Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin

Like all Mark Helprin books, this is a mix of lyrically soaring passages describing emotion and place with loving detail, with occasional clumsy exaggerations or outbursts of ugliness that seem deliberately added in precisely to highlight how well-proportioned and lush the rest of the writing is. Of Helprin's books, Winter's Tale with its magical realism still has the best overall combination (which makes it one of my top 10 books), but Paris in the Present Tense is in most places just as satisfying if more subdued.

What Helprin did for New York City in Winter's Tale, he (almost) does for Paris in this book: he makes it a character in its own right, and in a sense the book is not really about the aging cellist Jules, but about the 21st century City of Lights.

Sometimes I'd literally catch my breath at Helprin's descriptions, especially of music. This is a beautiful story about a musician at the end of his life, who has lived for music, not fame or fortune, and the best kind of unheroic hero.

Despite the fact that I like the bigger story in Winter's Tale more, I actually think this may be a better book if it was even more subdued and interior: a detective subplot comes across as needless overplotting, and there's more than a little time spent decrying anti-Semitism, with an anxiety about its widespread nature that seems more like old people worrying than an accurate depiction of Europe today.

But then again, I'm not there so I don't really know. What I do know is that Helprin is a welcome throwback, and he is such a generous author that the reader is inclined to be just as generous back and to forgive him all dissonances. Let this book wash through you like the symphony -- and the worthy successor to Winter's Tale  -- that it is.

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