I’ve fallen in love with another novel set in France and written by an American author. The first was Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. The second is Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin.
Jules Lacour is a cello maître at a Paris university. He’s 74 but looks 50, and keeps in excellent physical shape by swimming, rowing on the Seine, and running. His beloved wife Jaqueline died some years before; his daughter Catherine is married and he has a young grandson, Luc. To look at Jules, one would see a man who is tall and looks German or Scandinavian, perhaps Dutch. In fact, Jules is Jewish, born in 1940 shortly after his parents, fleeing Paris, went into hiding in Reims. His first four years were spent in silence and whispers. He survived the Nazi occupation; his parents did not.
The story of Jules’ early life does an almost reverse image of itself with the lives of his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. The grandson has leukemia, and no one in the family has sufficient funds to move to better medical centers in Switzerland or the United States. A young boy survived the early 1940s; a young boy may not survive contemporary times. Jules is willing to do just about anything to find the funds for Luc, even stooping to writing a jingle for an American insurance company.
Overlaying this story of the Lacour family is contemporary Paris. It is not the Nazi occupation all over again, but it is an increasingly dangerous time to be Jewish. His son-in-law no longer wears his yarmulke in public; he was attacked once, and a yarmulke is an advertisement for the city’s increasingly militant and violent Muslims.
One night, on his way home from a pleasant dinner with his best friend, Jules becomes involved in an act of violence, shocking himself as much as the others engaged. And from that moment, everything will change. Jules will do things he never dreamed of; he will also find himself falling in love with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter.
Paris in the Present Tense is an enthralling story, but it is the language of the story and how it shapes the story, and how intimately and beautifully the language is tied to music, that makes this novel a standout.
Helprin is the author of several novels, including A Soldier of the Great War, Winter’s Tale, In Sunlight and Shadow, Refiner’s Fire, Freddy and Frederika, and Memoir from Antproof Case; several short story collections; children’s stories (with Chris Van Allburg of The Polar Expressfame); and non-fiction works. Educated at Oxford, Harvard, and Princeton, he served in the Israeli army and air force and the British Merchant Navy. He lives in Virginia.
Paris in the Present Tense is a beautiful, moving story. It’s about music and love. It’s about anti-Semitism. It’s about how the past shapes and often directs the present and the future. And it’s about the courage and standing up for what one believes in.
Top photograph by Aurelien Lemasson Theobald via Unsplash. User with permission.