The title of C. K. Stead’s novel may ring a few bells for some. It’s taken from a collection of essays on poetry by Wallace Stevens. I wish I could tell you that bit of knowledge was lodged in my brain, ready to be slipped neatly into this review but the reference is made clear towards the end of this erudite novel through which the phrase runs, meaning different things to different people. Set in Paris in 2014, The Necessary Angel is about a professor at the Sorbonne from New Zealand and the three women who play significant parts in his life during the year the novel spans.
Max Jackson has lived in Paris for many years. His wife, Louise, is also an academic, senior to him and currently finishing what she hopes will be the definitive edition of Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. Max lives in an apartment in the same building as Louise and their two children. Their estrangement seems comfortably amicable – often he eats with the family, sometimes the couple compares professional notes. In the process of devising a conference to celebrate the First World War poets, Max conceives a passion for Sylvie, his junior colleague, already living with her married German lover. Then a young British postgraduate appears in his study, enthusiastically praising a poem Max published years ago and declaring herself mad. Helen is bipolar, precariously managing her illness with a mixture of lithium and Buddhism. Max is charmed by her eccentricity while still yearning for Sylvie and wondering quite what his relationship is with Louise. While Louise is on holiday, a painting thought to be a Cézanne disappears from her apartment and Max finds himself in a fix.
Stead’s novel manages to be both cerebral and thoroughly entertaining. Max is an engaging character, an outsider with intimate knowledge, both at home in his adopted country and not entirely comfortable as he listens to his children’s chatter, knowing that he’ll never quite capture its nuances. Stead’s wry wit and astute insight into the workings of French society, particularly the haute bourgeoisie, are smartly amusing and the writing is all you’d hope for from an award-winning poet laureate, summoning up Paris in all her glory. A multitude of literary allusions stud the novel – even the cops read Modiano. Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest pops up frequently and when Francois Hollande’s ex-partner Valérie Trierweiler’s Thank You for That Moment sells out the local bookseller pointedly assures his customers that Balzac, Dumas and Maupassant’s works are still in plentiful supply. Max’s year plays out against a background of music, art, film and politics. Tragedies may consume the news but life with all its petty and not so petty concerns goes on. Polished, witty and immensely intelligent, The Necessary Angel is a triumph. Stead has a long and distinguished career as a poet, novelist and literary critic. I’m looking forward to exploring his backlist.