In both his travels and his writing, novelist Mark Helprin purposefully avoids the well-known icons and emblems associated with Paris, opting instead for everyday suburban streets and lesser-known architectural gems like the Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtrière. “That’s one of the reasons that Paris is so beautiful,” the author of Paris in the Present Tense points out. “They’ve taken such great care to make the ordinary beautiful and lavished attention on the little things.”
The heart of the novel is Jules Lacour, a 74-year-old French cellist. Jules does not live on a grand boulevard or in the quaint streets of one of Paris’ more famous neighborhoods. Instead, like most real-life inhabitants of the region, he calls a quiet, nearby suburb home. “That’s where I see the life of a city,” Helprin says about choosing Jules’ home.
Recently widowed, the remarkably fit and capable Jules—who still rows for miles on the Seine each morning—finds himself suddenly facing mortality and the failures of his professional career. In addition to the unexpected loss of his beloved wife, Jules’ grandson Luc is diagnosed with leukemia and needs the money for treatment only available in the United States. All at the same time, Jules finds himself falling in love with Élodi, his 25-year-old protegé, and becomes embroiled in the investigation of a violent, racially-motivated attack.
While each plot point corresponds aptly to an aging population, the perceived limitations of state-run health care, or mounting racial tensions, Helprin avoids using characters to illustrate a political argument. “The political situation is just a mechanism for something which is far more important,” he says. For Helprin, the more important thing is the way Jules navigates his circumstances and the passions that motivate him. “I always believed that passion should be the main driver of literature,” says Helprin, “and that reason should be the main driver of politics. These days I find it reversed.”
By keeping personal passions as a driving force, Helprin has also created a cast of complex supporting characters and personal histories: the diverse policemen investigating the shocking hate crime present a radically different view of race relations; a struggling insurance salesman gives corporate bureaucracy an endearing, human face. Even the budding relationship between Jules and the much younger Élodi is difficult to definitively label as romantic or reprehensible. Drawing inspiration from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Helprin says that he primarily wanted to show a man falling in love with life in the face of death, while simultaneously confronting temptation.
Bringing the complexities of Jules’ inner thoughts to life was made somewhat easier by the numerous similarities he and Helprin share. Although Helprin never intended to create a direct counterpoint to himself, he does give Jules his measurements, his physical capabilities, and even the same dormant medical condition (which becomes pivotal to the novel’s conclusion). “When you choose a word, when you write, or when you make a character, you want to tell the truth,” says Helprin. “You use reality to make fiction. In the same way, you can also form reality from fiction. It’s a very strange back and forth.”
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator living in Paris.