Paris. Paris in the spring time … Paris anytime. Is it really the most romantic city in the world? Venice, arguably, is more stunningly beautiful. Parts of Vienna are as grand. But no other city has managed to inveigle its artistic heritage so successfully into the very core of its being.
Think Paris, think the fin de siecle, think Matisse, and Modigliani and Picasso. Think its street cafes, the Folies Bergere, croissants and coffee, the smell of Gauloises, the songs of Edith Piaf….
Love And Literature
Paris, like all great cities, is a city of the senses and the mind as well as a collection of buildings. And for Max Jackson it has been the inspiration for his one recognised poem. One in which he had created “the Paris of Paris that’s nobody’s dream but your own”. And then he stopped being a poet.
Now a professor of English Literature at the Sorbonne, Max is organising a small conference on eight poets of World War I, four French and four English. He is also writing a book on Doris Lessing and V.S. Naipaul.
His conference organising colleague is Sylvie, with whom he is falling in love, despite being married to Louise, who is immersed in preparing a definitive edition of Flaubert. Their marriage is going through a bad patch and he has moved into a separate flat downstairs from his wife, an arrangement which both find acceptable.
One day, a student, Helen, arrives in Max’s office because she has discovered his poem and loves it. Later she proposes for the conference a paper on Edward Thomas, the English poet who was killed in battle. But for the meantime, Max himself is her target and focus.
Oh yes, and Sylvie lives with a visiting (and married elsewhere) German academic, Berthold, of whom she is probably tiring.
A Web Of Perplexity
Self-evidently, there is room here for considerable … shall we say, “confusion”. Max finds himself in a failing marriage, in love with a colleague, and pursued by an attractive student who describes herself as “mad” and dependent on lithium as her “necessary angel”. He, of course, succumbs.
Kiwi author C.K. Stead has great fun in teasing out this web of desires, lusts, romances and relationships. And where could be a better setting than “the most romantic city in the world” which “had become his city, and he was its inhabitant…. It took him by surprise and he was faint with the beauty of it … and had to lean on the balustrade and stare”.
Given its cast of characters, it is hardly surprising that The Necessary Angel is an intensely literary novel. There are of course the preoccupations of the academics – Naipaul, Lessing, Flaubert, the World War I poets – but also a multitude of references and quotations thrown appositely into the text, many of which the reader is left to identify.
Max reads Martin Amis’s The Zone Of Interest and wonders if you can write a comic novel about Auschwitz, Helen is soaked in the writings of Gurdjieff, Louise is rooted more in the 19th century French novel. And for good measure, Helen puzzles over Derrida’s tortuous, “We are dispossessed of the longed-for presence in the gesture of language by which we attempt to seize it”.
Asking Tough Questions
Behind this, however, lurks a bigger question: does literature really count for anything in the face of reality? While the Charlie Hebdo protests march in the streets, in the final chapter, Stead takes Max, and us, on a whirlwind tour of world-wide “reality”: Enhanced interrogation techniques by the CIA, Obama and Castro announcing a rapprochement, the Russian “invasion” of Ukraine. Does literature have any place in this? Does love? Or yearning?
But despite the questions, “Life, as it always did, went on. Its map was enormous, even infinite (the choice between limit and no limit was yours). Space was vast and Time would not wait.”
When I finished The Necessary Angel I did something I do extremely rarely: I re-read it in its entirety. This was partly because I very much enjoyed it and partly because I felt I might have “missed something”.
Certainly this was an erudite and very clever book but was it also, I wondered, more profound than its surface playfulness suggested?
A Reader’s Delight
Stead provides a beautifully written strong storyline involving the love triangle/quadrangle but also throws into the mix the theft of a valuable painting. The reader’s need to know how all the intrigue turns out trumps, at least initially, the book’s deeper concerns. A second reading made them clearer.
My feeling is that Stead has pulled off a considerable conjuring trick here. The Necessary Angel is a serious book that is frequently funny, a Parisian romance that is frothy but also sharp and insightful, and a hymn to a city that is as much the home of Charlie Hebdo as it is to street cafes and sunlit squares. Its literary and academic setting will not appeal to everyone – but I loved it.
The Necessary Angel
Author: C.K. Stead
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, literary fiction