More than anything, Mark Helprin is captivated by cities. He is moved by their noise and energy, alarmed by their squalor, and humbled by their beauty and vitality. Helprin’s novels do not simply take place in cities; they are, in essence, about cities, and the kind of people who might take pride in being citizens of a metropolis.
Parisian Jules Lacour, protagonist of Helprin’s new novel, “Paris in the Present Tense,” is 74 and still healthy enough to row on the Seine daily. He lives in the guesthouse of a billionaire’s mansion, teaches music at the Sorbonne, and worries over the well-being of his two-year-old grandson, stricken with cancer. Having been an adjunct professor and stifled composer all his life, he lacks the money he hopes to leave to his daughter and son-in-law for his grandson’s treatment.
Salvation appears to arrive when his old friend Francois, a famed philosopher and television personality, connects him to an extraordinarily well-remunerated job writing a jingle for an insurance firm. When the gig falls through, Jules begins to scheme for alternative methods of saving his grandson — and potentially getting his revenge on the insurance company in the process.
Like Philip Roth’s late masterpieces “Everyman” and “Nemesis,” “Paris in the Present Tense” is about confronting the horrors of aging and death. Ever cognizant of our potential for dissatisfaction, Helprin is looking to fend off our potential complaints from the outset: “A smart, brave, and defeated old man sitting in front of the doctor, reticent as he might be, was more interesting than listening to the sexual travails or career disappointments of a twenty-eight-year-old.”
“Paris in the Present Tense” is a twilight novel, and its love affair, essential to any Helprin work, is a complex one, haunted by time. Jules meets Élodi, a beautiful young musician drawn to him, but is torn by his lingering loyalty to his deceased wife, Jacqueline. Jules knows the end is far closer than the beginning and does not seek to imitate the lion-in-winter eroticism of Francois, forever chasing young women in an effort to maintain his masculine vigor. Death is no longer a terror for Jules, but a friend seeking his willing embrace. But the city keeps calling Jules back: “In the time remaining, he had Paris past and present, with colors and light, and layer upon layer of sound and music drifting over the whited city like the smoke of spring fires.”
Helprin, author of the indelible “Winter’s Tale” and “A Soldier of the Great War,” has always been most comfortable in the epic mode, retaining a classicist’s eye for beauty while preserving enough of the contemporary world to speak to the present. His prose has an aching beauty that stems from his unembarrassed devotion to tradition and limpid sentiment. When Jules’s parents, in a wartime flashback, are discovered by Nazi soldiers, Helprin observes them exchanging a last longing look: “In a single glance they said that they loved one another, that they understood they were going to die, and that what they had left to do now in the world was to hope that Jules, overlooked, would live.”
Helprin, who turned 70 this year, and is known for, among other things, his speechwriting work for 1996 Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, is a political conservative, and his views color the scope and tenor of “Paris.” There are catty remarks about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and Muslim thugs who cry “Raciste!” after being bested in a street brawl.
This Paris is a city stumbling under the very real burden of French anti-Semitism, of attacks on Jews in Toulouse and the kosher Hypercacher supermarket. Jules, a Holocaust survivor and veteran of the Algerian War with an Orthodox son-in-law, believes that French Jews are under threat in their native country. “They don’t have jobs,” Jules notes of the threatening dark-skinned faces he encounters on the streets. “What do they do all day, lift weights and look at jihad videos?”
“Paris” is heavily speckled with get-off-my-lawn moments, where the story is interrupted by diatribes only loosely related to the plot: “The motorcyclists these days, most of them, seem like Nazis: the arrogance, the distance, the assertion of power, the wish to intimidate and the enjoyment when they do. I hate them.” There are similar rants against facial hair and the Internet, among other hot-button topics. Readers might begin to worry that Jules’s tirades, not just the relatively innocuous ones but the quasi-bigoted ones, represent Helprin’s sentiments about contemporary France.
This crabby Helprin is hardly the novelist’s most appealing self, but the tone of “Paris,” alternately somber and crotchety, articulates Jules’s dilemma, still tempted by a world he increasingly disdains: “On the morning of his death, Jules was holding in his hand a raspberry-cherry chocolate bombe. He took time out to eat it. It was extremely good, and for a moment, he thought of nothing else.”
PARIS IN THE PRESENT TENSE
By Mark Helprin
Overlook, 394 pp., $28.95Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to the Globe.