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Interview: Mark Helprin

By (September 18, 2017) One Comment

Mark Helprin’s latest novel, Paris in the Present Tense, centers on Jules Lacour, an accomplished man in his 70s, a cellist, widower, and war veteran, a man living out his comfortable “golden years” in Paris when his life is suddenly upended; vectors of chaos impinge from all sides, from the alarming – threats to family, threats to himself – to the miraculous – the unexpected re-appearance of love in his life. Open Letters Monthly recently spoke with Helprin about the book, contemporary literature, and the host of other subjects likely to come up when talking with this famous polymath of an author.

Open Letters Monthly: Hello, and first off thanks very much for talking with us – and congratulations on the new novel. The ‘new’ part just naturally raises questions of beginnings, particularly when talking with a writer like yourself, who’s been producing work at a steady clip for over 40 years. When it comes to a new novel, when it came to Paris in the Present Tense, how has the process of beginning changed over the years? How do you know when a new idea is, in fact, a novel, and just just a new idea, so to speak?

Mark Helprin: Perhaps because I lived for a while in Paris when I was three and four, it has always seemed to me to be the center of the world. Later, I lived (in America) for four years with Louis and Marie Mignon — members of the resistance, Louis a poilu during the first war. People speak of dual loyalties when what they really may be describing are dual loves, and that is how I would characterize my relationship with France. In 1968 the country seemed for a while as it might be heading toward a revolution. The barricades were up and burning. A friend I had known since infancy had become a government official, and he, the most unwarlike person you can imagine, was issued a sidearm and put in charge of  defending the administrative territory in which he had been strictly a civilian technocrat, albeit with powers he had never imagined he might use.

I had been in France during the wrap-up and partial domestic importation of the Algerian War, but this was much more acute and dramatic. Observing from afar and yet as if on the high terrace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, I had a kind of vision. Paris was burning — a lot of it actually was — but somehow the fire, like the pillar of fire in the Bible, or the Burning Bush, was a whirlwind of rebirth and confirmation. It was golden, rising, and accompanied by Couperin’s Les Barricades Mysterieuse. (I was not on drugs; I’ve never used drugs; I don’t need them.) Beautiful and arresting, it seemed to be a view of all that had gone before. All that had gone before in Paris and in France would be, as you might imagine, rich almost beyond apprehending in compression and all at once.

This was a such a beautiful vision, for history and mankind properly imagined, are as well, even if the beauty is at times only the beauty of courage — or pathos. I wanted to make use of it, but at age 21 I didn’t have the experience or the patience to do so. Nonetheless, I thought of it often over the years, and half a century later, at 70, I’ve given it a try. The book stems from those beginnings. Not quite “Rosebud,” but of the type.

OLM: “Beautiful and arresting” – that’s fascinating, the idea that you weren’t ready to write the book half a century ago. The novel’s main character, Jules Lacour, is one of your oldest protagonists, a man sometimes comically steeped in his own long-held beliefs (his offhand “it was always easy to see Americans as half-baked idiots,” for instance, or his grumpiness about cellphones), and yet in this book you detonate his comfortable life with one shock after another. Is his story a kind of summing-up for you?

MH: First let me preface my answer by saying that unlike the modern convention, a novel should be about many things, with many themes. These days what you so often have is a kind of fictional magazine essay confined to exploring one topic or theme — Lenin’s Secret Baboon, or The Ecuadorean Pipe Smoker’s Mistress, or, The Girl With the Broken Transistor Radio. I never abandoned the 19th-century paradigm. War and Peace is about war and peace (pretty broad categories in themselves), but also about a lot more. In my view, if a novel is to be truly a work of art it must reflect life and draw one into a world as if that world were real. As the world is complex and multifaceted, so a novel has to be about a lot of things — which does not mean that the things it is about must be weak in their presentation or effect.

So saying, one of the things Paris in the Present Tense is indeed about is dying well, something that elides nicely into summing up. I believe that it is possible to be noble and just, and that this always comes with a price. The modern definition of heroism is someone who brings a cake to school, or walks a mile “for” the cure of a disease. My definition, in ascending order, begins with an action that is noble and just, goes on to a noble and just action contrary to one’s interests, continues to such action resulting in one’s death, and reaches finally to someone who does something noble and just resulting in his annihilation and without anyone knowing. That’s one way to die well. There are others.

At my age, I’ve given this a lot of thought. I always have, actually, especially

when I was in situations (such as in military service) where death was more likely than in normal life. Perhaps young people who suffer the illusion that life is not short (and this is a necessary and good illusion) would not be interested in the question of how to die well, but it wouldn’t hurt if they were, for the very reason that knowing how to die well makes it possible to live well. And I might add that this book is just as much or more about how to do exactly that, i.e. live well. One — just one — of the ways to do that is to multiply and elevate those moments that are beautiful and arresting, which puts us back at the beginning of your question.

OLM: That “19th-century paradigm” allowed for a wide range of ways to look at what a book is “about” – and it allowed the humanity of characters to be represented more faithfully to the messy, multifaceted reality readers see in their own lives. So perhaps modern novelists risk more than they think, if they abandon it in favor of issues and causes?

MH: When I was in college, one of my tutors (we had a tutorial system modelled after Oxford’s) was the late William Alfred, author of the play Hogan’s Goat, which was, in 1968, a big hit, starring Faye Dunaway, which is why everyone wanted to have Alfred as a tutor, because she lived for a time in his house. My year’s tutorial with him was on Melville, and after reading The Encantadas (The Galapagos) I wrote an epic work that had no people in it, just nature in all its (ultimately) boring glory. He gently informed me that literature must have people (or at least anthropomorphic animals).

I took this lesson to heart, but modern art hasn’t, and – as reflected in Ortega y Gasset’s The Dehumanization of Art (of which the author approves) – literature has moved away from that, too. The tendency is to use people to illustrate ideas, political principles, or great events. Back to War and Peace again, in which the great events were used to illuminate people. And in Paris, although it is “about” and set in the Paris of the present, the setting and the conflict are subsidiary to the characters. This is the reverse, I believe, of the modern convention, in which the individual is subsidiary to events, ideas, or political principles. That, as yet another form of dehumanization, doesn’t bode well for the future.

On a superficial level, indeed, I had no intention of writing – and would be deeply disappointed if I had – the standard American woman/man goes to Paris/Tuscany after a divorce/death/firing where she/he meets a charming French/Italian man/woman and thereby discovers herself/himself and finds happiness – replete with the standard homage to Anglo-Saxons vs. Latins, wine, food, and the charm of the locals.

How could it be that and at the same time committed to portraying the truth of description, of a word, a place, a person, a people, a nation, a time in history, a principle, a belief, a miracle, any truth. That is one requirement, is it not, of literature? Not advocacy, which is a distortion of that idea, but, to echo Keats, truth and beauty. And part of the truth of Paris must be the suffering of the peasantry for more than a thousand years, the aggression and madness of Louis XIV, the famines, the religious massacres, the Terror, defeat in at least four wars since 1870, collaboration in the Second World War, the terrorism today.

And yet Paris is still magnificent, a city that is alive and influential in a unique way. To see it other than whole would be not to understand it, or appreciate its organic beauty as it survives through the light and the dark of history. The roiling flame that I (and then Jules) imagined rising from it comprised everything that had ever been in it – the sins, heroism, tragedy, beauty, and certainly the special graces of everyday life. If not, the portrayal would be a lie. How can you appreciate perfection and ease, without fault and difficulty to limn them? With the sunlight must come shadow. Jules wanted what he said to Elodi to be difficult and exact, because then it would be true.

As for readers loving this novel, that’s not up to me even to guess. By rights, I shouldn’t even be talking about it. As I often say, my job is to make the donuts, and your job is to eat and judge them. But of course I’d want them to love it. After Elvis left the building, what is left but love?

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