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.
Last year’s reading got off to a very satisfying start with a book by an Australian author – Jennifer Down’s compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely debut, Our Magic Hour. Coincidentally, this year’s has also begun with a beautifully crafted, thoroughly engaging Australian novel. I’d read and enjoyed Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel a few years ago but The Life to Come feels like a much more ambitious novel to me, managing to be both funny and poignant as it examines the state of modern Australia through the stories of a disparate set of characters linked by their relationship to one woman.
The novel opens in the 1990s with George, an aspiring novelist, taking over a house left empty by an elderly cousin. When he bumps into an old student from his tutoring days in need of somewhere to live, he offers her a room. Pippa espouses all the right ideas but seems incapable of living by them, constantly spouting earnest platitudes. When she declares an ambition to become a novelist, George can barely conceal his sneer. Several years later, Cassie unburdens herself to Pippa over coffee. Cassie has fallen in love with Ash – half-Scottish, half Sri Lankan – but it’s clear that she wants a very different relationship from the one he’s prepared to offer. Pippa seems too caught up in her own annoyance at finding only one copy of her novel in a bookshop to offer much consolation. Soon she will be in Paris, awarded a residency to work on her next novel, where she becomes friends with Céleste who grew up in Australia and now works as a translator when not yearning after her married lover, Sabine. Céleste finds herself unexpectedly missing Pippa when she goes home, despite worrying that she might make an appearance as one of Pippa’s characters. Pippa’s novels continue to be relentlessly autobiographical, her husband’s imagined affair and its consequences offering material for the next one. In the book’s final section, Pippa befriends her elderly Sri Lankan neighbour, inviting her to tea with every appearance of solicitude beneath which lurks an ulterior motive. The novel ends with a literary festival which hosts both Pippa and George.
Pippa is the glue that holds the novel’s episodic structure together. Through the stories of Pippa’s friends and acquaintances, de Kretser deftly explores modern life with a deceptively light touch and a hefty dollop of dry, often waspish humour. Barbs are tossed at a multitude of modern obsessions, from social media – which often felt like reading my own Twitter timeline – to faddish food. Frantic virtue signalling in the shape of Eva who never misses the chance to parade her support for ethnic diversity is neatly counterbalanced by the casual racism that her husband demonstrates, a theme which runs through the novel. The literary festival scenes towards the end are particularly amusing, and perhaps heartfelt. Throughout it all, de Kretser’s penetrating observation and mordant humour is underpinned with compassion, most movingly so in the final section which explores the loneliness of old age. This is a fine novel: perceptive and intelligent, sharp yet humane. I’ll be astonished if it’s not on my books of the year list next December.
I’m not sure how I managed to miss Dominic Smith’s novel last year, although the hardback edition’s jacket is somewhat off-putting. In his author’s note Smith tells his readers that the eponymous Sara is loosely based on one of the first women to be admitted to St Luke’s Guild in the 17th-century Netherlands, explaining that he wanted to explore the life of female artists whose work is so often unsung. The result is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: Sara’s 17th-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000.
‘At the Edge of a Wood’ is Sara de Vos’ only known extant painting. It’s been owned by the de Groot family for centuries but never exhibited. In 1957, while Marty and Rachel host a charity fundraiser, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the original. It takes Marty some time to realise what’s happened and when he does his investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student stalled in her research who has become an expert conservator. Posing as someone else, Marty engages Ellie as an advisor, helping him to put together a collection. He can’t help but admire her passion for art and soon their relationship takes a turn which may be revenge or the beginning of something else. Decades later, Ellie has become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career about to be celebrated in an exhibition which will have ‘At the Edge of a Wood’ as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, its owner has decided to bring the painting from New York to Sydney himself. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same painting to the gallery’s director. At the peak of her career, Ellie has been brought face-to face with her past. The story of the painting and its creator is woven through Ellie and Marty’s narratives.
Juggling three narrative strands, each of which inhabits very different periods, is a tricky structure to pull off but Smith manages it with sure-footed deftness, linking all three neatly and satisfyingly together. His writing is elegantly crafted, the descriptions of the 17th-century Netherlands particularly evocative and appropriately painterly. There’s a nice thread of suspense running through the novel as we wonder how Ellie will resolve the dilemma her youthful indiscretion presents decades later. Beautiful writing, expert storytelling and erudition lightly worn combine to make Smith’s novel that rare though often promised thing – a literary page-turner, both entertaining and illuminating.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was a particularly timely read for me given the exhibition running at the Holburne Museum in my home town this year. It’s about the Bruegels whose peasant scenes are instantly familiar to anyone with the slightest interest in the art of that period. Pieter the Elder died when both his sons – Pieter the Younger and Jan the Elder – were children suggesting that his mother-in-law, Mayken Verlhust, known for her miniatures and watercolours, had been their teacher rather than their father. The exhibition celebrates ‘The Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ from the Holburne’s collection which was previously thought to be a copy but has now been expertly verified as the work of Pieter the Younger. Flemish painting combined with unsung female influence – albeit a century earlier – you can see why Smith’s novel seemed so apt for me.