The Necessary Angel by C.K. Stead
A group of people in Paris in 2014/15, all literary, all quite objectionable, meander round each other, aloof from events around them.
Max Jackson is a Kiwi, although I doubt he would ever describe himself as such – the thought of his pairing with a New Zealand wife is the source of some amusement to him and his French wife, Louise. Louise has banished Max to the lower floor of their house, while she and the children stay aloft – not surprising really, given his tendency to mansplain to women, and ponder that a woman’s breasts “… must be the broadly rounded kind, not pointy”. She keeps in touch though – prowling around his floor when he’s not there, sniffing his sheets. What is surprising is that Sylvie, a new colleague of Max’s at the Sorbonne Nouvelle where he lectures, would be attracted to him – he is particularly condescending towards her, but then Sylvie rather prefers him when “he recovers some of his authority”, just as what she likes most about her German lover, Bertholdt, is his “SS manner”.
Then there is Helen White, a young English student at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, who read an early poem of Max’s (who has long since stopped writing poetry) and liked it immensely – and who arrives at his office to say she is bipolar and she is going to get him to start writing poetry again: “Where was the youthful Max’s soul hiding? She would make it her project to find it, to bring it out”. And Max, whilst enamoured of colleague Sylvie, seems to think it is quite acceptable to engage in a relationship with a vulnerable student, “He entertained himself by thinking of her as a muse.” At the end of one of his lectures he does a bit of a rave about Nabokov, so maybe he thinks he is being faithful to the ‘literast’ tradition.
All the characters in this novel are bright and erudite, and quip away to each other. Both Max and Louise are working on books, his is a small volume of literary criticism, hers a volume on Flaubert, the latter volume being destined for greatness: Louise is trying to spark a renaissance of word crafting and sculpting in literature, and a move away from the New Wave of authors who favour obscurity, thus leaving the reader room for creativity. And this crafting of material is probably what this novel is about – how people’s lives can become overly constructed and lack spontaneity and engagement. Helen is a devotee of Gurdjieff, who believed that ordinary lives were a ‘sleep’ and that one had to work at ‘wakefulness’, creating a soul along the way. Sylvie meets another man towards the end of the novel, Lenny, and sees him as a project: “She was going to have to train him, teach him how to dress stylishly but less formally, and to stop perfuming himself.” All the characters are using each other in some way for their own ends. At one point, the ‘necessary angel’ of the title is used to describe both Helen and Sylvie in relation to Max, but also to describe the drugs that Helen relies on: “‘I like to be brilliant,’ she said, ‘but it’s better to be sane’.”
For the characters in The Necessary Angel, their world has become so removed behind words that French and world politics are just a backdrop. Max scans the Guardian Weekly and the New Zealand Herald, “reads the world telling its own story, getting on with the ‘now’ of everything …”, reads of the growing gap between rich and poor, the heightening unrest around the globe, but: ”Nothing-to-be-Done, alas!” The book is set in turbulent political times, there are scandals in French politics, right ascendancy, the Ebola crisis, ISIS public beheadings and the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Max is separated from his world not only by his choice of work and social circle, he feels himself apart from his French associates, an unbridgeable language gap arising from his having learned French from written not heard words. At the beginning of the novel there is an odd unnecessary note about most of the conversations being in French – when it is made very clear throughout the novel whether the characters are speaking French or English. But maybe this note is to emphasise this additional barrier to engagement for Max?
Max and Sylvie are working together organising a small conference on World War One writers, as part of the centennial commemorations. But even with this there is a feeling of fatigue, even before commemorations begin: “Let’s not be tired in advance”, advises Sylvie. By the end of the novel, Max is calling the Great War Wobbly Wobbly One. Sylvie puts this ennui and apathy down to our knowledge of the ‘Death of Everything’, the forecast end of the universe that was not a concept for previous artists and philosophers. “In this society at this time almost everything was waste – works of art, music, reading and talking about novels and poems, and, perhaps especially, opera. Everything we do, she thought, was at the expense of the future and the poor.” We do fleetingly glimpse ‘the poor’ in this novel – in the form of an “old harridan”, to whom Max thrusts 20 Euros to keep her off his property.
Much of the writing in The Necessary Angel is lovely. But some is quite flat: Louise. “Maybe the cat was just a cat – the one that in English ‘sat on the mat’” or odd: “He said it as if preparing her for the worse that was not to come.” And sometimes I don’t think Stead has quite captured the female voice:
“Her period had come and it was better that she did not have to tell him she was pregnant, which might have upset him. Pregnancy would have been an interesting experience – she had quite liked the idea; but they said it hurt a lot giving birth; and after that you would be stuck with a baby, like a big, noisy doll, getting bigger all the time, and before long walking and talking and probably telling you off – and perhaps even falling into the canal. No, she would be more careful from now on. Fucks for sure, but with care and a condom.”
There is reference in the novel to the power of the written word, not just the ability to trouble the “Christian–atheist mind”, but an accidental and dangerous power – a line is drawn between Houellebecq’s Submission and the Charlie Hebdo attack, and Houellebecq is described as having ‘taken refuge somewhere in rural France” after the attacks. But, despite the characters’ vast knowledge in The Necessary Angel, there is a vacuum of commitment on all fronts, e.g. when Sylvie is asked about her religion: “‘Oh yes, I’m Catholic’, she said. And then, ‘Regrettably’.” There is a piece of art central to the story, interestingly having familial not official proof of provenance, and the fate of this work, purposely kept private and not for public display, is how the novel ends. It is a clever ending and oddly satisfying, but is of the ‘obscure, leaving the reader room for creativity’ type. As a reader, I was not sure what ideas this novel left me with: That the Parisian literary world has become totally removed from the ‘real’ world? That the postmodernist West is ill equipped to face current threats? That reading might encourage empathy but literary criticism does the opposite? Perhaps all of these. Read The Necessary Angel and see what you think.