Jane Westaway reviews CK Stead’s ‘thoroughly 21st century novel’ about intellectuals in Paris.
Much action in the general run of literary fiction seems to be prompted by characters who make an awful mess of things. Consequently, about a third of the way in and if the writing is less than excellent, I find myself wanting to tell them all to get a decent counsellor and sort themselves out.
Stead doesn’t produce the general run of such fiction. For a start, his prose is good, beguilingly good. And he writes not about people who make messes but about civilised beings – smooth operators in angst-free settings. They are at ease with themselves. They enjoy satisfactory incomes and social standing. They are au fait with foreign ways, dine on excellent food in named restaurants, go to the opera, dress well, and are witty and very well-read. And they come to civilised arrangements, slipping into bed and out again sans ugly scenes.
Max Jackson, the protagonist of The Necessary Angel, is no exception. By the summer of 2014, when the novel opens, he has lived and worked in Paris for years. He is married to well-to-do Frenchwoman Louise, with whom he has two children. Both are Sorbonne literature lecturers, Louise ranked the higher. That Max is a New Zealander is made clear in the first few pages when he identifies a piece of carved pounamu. But really, he’s a man of the world – as his keen interest in the state of national and international affairs suggests.
In another light, Max might be a classic mess-maker. For a start, Louise – whose family owns the building – has moved Max and the (bi-lingual) dog two floors down while she, the children and a priceless work known simply as “the painting” remain on the third. Then, he is in love with his colleague Sylvie, who also has a partner.
Into this mix steps a third woman, Helen, who has an English boyfriend. She pursues Max on the basis of a poem he published years earlier. A poem he now thinks of as extravagant and extreme, and something he is no longer capable of. Helen introduces herself as “mad”, and says she takes lithium – her “necessary angel”. She’s a follower of the guru Gurdjieff, and is insistent that Max return to writing poetry. Will she be his necessary angel?
Plenty of raw material here for torment, wild acts, inflammatory revelations and all-round misery. But it’s not that kind of novel. Stead’s characters are engaging, but it’s not suffering he’s interested in but ideas. One aspect of this is that what his characters read is as much a part of them – and therefore the novel – as their relationships and personalities.
In an early conversation with Sylvie and her partner Bertholdt, Max tells them Louise is editing a new edition of Flaubert’s L’Éducation Sentimentale. “A long, dreary story of a man making mistakes,” he says. “What is the mistake?” asks Berholdt. “Falling in love,” they chorus. “What else in a nineteenth-century novel?” says Bertholdt.
The Necessary Angel is a thoroughly 21st century novel. And set in France. So falling in love is a diversion not a mis-step.
Max is reading Martin Amis’s latest. He doesn’t always know what’s going on, but “As some writers emanated moral merit, Amis put talent on display.” He wonders if Sylvie has “moved in and taken possession of the house of his mind” (although to the reader this has been more of a stated idea than a communicated emotion), and the point of reading Amis is to take it back again.
Towards the end of the novel, Louise and Max watch Michael Houellebecq interviewed on television. His latest novel, Submission – which Louise has given Max – seems to predict an Islamist future for France, and reviewers are outraged. Later that day jihadists attack the Charlie Hebdo offices, killing twelve. Louise is frightened. But Max notes that Houellebecq has decided to cancel his publicity tour and retreat to the country.
Max and Louise are on amiable, if formal, terms. They each admire the other’s work, and when, in answer to her direct question, he admits he may be in love with someone else, things nonetheless remain civilised: “ ‘Good for you,’ she said, but it was not what she felt as she headed for the door. She went out, closing it carefully, not wanting to seem to be ‘storming out’.”
Max and Helen venture out of Paris to picnic at and tour Gurdjieff ‘s institute at Fontainebleau, and she encourages him to have his ankle tattooed – signs the angel is working her magic. Then one day when she is visiting, Max takes her upstairs to chez Louise, and Helen sees “the painting”. And therein lies the novel’s “story” – the mystery that will make the reader turn the page if all else fails. Which it doesn’t.
Writer Antony McCarten once said he’d always thought the novel “an extremely stately endeavour” that you had to be 80 to even contemplate. Karl Stead, at 84, is well-qualified.
My favourites of his novels are All Visitors Ashore, laden with nostalgia, and Mansfield, in which I got to know a real person rather than merely bowing to the religious icon. Reading these changed me. Reading The Necessary Angel did not. It’s an entertainment, but in the best sense of the word – clever, rich and playful.
The Necessary Angel by CK Stead is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.