Likely Stories: Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin

Aug 15, 2019

Heart-breaking story of a man desperate to reunite with his deceased wife.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Over the course of my reading life, I have been fortunate enough to gather a small number of books which deeply affected me and drove me to tears.  For example, A Little Life by Yonagihara, The Goldfinch by Donna Tart, and Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter Conradi to name a few.  I now have a fourth to add to my list: Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin. 

Jules Lacour is a talented cellist.  He graduated with high honors, but he became an outcast as he did nothing to improve or expand his talents.  This left him with only a few marginally talented students.  He is recruited for the purpose of composing a short piece of music, which runs on a loop.  In other words, “elevator music.”  He despises this offer, but he is near bankruptcy, so he accepts the commission, but the company board hates it, and Jules is not given any money for his efforts.  Helprin writes, Jules laments that no one in America seemed to know how to pronounce any foreign word. // Jules Lacour was so constantly explaining references and allusions that eventually he gave up.  De Gaulle?  Churchill?  Renoir?  Winslow Homer?  Cavafy?  Not a chance.  Set (invisibly when it was off) in the bathroom mirror, a hotel television nearly scared him to death when he accidentally turned it on and saw Mick Jagger staring back at him.  On the same machine he witnessed interviews with American beach-goers who thought that in 1776 American had won its independence from California, that the moon was bigger than the sun, that you could take a Greyhound Bus to North Korea, that Alaska was an island south of Hawaii, and the Supreme Court was a motel in Santa Monica.  How could the United States have become so rich, powerful, and inventive?  Or, rather, how long could it remain so” (14-15). 

As the story begins, Jules has lost his wife, most of his friends—some of whom would betray him in an instant—and his job.  He tries to put himself together by cataloging his situation.  Mark writes, “lessons and critiques in which he was carried away by the mystical reach of sound; then punishing exercise on the river; wonderful relief as he walked through the city; the train back; shopping; dinner; reading; practice; reflection; memory; prayer; and sleep. // Taken together, these were the metronome of his life, and he was comforted by their steady procession, like the ticking of a clock, that eventually without fail would bring him to the woman he had loved for most of his life.  But today would be different.  Because the rhythm of the days that would see him along and bring him to her was imperfect, marred by his weakness and his will to live, today he would arrive later than usual in Saint-Germain-en-Laye because he was going to seek solace not in music or memory or in a synagogue or church, but in something quite different.  He was going to do the impossible.  He was going to see a psychiatrist, in Paris, in August” (21-22).

Jules has a fantasy that he can reunite with Jacqueline, his wife.  The rest of the story revolves around this desire and his plan to carry it out.  If Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin does not bring to you the tiniest teardrop, you might want to send me a note and we can chat.  10 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!