CK STEAD The Necessary Angel. Reviewed by Carmel Bird
In The Necessary Angel, CK Stead articulates the careless lives of privileged Parisians in a contemporary world of chaos, terrorism and war.
The title references lines by Wallace Stevens:
‘I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again.’
Reality, said Stevens, is the necessary angel. A young woman, Helen, suffers from bipolar disorder, and calls her lithium medication her ‘necessary angel’. In an academic paper she writes on poets of the Great War, she includes the angel reference. Max, the middle-aged man she is in love with, thinks that maybe Sylvie, object of his desire, could be his ‘necessary angel’. Max’s wife, Louise, lives in an apartment with their children; Max lives alone in the apartment below. Louise snoops around Max’s apartment checking out the fridge and sniffing his sheets. Beloved Sylvie lives with a married musician, and Helen has a boyfriend who is in England while she and all the other characters are in Paris. Max thinks Helen is ‘mad’ but this doesn’t stop him taking her to bed in those sheets. Max, Louise and Sylvie are on the staff at the Nouvelle Sorbonne, where Helen is a student. Nobody is particularly happy; perhaps they all need the attention of some angels. But there are no angels, and human intelligence is over-ruled by some kind of rampant insanity.
Actually, to return to the title, what interests all the characters is literature. Can literature or some other art save the planet? Maybe not. Few pages of this novel lack literary references and quotes. Helen is tormented by a line from Derrida: ‘We are dispossessed of the longed-for presence in the gesture of language by which we attempt to seize it.’ Louise is editing a new edition of Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale; Max is writing a paper on Lessing and Naipaul and is reading The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis’s Holocaust comedy set in Auschwitz (but why hasn’t Martin Amis ever won the Booker, let alone the Nobel? people wonder); Louise gives Max an advance copy of Submission by Houellebecq, the novel that precipitated the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. So you can see that the horrors and realities of the world are vital to the fabric of the novel which moves artfully from opera and poetry and the matter of buying ‘fairy-tale shoes’, to the violent deaths at Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015.
The events take place in Paris between mid-June 2014 and mid-January 2015, between midsummer and chaos. Negotiating the concerns of literature from Balzac to Houellebecq, via most of the writers you can think of, including Nabokov, Tolstoy and Kerouac, the novel deftly foregrounds the catastrophic and monstrous phenomenon of a planet on a disaster course, while playing out the domestic dramas of a group of academics in contemporary Paris. The paper Helen is writing is for a conference on English and French poets who died in the Great War. So the tragedies of global conflict are constantly being woven into the text, bringing memories of Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas – it is Thomas’s celebrated poem ‘Adelstrop’ that exercises Helen’s imagination, and sharply reminds the reader that the ‘willows, willow-herb, and grass’ and the song of the blackbird are by now nostalgic emblems of a lost world. The poem is famously about a railway station, and railway stations are key locations in this novel. Helen has a photo of the ADELSTROP sign in her apartment.
The planet itself is not treasured, human beings exhibit such blind stupidity and greed – they dress well, eat well, drink well at the expense of the earth, and yet there is literature, music, painting. Corrupt governments invite only more violence. Sylvie, who bought the fancy shoes, has the thought: ‘Everything we do is at the expense of the future and of the poor.’ The most ‘valuable’ object in Louise’s apartment is ‘the painting’. For quite some time the reader is left to wonder who the painter was, but ultimately the text reveals his name: Cézanne. This pastoral summer green-gold image of trees, shadows, a splash of orange, the pond, is central to the plot. The housekeeper thinks it’s sinister, but others really love it. It goes missing, and so provides mystery and suspense. The solution to the mystery is chilling in its simplicity and the manner in which it enacts, in a type of ironic miniature, the total folly of world events. In a superb gesture of elision, the novel leaves the fate of ‘the picture’ to the reader’s imagination.
Max is originally from New Zealand, as is of course the author. CK Stead is one of the greatest of New Zealand’s writers. Among his many celebrated works is Mansfield, a novel inspired by another great New Zealander, Katherine Mansfield. And Mansfield is a strong reference here, for it is to the place of her death that Helen and Max make a pilgrimage, and picnic before returning to Helen’s apartment where she will give him a lovely massage. Helen, like Mansfield, is deeply interested in the teachings of Gurdjieff at his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, imagining she can use them as ‘an addition’ to her lithium to control her moods. Helen spreads a ‘beautifully laundered and ironed cotton handkerchief, yellow and gold’ on Gurdjieff’s grave in the understanding that the cloth will absorb some of the creative spirit of the dead. Max is scornful, saying: ‘They could have buried a horse in there.’ Yet he is beguiled by Helen who is, in her ‘madness’ capable of a deadly childish spite and mischief. Dangerous when euphoric. As if he has been infected by some of Helen’s whimsy, Max has Minerva’s owl tattooed on his ankle, whereupon Helen follows suit.
Meanwhile the world whirls on with its wars and its terrorism and its general race to the bottom. After the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, ‘everyone in the western world wanted to rally for freedom of speech’. But Max, fooled by many things, is not fooled by this. He says: ‘It’s such bullshit.’ CK Stead has articulated, in the careless lives of his privileged Parisians, one of the breeding grounds of all that bullshit.
CK Stead The Necessary Angel Allen & Unwin 2017 240pp $32.99
Carmel Bird is the author of 30 books, including novels, collections of short fiction, and books on writing, such as Dear Writer Revisited and Writing the Story of Your Life. Her most recent novel is Family Skeleton. In 2016 she received the Patrick White Award. Her e-book of eight short stories The Dead Aviatrix will be published in November 2017.
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