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In Mark Helprin’s Latest, A Master Novelist Confronts Music And Mortality


Mark Helprin is an American treasure. For the past couple of decades or so there has been a magnificent hexagon of peerless conservative literary authors. Unfortunately, the six have been steadily aging and dying off with no one yet in sight to replace them. Of course, there are lesser, younger lights working the mines, but we’re talking modern legends here.

First to go 12 years ago was Saul Bellow, alas. More recently, grand poet Richard Wilbur left the stage. But rejoice, for some still live! In movies and television, the inimitable, irascible David Mamet is still working. Also remaining is the King of American Letters, Tom Wolfe. Cormac McCarthy has never revealed his political persuasion, but there’s an obvious conservative cast to his work, including the best novel in English written in the last 50 years, his Blood Meridian. He’s still around.
And there’s Helprin.

Helprin’s tales are often set outside of America, of course, but he’s as American as Jewish apple pie. His latest novel, Paris in the Present Tense, out from Overlook Press in hardcover in October 2017, takes place in France, with a French Jew, an endangered category of person, for a main character. There is also in the book a brief (and wonderful) detour to Los Angeles. But Helprin’s greatest novel, unlikely to be equaled, is A Soldier of the Great War. This one is mostly set in Italy, with Italian main characters.

Conservative Credentials

Helprin’s sure and steady understanding of the larger world, particularly of Europe, puts paid to any idea that America produces only greenhorns and rubes of cultural insights. We have most of the world-class talent here, and Helprin is among them.

Perhaps miraculously, Helprin’s conservative credentials are also solid. What other great American novelist is also an expert on nuclear strategy? As with most original thinkers, he combines flashes of brilliance with the occasional trip into the weeds. Helprin’s excellent essay last May in the Wall Street Journal clearly laid out the dangerously unstable nuclear position China will find itself in vis-à-vis a rapidly nuclearized Japan and South Korea, should North Korea successfully wed a fusion weapon to a ballistic missile. Helprin has a fine eye for the developing chess game of nuclear proliferation, and not just for the moves of the moment.

You may wonder why I don’t gush over the book Helprin is most known for in literary circles, Winter’s Tale, first published in 1983 (there’s a 2012 film adaptation). I simply don’t think it’s his best.

Winter’s Tale is diaphanous, lovely throughout . . . and kind of dated. Okay, it’s a beautiful, heartbreaking, and heartwarming book, better than most anything written in the past few decades, granted, so that’s not nothing. The book speaks deeply to some New York City natives I know, too. It’s an archetype-laden fantasy take on the rooted and provincial side of the city that I, a sometime boho West Sider and Brooklynite, never really experienced while I lived there. But then there’s the ’80s magical realism, meant to add a fairytale lightness and time-spanning resonance, that instead anchors the book down to the particular era of its publication.

Not to worry. Helprin went on to fully integrate and transcend the dated tropes of that dead-end genre in his subsequent novels. If only a few hundred other writers had followed his lead, we might have been spared years and years of jilted lover’s breath turning into vampiric butterflies and dead grandmothers appearing from the jungle haze and speaking in awkward aphorisms that turn out to be stupid as hell when you give them the slightest thought.

Close to Music

The great Helprin novel remains A Soldier of the Great War. It’s got everything he does best. First and foremost, there’s the sumptuous, lovely, pitch-perfect tone. Of all the arts to which Helprin’s writing might be compared, it is closest to music. Like a song, his prose can be enjoyed measure by measure, but it is also going somewhere.

Helprin’s metaphors are both crafty and beautiful. They almost always serve two purposes: to deepen the story with plot callbacks and character viewpoint enhancement, and to produce delightful descriptive vignettes that the reader can enjoy in themselves, like snow globes that contain a world in their own evanescent bubbles. What’s astounding is Helprin’s deftness and consistency in maintaining this complex, flowing outpouring for page after page. Hell, for novel after novel.

Second, Helprin keeps the plot tight throughout Soldier. Or rather, he keeps the meandering path of his story from getting cut off from the river of the plot and creating a bunch of digressive oxbow lakes—nice, but in danger of stagnation. In Soldier, we are always worried about Alessandro Giuliani, never lost in the scenery. The stakes are life, ideology, and death in World War I, the sublime (represented by Helprin’s perfect portrait of the Alps, mountain climbing, and Rome) and the ugly, love and doom.

If you can read only one Helprin novel, A Soldier of the Great War is it. But why not indulge more in one of the greats of modern times, and read Helprin’s latest?

Paris in the Present Tense is the tale of cellist and music professor Jules Lacour, a man who has deliberately simplified his life to a nub. He teaches music. He’s a wonderful composer, but his performances are so filled with emotion they become nerve-ridden and daft. Without a media-friendly presence, his composing career has never taken off.

Furthermore, he finds music theory beyond pointless, and can’t force himself to keep up. He guiltily teaches perfect technique and beautiful form by referring to aesthetic notions that he knows are beyond ancient and out-of-fashion. He knows that if he didn’t have tenure at the Sorbonne, he would be toast among his peers. But living with a life of deeper, true sadness, and now so close to retirement, Jules doesn’t much care.

His students respond with reverence and redoubled effort, of course, since he is merely speaking the truth that all musicians know, but can never admit—a truth classical musicians in training must ritualistically deny thrice every morning like Peter denies his Christ. At the same time, they are stunned that he will name that-which-must-not-be-uttered in a modern university. As Jules is well aware:

They would think that, out of fear, he would go no further, for in university faculties there is a kind of terror to which they were highly attuned because they were young and still had far to go. But then he would shock and surprise them as much by what would appear to be his tranquility as by what he would say. ‘Quite simply, and make of it what you will: music is the voice of God.’

Not exactly acceptable thought in contemporary music departments of places like the Sorbonne.

Speaking in Epigrams

Jules is a French Jew. His parents were musicians. They were hidden during the war and almost managed to avoid getting caught by the Nazis for the whole stretch. Jules, a boy who lived in an attic until he was five, managed to survive. All that remains of his parents is his father’s cello, of which he’s become a master. He teaches at the Sorbonne, where he’s had the same office for decades. Jules is a man of ritual, mostly rituals of absolution.

Starting with his parents, then with his fellow soldiers at Djebel Chélia in the highlands of Algeria, then his beloved wife, Jaqueline, who died suddenly four years before, to his grandson, who suffers from leukemia and will likely die in his childhood, Jules is haunted by the feeling that in each death, he bears either real or metaphysical responsibility, even if he understands how unlikely it was that he could or would succeed in forestalling them. For each, he should have done something, or something more.

Jules views his own life as a preparation for saving people, usually his loved ones. But when the time comes, he feels that he’s always missed the chance. Now 74, he is seeking the perfect moment of self-sacrifice to repay all the happiness, comradeship, or fulfillment those who departed (or are due to depart) have given him.

It is the classic survivor’s guilt—he was literally a little Jewish boy who couldn’t save his parents from the SS—and he knows it. Yet he can’t shake the feeling. Why does he get to live when others, worthier, must die? His life’s task, as he sees it, is to save the living, and to keep the dead he has loved alive in his heart.

This is why, despite the fact that every day he misses his wife terribly and feels he’s utterly failed his daughter by not earning enough money to help with her son’s treatment, he will not, himself, commit suicide. When asked why, Jules says: “It’s off the table. . . . Absolutely. No suicide, just loyalty. To them all. Loyalty is the elixir that makes death easy, but it’s also the quality that gives life purpose. I don’t mean to speak in epigrams, but I’m French: I can’t help it.”

Perpetual Anguish

This perpetual anguish hasn’t kept Jules from getting on with life. He has courted and married a beautiful woman. Together they raised a daughter. He’s now a grandfather to a terribly sick two-year-old. Jules spends hours plotting ways to get enough money to help his grandson receive the best medical care, preferably in America. He has one good friend. It’s a selfless and easy friendship between men of very different belief systems.

François Ehrenshtamm, Jules’ best friend, is the epitome of the French “public intellectual.” The two men have known one another since childhood, and though they have gone in diametrically opposed philosophical and lifestyle directions, they’ve maintained a steady friendship that is important enough to lead each to drop whatever he’s doing and drive even long distances for a meal and a chance to catch up. It’s a delightful portrait, yet disappointing when this particular thread abruptly ceases with a heartbreaking moment of seeming betrayal. It’s a bit of weakness in the novel, crying out for a clarifying denouement we never quite get.

But Jules does get his chance to save someone. Or so it seems. François puts him onto Jack Cheatham, the vice president of Acorn, the world’s largest insurance corporation. Jack and his corporation are looking for a theme tune. A jingle. A commercial ditty. Telephone-hold music. Something that will become the embodiment of the brand and vice versa. The example given is how “Rhapsody in Blue” was assimilated, Borg-like, by United Airlines, and regurgitated in pieces in a thousand commercials.

Jules is surprised when Jack, who otherwise is studiedly crass, displays a discerning ear and soul for music. There is huge money in the offing—a million Euros for Jules. Jules’ business naiveté ironically serves him well, and before long his clear and concise statement of the task at hand, and what it will take, wins Jack over. The job is his.

Jules muses on it as he returns to his physical fitness rituals. Over the years, Jules has kept himself up. He’s as fit as a man 20 years younger. He’s a bit of a health junkie with his rows, his runs, and his swimming. It is while swimming laps that the tune comes to him.

Disaster Strikes

He conceives the ditty he knows will work for Acorn’s hold music. It’s apropos. It’s hummable. Above all, it’s beautiful in its way. Possible the best music he’s ever written.

Jules has it. He knows he has. The problem is, how to get it recorded and delivered. Jules hasn’t himself performed or conducted in years. He knows nothing of contemporary recording technology, and he barely knows how to use email.

Needless to say, Jules’ desire to get the very best medical care for his grandson helps him overcome these lacks. It seems that Jules will finally fulfill his wish to save someone he loves. Then disaster strikes.

While on a run along the Seine, Jules comes across three Muslim youth (as we’ll later learn) who are beating the hell out of a guy sporting payot and a yarmulke. Jules hesitates for a moment, then plunges in to help. He’s nearly 75, but due to his years of exercise, has the body of a fit 50-year-old. Moreover, he has not forgotten his soldierly instincts.

He rushes the attackers, gains the element of surprise, and manages to overcome two of them. The Hasidic Jew under attack flees. This leaves Jules confronting one teenager. The Muslim youth quickly sees which way the wind is blowing. He tosses away his knife and calls out, “He killed my friends! Raciste! Raciste!”

So much for Jules being hailed a hero. He’s now the Jewish attacker of Muslim kids.

Crescendo and Coda

In seconds, the police are on the way. Jules cannot allow himself to be caught and embroiled in the matter. His grandson’s life depends on him. He must get the music recorded. So he jumps into the Seine as the cops chase him along the bank. He’s in great shape. He knows the ins and outs of the river. He has a refuge that no one is aware of in a boathouse.

But the Parisian cops who take up his case are quite cagey, as well. In the politically charged atmosphere of modern France, they have the deaths of two Muslim teenagers to contend with, and it is not long before, through blood-testing the victims, they know that an Ashkenazi Jew was somehow involved with the killings. The hunt is on for Jules.

Thus begins Jules’ final attempt to atone for surviving. Along the way we get Helprin’s deeply researched reflections on French anti-Semitism, on the travails of French Jews in their own society, facing pressure from the elite class to quietly fade away, and from the immigrant underclass to depart rather more violently.

Helprin loses his theme in the thickets at times, and the book wanders off course. Eventually, however, he hits the notes he’s been casting for. Jules claims, and finally finds a way to accept, his Jewish heritage and the legacy of his childhood. He admits and allows his heart to accede to the possibility of romantic love even for an old widower. In the end, we get the finale we’ve been promised and hope for with an action-packed crescendo, and everything taken out on a signature Helprin coda of swelling and resonating feeling, ultimately fading into God’s music.