The Wisdom of Paris

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Notes on Mark Helprin’s new novel, Part II

Editor’s Note: Mark Helprin has written a new novel, Paris in the Present Tense. This week, Jay Nordlinger is writing about it, in a series that began yesterday, here, and concludes today.

One of Helprin’s chapters is headed “The Past Upwells.” I hate when that happens, as the characters used to say on Saturday Night Live. Actually, it’s pleasant, sometimes.

I have a quip: “My least favorite street is Memory Lane.” But sometimes that’s not true.

Anyway, a striking chapter heading: “The Past Upwells.” Don’t it, though.

‐Mark’s main character, Jules, is exerting himself, physically. “His intention was to tire himself so that when he reached home sleep would outcompete worry.”

Can you relate to this?

‐Mark has a marvelous phrase: “militantly helpless.” At a neighborhood meeting, Jules is trying to rouse people to defend themselves, and others, against violent criminals in their midst. They will have none of it. In fact, they resent him, and contemn him. So, “he was ostracized forever by everyone present, an indignant crowd bravely determined to be militantly helpless.”

‐Regularly, you get amusing asides, as at the end of this sentence: “Although Jules, always athletic, would play tennis with Jacqueline and François, he did everything else alone — running, rowing, swimming, even riding (except for the horse).”

‐Here is an observation that strikes you instantly as true — very obvious. Yet would it occur to you? How does it occur to Helprin? “Children unwrap presents either three times as fast or three times more slowly than adults. Seldom is there an in between.”

‐Here is another observation: People don’t have coins in the morning, when they’re out and about. The coins they accumulated the day before, they’ve dropped in a jar or something, at home.

‐Have you ever had an experience like the following? It rings completely true. Jules is in a taxi, in L.A.:

They pulled onto the crescent drive of the hotel. Instead of allowing Jules to square with the taxi driver, get a receipt, and put back his wallet, the doorman opened the cab door and stood expectantly, as if used to greeting tycoons and heads of state who neither carried money nor took taxis. This put pressure on Jules, who gave the taxi driver an enormous tip.

‐“Had Jacqueline lived, life would have been even more peaceful than the natural narcotic of Los Angeles could make it.” Jacqueline is Jules’s late wife. Isn’t “natural narcotic of Los Angeles” a nice and apt phrase? Jacqueline “had a talent for happiness, and the patience, gentleness, and feminine power that allowed her to hold through without fighting. He, on the other hand, knew how to hold through only by fighting and when he could no longer fight he would be done.”

A knockout punch of a statement.

‐Here is something lighter: After takeoff, a pilot makes an announcement. (This is a commercial flight.) Helprin writes, “Half the passengers looked into the air. As Moses could testify, rich, authoritative, disembodied voices are both comforting and disturbing.”

‐This is not light, but, man, is it important: “She was not confident that she would be able to work in the American university system much longer, as she was guilty of what had become its gravest sin: she thought and spoke freely.”

‐This is even more important — and it is so true, it is almost aggressively so:

When jealousy finally cracks, it releases insatiable anger. And people who aren’t innocent don’t believe that innocence exists. People who aren’t good don’t believe that goodness exists. Alcoholics believe that everyone drinks. Thieves think that everyone steals. Liars think that everyone lies. And those who don’t lie, believe even liars.

I’m not sure I agree with that last sentence. In fact, I know I don’t. But the thrust of the passage, I agree with entirely.

‐One man says to another, “What scares me is that, on rare occasions, unable to overcome one another, the right and the left fall in love and make common cause against … guess who?”

Who? “Rhymes with choose,” as Rick Brookhiser would say. Or as Tom Lehrer sings in his “National Brotherhood Week,” “Everybody hates the Jews.”

‐Something pleasanter: “Spring,” writes Helprin, “is the season of benevolent surprises. The air is soft, the soil is warm, colors bloom in the sunlight, and the world is again like a garden, though when night falls winter comes halfway back.”

“The season of benevolent surprises” — such a wonderful phrase (and true).

‐I’m a news junkie, but nothing compared with what I was. In the old days, I read like five newspapers, three newsmagazines, and a slew of opinion journals. These days, I read a great deal less — a great deal less. And I think Helprin has explained why.

Two ambassadors are talking. One asks whether the other has seen an editorial in Le Monde, published the day before. The second guy says he has not. “I don’t read the papers,” he explains. He’s not much for cables either (diplomatic cables). The first ambassador says, “But really. You have to know what’s going on. I spend hours and hours each day keeping up.” The second ambassador says that he himself does not. The first wants to know how this can be so.

And here’s what the second ambassador says:

“There are only so many plots of action, and they repeat themselves. If not exactly, still closely. I’ve been in the diplomatic service for almost fifty years and when something comes up, as it does every day, I need know only the one or two details that depart from the same thing I’ve seen a hundred times before. My young aides are surprised as each situation unfurls. That’s how they learn. But I know what’s coming already and can save a lot of effort.”

‐You will immediately see the truth of this, I bet: “Like most famous people, whose many surpluses allow them to be generous, François welcomed his visitors graciously.”

Yes, yes. I have seen this over and over …

‐We live in a time of “identity politics.” Maybe every time is a time of identity politics, but the phrase is new, as far as I know. I read something in Paris in the Present Tense that made my heart leap.

A man says to Jules, “What do you think of the Arabs?” He says, “I don’t.” “What do you mean, you ‘don’t’?” “I don’t think about Arabs, per se.” The man still presses. And this is what Jules says:

“I’m a Jew. My parents were murdered by the Germans because they were Jews. The gravest, most persistent sin of mankind lies in not treating everyone as an individual. So, in short, I take Arabs as they come, just like everyone else.”

The man says, “But as a group?”

Jules repeats, “As a group?” Then he says, “They have a very high incidence of killing innocents with whom they disagree. It’s part of the culture, part of Islam, part of their nomadic origins. But no individual is merely a reflection of a group. That’s the injustice that ruins the world. So, my answer is that for me an Arab is the same as a Jew, a Frenchman, a Norwegian, anything you’d like. If I were to judge people by their identity, I’d be like the people who killed my parents. Those were called Nazis. Do you think I could ever be one?”

Oh, what a book, a compelling story that imparts wisdom all the way. I say again: This is yet another blow — another blow by Mark Helprin — for truth and beauty. For the side, the cause, of truth and beauty. This book is quite simply a gift (whether wrapped or not) (and a child unwraps a gift either three times faster or three times more slowly than an adult).


A word to the wise: National Review has started a new podcast, Jaywalking, in which Jay Nordlinger presents what is essentially an audio version of Impromptus. Go here. Also, to get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.