Bonfire Of The Unworthies: The Novel, “Paris in the Present Tense”

The new novel by Mark Helprin, Paris in the Present Tense (2017), has the French city as its setting and Frenchman Jules Lacour, a Jewish cello player and teacher, as its protagonist.  Among the incidents in 74-year-old Jules’s life are his falling in love with Elodie, a far younger woman, his being stiffed by an American corporation after writing some ad music for it, and—most important—his unexpected killing in Paris of two Arab anti-Semites.  They were badly beating a man in a yarmulke.

In large measure the book is about Western culture, in both Paris and the U.S., being assailed by those who could never understand such things as Jules’s unending loyalty to his wife Jacqueline, who died of cancer during his absence:  Jules has chosen to remain a widower.  These are the Americans who in their ignorance “have never heard of anything” (not De Gaulle, not Winslow Homer, etc.), the knavish fools in big business, and of course the French anti-Semites.  They could probably never love the serious music that Jules loves, albeit it is this and the cellist’s love for women that easily transcend sad politics.  In fact, Jules’s love for women—there are two of them and, although he doesn’t know it, they love him—can be sad enough.

It is curious that all these elements coalesce to brilliantly demonstrate something Margaret Thatcher said:  “the facts of life are conservative.”  Thus action must be taken against the young Arabs who are battering a Jew.  Thus, in addition, our Jewish hero believes in God.  The facts of life are conservative, but they can also be liberal, as when Jules faces corporate unfairness.  But it is only Jules himself, and not other people, who are affected by this, and he keeps proving he is concerned about others.  He avoids self-absorption.  Self-absorption is hardly a trait that leads a man to calmly admit, “When civilization turned a corner or two, I didn’t.”  He sees the facts of life requiring this.

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