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Book review: Paris in the Present Tense

Passion and pain in Paris

    Paris in the Present Tense By Mark Helprin

    Jules Lacour, a 75-year-old professor of music falls passionately in love with his beautiful, 25–year-old cello pupil Èlodie. Cultivated, sensitive and handsome, his attraction to gorgeous women blends with a peachy lifestyle. Jules lives — rent-free — in a glorious apartment in exclusive St Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris, surrounded by woods and fields where he runs every day.

    Doctors cannot believe how fit Jules is. He has the blood pressure of a 30-year-old, and looks “about 50”. He also rows a single scull to brave the ferocious currents of the Seine from his old-fashioned club boathouse anchored on the river. It’s an idyllic life.

    And women fall passionately back in love with Jules. His charm translates to California, where he spends two or three days as he pursues a million-euro contract for a phone jingle he has recorded — time enough to capture the heart of a perfect vision of feminine elegance: Amina “appeared like a blinding sunburst with the promise to put an end to longing and lay the past to rest.” She meets him by chance back in Paris — happily, in this instance, there’s only a 15-year age gap.

    Yet Jules’s life is not all strolls along sunlit boulevards and dinners at intimate restaurants. He mourns the death of his wife of 50 years, Jacqueline — “since her death his many infatuations had radiated like burning infra-red into the hearts of younger and inappropriate women” but purely as “an attempt to reach beyond the veil and love life once more”.

    His grandson has leukemia and Jules is determined to raise the millions of dollars he believes will cure the child in America. When the phone jingle is rejected, he comes up with the less original idea of insurance fraud — and takes out a policy with the corporation who spurned his composition.

    The past is always with him. At four years old, he witnessed the brutal shooting of his young parents by Nazi soldiers on their retreat from Paris and, 70 years later, the horror still haunts him.

    Strangely, we hear nothing about his subsequent upbringing, yet much about a jeunesse doré in a sun-filled world of summery sensuality.

    But the present tense has turned tricky for Jules. The police are on his trail following a double homicide and track him down as a result of a Jihadi in Syria sending them incriminating evidence — a blood-soaked restaurant bill (aptly enough).

    An intriguing read by an American writer described by one critic as “the last epic novelist”, Paris in the Present Tense offers an insider’s view of Paris, a detective hunt (the best part) and disputations with friend François — a philosophe of the Jean-Paul Sartre school.

    The novel probably looked like a yearning “May and December” romance in 2014 but what squeaked under the bar even as recently as last year is more problematic.


    Anne Garvey is a freelance writer