Oct/Nov 2017  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Necessary Angel

Review by Ann Skea

The Necessary Angel.
C.K. Stead.
Allen and Unwin. 2017. 220 pp.
ISBN 978 1 760631 52 9.

C.K. Stead's characters live in a Parisian society in which intelligence is valued and literature and politics are widely discussed. So, although the themes of the book are of love and fidelity, the characters are sophisticated, witty, and urbane.

Max Jackson, who has lived in Paris "long enough to feel at ease if not at home," is an expatriate New Zealander, a writer and a part-time academic in the Department of Comparative Literature at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. He is helping to organize a conference—a journée d'études—on eight French and English poets who were killed or wounded in World War 1, and he is also trying to work on a critical book about the authors Doris Lessing and V.S. Naipaul.

Sylvie Reynard, who has recently joined the Department, is also part of the organizing committee, and after a conference meeting, she and Max get swept up in the Paris streets by Midsummer Night revellers and end up in Sylvie's flat. Their attraction is mutual but both already have partners.

Sylvie is living with a dour German, Bertholdt Volker, who is temporarily working in Paris and whose wife is in Berlin. Max and his French wife, Louise, are currently occupying separate floors in the house which she owns, but their separation is still tentative and they are still very much involved in each other's lives and with their two small children. Louise is also an academic at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, ranked above Max in the hierarchy there, and she is immersed in editing a new edition of a major novel by Flaubert.

To add to Max's uncertainties, a student (not from his classes) appears in his university room to discuss a poem he had written long ago but which she has discovered and found "thrilling." She is a devotee of Gurdjieff, describes herself as mad, and tells him she is taking Lithium for a mental problem. Max is wary, fascinated, and flattered by her determination to resurrect the long-buried poet in him.

This sounds like a run-of-the-mill, tangled love story, but Stead makes it much more than that. Paris and the French way of living are essential to the mood of the book and the actions of the characters. Literature, literary references, and detailed discussion of books like Martin Amies so-called "Holocaust novel" occur quite naturally in the text. And recent political and terrorist events in France are part of general conversation. In addition, an old painting owned by Louise, which is believed by her wealthy extended family to be an authentic Cezanne (but which has never been formally authenticated), suddenly disappears from the wall of her living room. Jealous family members and the "mad" student, Helen, are possible culprits.

Stead's writing is sophisticated, thoughtful, often wryly funny, and a pleasure to read. Through Max, he makes dry comments about the culture of French academia and about writers like Naipaul: "The publishers put it out as a novel but it's really autobiography—and not interesting... He just sweats it out as a writer, doesn't mention his wife—and goes for walks!" And, at one point, we sit in on a provocative lecture Max gives on Nabokov's Lolita. Stead's other characters are complex and interesting. And through Helen, the "mad" student, he explores the disordered, intuitive thinking of an intelligent but mildly disturbed mind.

Stead, like Max, is a New Zealander and a writer. He is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand Poet Laureate, and recipient of the Prime Minister's Award for Fiction and a Member of the Order of New Zealand.


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