From the author of Winter's Tale, a Paris-set novel in which seventy-four-year-old Jules Lacour―a maître at Paris-Sorbonne, cellist, widower, veteran of the war in Algeria, and child of the Holocaust―must find a balance between his strong obligations to the past and the attractions and beauties of life and love in the present.
[Helprin's] books are romances in the chivalric mold, in which beauty, love and bravery possess a greater reality than the characters dedicated to honoring them. This is true again in his enchanting new novel, Paris in the Present Tense, a ballad to the cardinal virtue of loyalty ... despite the catastrophes and forebodings that beset the story, Paris in the Present Tense is joyful and celebratory. Part of the pleasure of the novel is in its ecstatic asides, eulogizing the glories of Paris or the transcendent power of music.
On one level, Paris in the Present Tense is a caper, like The Sting, in which Jules comes up with an intricate and clever way to make his death pay off, quite literally. It’s also a bit of a romance, as he falls instantly and hopelessly in love (despite his devotion to Jacqueline) with a student named Élodi who is half-a-century his junior. Helprin’s style, however, elevates the story with sumptuous descriptions and complex characters whose conversations sometimes become analyses of such issues as anti-Semitism or meditations on the nature of music, time and love.
If these are clichés — what’s more threadbare than May and December, student and amorous teacher? — Helprin revitalizes them with the energy of his language. A rhetorician might slice his prose style into scraps of Greek — asyndeton here, hypotaxis there — but that would fail to account for the intensely lyrical voice that both heightens and deepens every sentence, at times attaining a kind of Joycean beauty ... This is not to say the novel is without flaws. The plot moves andante. Maddening coincidences will elicit a groan. Characters confuse conversation with autobiography. Jules’s self-absorption leads to occasional passages of wearying profundity, when the golden sentences begin to fray ... But Helprin’s generosity of language and emotion allows room for missteps as well as brilliance. His Paris does exist in the present tense, irresistibly, undeniably real and alive, as though summoned by its creator rather than imagined.