The Living and the Dead

by Jay Nordlinger

When you read a novel by Mark Helprin, a thousand thoughts are stirred in your head. This week, I’m jotting some notes on Helprin’s latest novel, Paris in the Present Tense. Not a thousand of them. But a fair number. My opening installment is here.

I quote Helprin’s main character, who says, “Once, I was animated by ambition. Not only have I failed, but part of the reason ambition has fled is that the people I had wanted to impress are dead. Though my own stature is in no way increased, their places have been taken by midgets, idiots, and mediocrities. Impressing such people, even if I could, would be worse than failure.”

In my column, my notes, I say that I can sing a few verses of this song myself. Perhaps you can, too.

There is one “comment” — one reader comment — now under my column: “hey nordlinger….Helprin is a hack….and so are you.”

Everyone Mark and I ever wanted to impress is dead. (That’s not entirely true, at least in my case — but I generalize.)

Mark’s character also says, “When civilization turned a corner or two, I didn’t. So some people look back and pity me. But it isn’t that I couldn’t make the turn. I wouldn’t make the turn. I’d rather be a rock in the stream, even if submerged, than the glittering scum on the surface, desperately hurrying to be washed away.”

As I say, Helprin stirs in your head a thousand thoughts. And his new novel, as I write at the beginning of my column, is another blow — another of his blows — in behalf of truth and beauty. FWIW, Mark: I’m impressed! Muchly.

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