Truth and Beauty

(Photo: Tomas Marek/Dreamstime)
Notes on Mark Helprin’s new novel, Part I

Mark Helprin has written another novel: Paris in the Present Tense. Another masterpiece, another blow for truth and beauty.

That sentence is subject to some ambiguity, I guess. I’m not talking about a blow against truth and beauty — but a blow in their favor!

In October, I did a podcast with Mark on his book. (I call him “Mark” because he is my friend, so you can discount what I say as biased, which is fine, but it’s still true.) To hear the podcast, go here.

Also, David Pryce-Jones — another master novelist and all-around writer — reviewed Paris for National Review, here. I’ll quote P-J’s opening paragraph:

This is a very ambitious novel, to be read at many levels and thought about for a long time. Mark Helprin is his own master, telling a story that is in part a thriller and in part a reflection on the way of the world, its rights and its wrongs. In intention, he is closer to Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas than to any contemporary novelist I know of.

I am going to jot some notes on this novel. I’m not going to review it. Rather, I’m going to quote some things, and comment on some things. Paris in the Present Tense, like all Helprin novels and short stories, and maybe like all good literature, provokes a thousand thoughts in you.

(I’m not going to give so many.)

‐What is this book about? A lot of things. It’s about Paris, and France, and World War II, and the Holocaust. It’s about music. It’s about love — romantic love and other kinds. It’s about courage, honor, and loyalty. Life ’n’ death.

It’s a big book.

The book is, among other things, a hymn to Paris, as In Sunlight and in Shadow is a hymn to New York, and Freddy and Fredericka is a hymn to Britain. (These are other Helprin novels.)

I don’t think anyone has loved big cities more than Mark has. Odd, because he lives in Podunk — on a farm, in fact — but there has never been a greater appreciator of big cities.

Or of women, I would say. (You find this in the books.)

‐Why is this novel called “Paris in the Present Tense”? Helprin has explained (to me). Originally, he intended to write the entire book in the present tense. Later, he decided against it. But he preserved the title. Also, Paris is tense — on account of radical Islam and the fate of the West.

‐The book has a prelude, just a short paragraph long — and in italics, like a dedication. It goes,

Jules Lacour was born in 1940, while his parents were hiding in an attic in Reims. His mother prayed that he would not cry, he seldom did, and in the four years that followed neither he nor they spoke above a whisper. That was the beginning of a long story.

Jules, as you have guessed, is the main character — and, in all probability, a stand-in for Mark, frequently.

‐Helprin’s first paragraph — first official paragraph, you might say — is a real appetite-whetter:

A disintegrating airframe offers little in the way of second chances, and because this sometimes happens, taking to the air tends to heighten one’s awareness of that which has come before and that which may come yet. Though travelers convince themselves that statistics watch over them, tension flows through airports like windblown clouds, and as an aircraft rises to 13,000 meters those within it may be drawn to assess what they love and what they hope for in the time left.

I used to see people cross themselves, a lot, when planes took off. I see that less now. (Air travel is more ho-hum?)

By the way, why does Mark say “meters”? I thought he was an American patriot. Is he next going to play soccer, in tight shorts? (Just kidding — mainly.)

‐Ponder the phrase “rich simplicity.” Mark says that “rich simplicity” is “the secret not only of French fashion but perhaps of France itself.”

That statement, or insight, has the ring of truth to me. I can see it, from my experiences with France.

‐Consider this statement about stewardesses, as we used to call them in the bad old days — about flight attendants: “The beginning of the flight [a transoceanic flight] was a stage for these women. [Stage like Broadway, not like larvae.] When expectations were greatest and the passengers most awake, they were at their peak.”


‐In a scolding note, Mark says that the dominant color of dress in Paris is black — “the color of retreat, protection, closing in one oneself, hardness, cynicism, hiding, and anger.”

Perfect. Perfect. Would never have thought to put it in quite those terms. (Of course, black, in fashion, can be fetching. It can also be an obsession or a lazy habit — a fallback.)

‐Something else to ponder: “The world is full of men and women with souls like swallows and bodies like buffaloes, and, for no good reason, in the end it is much more likely that the soul will have followed the body than the body will have followed the soul.”


‐Helprin refers to a group of men “turning their heads like a school of fish” — a striking simile.

‐One character is “as charismatic and intelligent in combination as anyone could be.” He is “neither as smart as Einstein nor as charismatic as Rasputin” but “a lot more charismatic than the former and far smarter than the latter.”


‐I wonder whether you can sympathize with this — Mark has put his finger on a serious modern problem: “Jules had no desire to see a world where one was guided by machines rather than vice versa.”

At a magazine, you might be told that you can’t do certain things — can’t write certain things, or use certain symbols — because of technology. Shouldn’t technology serve the writer, rather than vice versa? Man needs to be sure that the dog wags the tail, so to speak …

‐Listen to this: “Once, I was animated by ambition. Not only have I failed, but part of the reason ambition has fled is that the people I had wanted to impress are dead. Though my own stature is in no way increased, their places have been taken by midgets, idiots, and mediocrities. Impressing such people, even if I could, would be worse than failure.”

Uh-huh. Let me get personal for a minute: Sometimes, people (usually worked up by politics) tell me they don’t like my writing. Which is fine — because Bill Buckley did. So …

You know? You can supply your own examples, from your own experiences.

The late conductor Georg Solti received many accolades in his long career. He said the greatest compliment he ever received was from Toscanini — who said, simply, “Bene.” This was after Solti had done something in Salzburg, where he was working as an assistant. “Bene” means simply “good” or “well” or “fine.” It’s not a superlative. But it meant more to Solti than anything, on account of the source.

Okay, listen to this: “When civilization turned a corner or two, I didn’t. So some people look back and pity me. But it isn’t that I couldn’t make the turn. 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, desperately hurrying to be washed away.”


‐Two characters are talking about Europe — the Europe of this very moment, 2017. One is talking about anti-Semites, who seem so bold now. The other says, “These are just the crazies and the idiots. They’ve always been around, and always will be. You mustn’t be despondent. Let them spark. There isn’t sufficient tinder. I really don’t think we’re in a replication of the thirties.”

What a great question: Is there sufficient tinder? Mark has limned it (as Buckley would say) beautifully.

‐One of the guys makes a comment on New Zealand: “I hope they like Chinese food. The country is totally incapable of defending itself.”

Brutal. True.

‐Loved this on young children: They are interesting “in that they are fascinated by the world rather than straining to make the world fascinated by them.”

‐This is Jules, a composer and a teacher, talking to his students: “Music is not made by man. If you know this and surrender to it you’ll allow its deeper powers to run through you. It’s all a question of opening the gates. Of risking your disappearance and accepting it. If you arrive at that state you’ll be effortlessly propelled, seized, and possessed by the music. Paradoxically, your timing will be perfect as time ceases to exist.”

We also have this: “For me, beauty is a hint, a flash, a glimpse of the divine and a promise that the world is good. And in music that spark can be elongated long enough to be a steady light.”

The same applies to Mark Helprin’s writing. By the way, I never knew, before this book, that music meant so much to him. It did to Bill Buckley too. And I love to quote Vikram Seth, that great writer: “Music is dearer to me than speech.”

One more thing: In one of our podcasts, I think — or some other interview we did — Mark told me that, when he writes a novel, it’s “like being pulled along by a freight train.” May we all experience such a pulling! (I don’t mean to sound dirty.)

Well, I’ll continue these notes tomorrow — thanks and see you then.



Q&A: Mark Helprin

Mark Helprin’s ‘Paris in the Present Tense’

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