Books

C. K. Stead
The Necessary Angel

A publisher once told me, in a particularly fatalistic mood, that fiction is writing about human nature and literary fiction is writing about white people slowly getting divorced.

The Necessary Angel is a work of literary fiction. Set circa 2014, the story follows Professor Max Jackson, an expatriate academic who teaches at the Sorbonne and is separated from his French wife, Louise, a celebrated professor. Max is balancing an affair with bon vivant Sylvie, and a budding romance with a student, Helen – a manic pixie dream-type who introduces herself as “mad”, encourages Max to write poetry and inspires him to get a tattoo. There’s a mystery folded into the story – a valuable painting that’s been in Louise’s family for generations disappears, possibly stolen by one of Max’s mistresses – but that’s beside the point. In fact, that plot is abruptly introduced midway through the story, and fades in and out capriciously.

But the joy of this book lies in its caprice. C. K. Stead, New Zealand’s former poet laureate, emeritus professor of English at the University of Auckland, has delivered the product of a taut literary intellect at its most relaxed, a glorious piss-take on the pretensions of the intellectual classes.

Stead has a lot of fun slow-roasting the pomp and rivalry of the Sorbonne, cynical ageing expats, the institution of marriage, ancestral French pretensions about whose relative knew Cézanne and whose Flaubert, and young foreign Francophiles who see Paris through Hemingway-tinted spectacles.

The central storylines about art theft and infidelity, which, in Gallic fashion, nobody seems to mind too much, frequently meander to entertain wry juxtapositions of art, culture and human nature. This is a novel as metafictional playground: at the top of one early page, Louise complains that Flaubert takes too many pages to execute romantic intrigue, and at the bottom of the page confronts her husband about his wandering eye. Max begins his affair with a much younger woman, then delivers a lecture on the moral complexity of Lolita.

The gentle satire sometimes falls flat, and the women are written less convincingly than the men. And one passage, where a millennial woman ruminates ambivalently on her possible pregnancy, is wincingly bad.

Overall, though, this is a lovely love letter to love, to Paris, and above all to literature, and, vitally, one that’s kept its sense of humour.  ZC

Allen & Unwin, 240pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 30, 2017 as "C. K. Stead, The Necessary Angel". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: ZC