” [16] This is a bold slap in the reader’s face, as if to say, Don’t expect the mindlessly politically correct from me. Helprin might consider that the occupation’s title is not so much a denial of sex as a denial of sex as the defining feature of the employee. In any event, if we don’t follow Helprin’s line of thinking, he soon devotes several sentences to a description of the “stewardess’ uniform”: “every line and angle of which knew with affection the beauty and charm of her body and the loveliness of her face.” [16] No, she is not sexless.

Many chapters later, Jules enters a high-powered corporate boardroom with three women present. All three are dressed “expensively and elegantly,” and, after detailing their clothing and accessories, the narrator says, “They were pretty,” which the reader takes, instantly, as  damning with faint praise. “Beautiful” is used extravagantly throughout the book. The narrator explains: “Although these women had every attribute of femininity–delicacy, beauty [OK, he did use it here.], grace and more–they were patently unfeminine merely because they chose to be. Suspicion, aggression, self-assertion, and the sense that they were crouched to spring radiated from them quietly but unmistakably.” [168] Helprin appears to be taking a position on feminism post-#MeToo in line with Catherine Deneuve. Yet he inoculates himself against a charge of sexism by adding in the next sentence that the men present were just as unappealing and “radiated  the same suspicion, aggression, and self-assertion.”


In my first encounter with Mark Helprin, twenty-five years ago, I was shocked (and awed?) by the density of similes in his writing. (A dozen per page? More?) I asked my English professor friend if it were possible to have too many similes in fiction. Certainly, was his reply. Helprin didn’t worry. He belonged to “no school, movement, tendency, or trend.” The quantity of similes in this latest book is now well within the normal range, and they are all apropos and thought-provoking: “…the compassionate dead looking on were infinitely wiser than the living, so many of whom stopped for an instant as they thrashed through life like fish in a net.” [84]

But Helprin has a new device in his writerly repertoire. He composes delightful sentences that, in their final clause, turn in on themselves like a sock being pulled inside-out. When Jules disguises himself after the fatal encounter with the street toughs, we get: “Thus transformed, he would be anything but the man who had had the confrontation onto the bridge, although of course he was.” [128] Later, Jules attempts to put off his pursuer with a distraction “which had the irresistible air of a scheme, because that’s what it was.” [321] Approaching the heart of the matter, we read that Jules “so much wanted to live, and he so much wanted to die, but the conflict would resolve itself, because, without fail, he would do both.” And my personal favorite: “The worse it got, the worse it got.” [265]

My earnest, still-young adult self might not have appreciated Helprin’s humor the first time around. At least, I don’t remember it so much. This time, I smiled often and chuckled almost as much.

  • “After Jack inhaled his steak, he said, quoting Hemingway, ‘It was good.'” [73]
  • “Isn’t a jingle supposed to be irritating, so it becomes a brain worm and you can’t forget it? This isn’t irritating, it’s inappropriately beautiful. These days, people don’t like that.” [169-170]
  • “Though the [love]locks, in being too heavy in their collectivity, may have endangered the railings, they had been a boon to local hardware stores….” [368]

He takes advantage of humorous lost-in-translation opportunities:

  • An entire conversation in which the Texas billionaire is talking about a kid actor, and Jules, whose “English was entirely formal,” thinks they are talking about a goat. [71] (Helprin “milks” that goat for a full page and more.)
  • A brief confusion over Snickers: foot wear or a candy bar? [175]
  • A mis-remembered idiom: I’m having a whale time. [341]

He is not shy about using names as double entendres:

  • The psychiatrist called Dunaif
  • The billionaire Texans called Cheatham.
  • The sinister insurance investigator called Damien Nerval (“Who could tell if he had become the man he was because his name was Damien Nerval, or, because of the man he was, he had changed his name to Damien Nerval.” [316])

Some of he best moments are in dialogues:

“‘Oh, I see,” said Jules.

“What do you see?” Nerval pressed.

“What do you think I see?”

“I think you see, or should see, that we know what you’re up to.”

“And what am I up to?”

“You tell me.”

“No, you brought it up. You tell me.”

“I don’t have to tell you anything”

“Yes you do.”


“Because you came out of the blue. You have to initiate. All I have to do is sit here.”

“What other than guilt would prevent you from answering my question?”

“What question?”

“What you’re up to.”

“You didn’t ask me what I’m up to. You told me you know. That’s not a question.” [318-319]

(Not a dialogue that would happen in real life, perhaps, but one that playfully examines what might happen if we could break down the logical fallacies of ordinary speech in real time.)

Ultimately, though, Paris in the Present Tense is a serious book about serious themes: love and beauty, loyalty and time, as well as the most serious of all: death. The whole book is about ending Jules’s life, not just as a theme but literally the plotting of it, by both character and author.  But first Jules must come to terms with his life: accepting the past, “its reverberations and its sustain,” providing for the future, “the clarity and beauty of its promise,” [191] while learning to live fully in…wait for it…the present tense. As a septuagenarian himself, Helprin is approaching the reality of his own mortality. No more than the rest of us can he chose the where, when, or how of it. But as a novelist he can do it for the character of his creation.

Early in the book, Jules tells François, his philosophical interlocutor, “There’s joy in dying the way you want, by your own standard, in faith to what you see as self-evident. Enough joy to lift you over death as it comes to you.” [56] Jules accomplished this with the help of an adept novelist shaping his story. Helprin and the rest of us must struggle to find a way to do it on our own.

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