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.
Alex Christofi’s Let Us Be True is one of those books I’m delighted was sent my way. I’m not sure I would have happened upon it otherwise but it turned out to be absorbing, insightful and beautifully written. Largely set in Paris during the middle of the twentieth century, it’s the story of Ralf who becomes smitten with Elsa and remains so for decades after their brief affair ends.
In 1958, Ralf spends his evenings drinking at Jacques’ bar and shooting the political breeze with his Algerian friend Fouad. He and his mother fled Germany for London in 1933 after the death of Ralf’s Jewish geneticist father. His mother still lives in London but Ralf left to study in Paris, distracted by easy ways to make money tutoring language students. One evening, rifling through an apparently abandoned handbag, trying to find details of its owner, he’s punched in the face by a woman. This seemingly unpromising meeting marks the start of Ralf and Elsa’s affair in which she apparently blows hot and cold, rarely telling him anything about herself until Ralf decides to find out who she is. What he discovers is hardly a surprise but it’s far from the entire story. When Elsa leaves Paris, Ralf stays, occasionally involving himself in the Algerians’ protests against French oppression alongside Fouad and later becoming caught up in the student protests of ’68 before moving back to London. Ralf’s is a life lived alone, continually buffeted by the events that marked both the century and the countries in which he lives, adopted or otherwise.
Christofi explores the way political events can shape ordinary lives through the framework of Ralf and Elsa’s love affair: both are Germans who survived the war which ripped apart their childhoods; Fouad fought for the French but finds himself without rights as an Algerian; Ralf’s dulling of his pain leads him into the student protest against French political stalemate in 1968. All this is done with a light touch, a vivid background to Ralf and Elsa’s stories, told from both perspectives before and after they knew each other. The striking opening sentence sets the tone for the rest of the novel which is pleasingly uncluttered, letting its characters and their histories speak for themselves. It’s an engrossing, thoughtful novel with important things to say exemplified by Ralf’s reflections on his solitary life after the death of his mother: ‘How easily one might neglect those one loved by chasing the big story, the big lie that history was a matter of ideals and not compassion’. It ends, I’m pleased to say, on a hopeful note.
Regular visitors to this blog might be surprised to find me reading a crime novel let alone reviewing one but Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz seemed so prescient given the shocking events in Paris last month that it piqued my interest, as did Marina’s excellent review at findingtimetowrite. The title is, of course, a nod to James Ellroy’s White Jazz – even I can work that one out. So here it is: what may well be my first crime fiction review.
Set in the 19th arrondissement – home to the Charlie Hebdo assassins – with the odd foray to Brooklyn, it opens with the murder of Laura, an air stewardess with a passion for orchids looked after during her many absences by Ahmed who lives in the apartment below. Ahmed becomes aware of something awry when a few drops of blood fall on to his balcony, then he notices a foot at an odd angle. Using his keys, he enters Laura’s apartment to find a particularly grisly murder scene which looks like a ritual killing. Ahmed knows what to do – he’s a man who buys crime fiction by the kilo from the Armenian second-hand book dealer just around the corner. He makes sure any evidence of his presence is expunged, destroys his blood-spotted djellaba and reports the murder. Soon he’s being questioned by two police lieutenants – one an absent-minded Breton, the other a particularly attractive Jewish woman who reminds him of his first love. Neither of them thinks he did it but it’s their job to find out who did.
I may be a rookie crime reviewer but I’m well aware that too much plot is a no-no. Suffice to say the hunt for Laura’s murderer takes in a Muslim/Jewish rap band, an ultra-orthodox Jewish Rastafarian, Jehovah’s Witnesses, bent coppers, illicit sky-blue pills and the beginning of a love story. Miské takes a well-aimed pop at religious fundamentalism, wrapping up all three Abrahamic religions in the big fat metaphor of Godzwill, a drug that makes you feel positively divine. The Parisian police force also comes in for a severe bashing balanced by the two thoroughly likeable investigating detectives, in particular Rachel who is determined to see that justice is done. Clues are strewn along the way, clicking the scattered parts of the plot pleasurably into place. At times a little cartoon like in its depiction of the various villains, the novel has a nice vein of sly wit running through it. It seemed to me to stand up well as a crime novel but its forte is its sharp social observation, taking a scalpel to modern society and its many disparate elements. Sadly timely – there’s even a throwaway comment about Charlie Hebdo – this is Miské’s debut and it’s already won an English Pen award. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a few more accolades heading its way.