Thursday, 8 February 2018

The Necessary Angel: C.K. Stead and the literary life

For the past few weeks I’ve been carrying around a cutting from the Guardian: a review by John Banville of the American writer Elizabeth Hardwick’s Collected Essays. The review is headlined ‘Pitch-perfect prose and prescient opinions from a golden age in literary criticism.’ Banville begins by recalling the ‘palmy days between, say, the end of the second world war and the late 1970s’. Why palmy? Because, Banville explains,  ‘Fiction and poetry mattered then, not as subjects for jaded gossip or to be wagered on to win a prize, but as works of art to delight and quicken the mind, and as some sort of indication of the health or otherwise of the culture in general.’

Just after I’d cut out this review, I was sent from New Zealand the new novel by C.K. Stead, The Necessary Angel. It’s a novel I admire very much and it too has a lot to say about literary criticism and the literary life. However, far from harking back to Banville’s palmy days on East Coast America, Karl Stead has located his story in Paris, beginning on midsummer’s day 2014, and ending with the  ‘Je Suis Charlie’ protest march in Paris, six months later.

The central character of the novel is a New Zealander in his mid-40s, Max Jackson, professor of Comparative Literature at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. He is fluent in French – he has a French wife and two bilingual children – but he does not feel wholly at ease with the language; sometimes he feels homesick for English. Not homesick for England, however, and it irks him that his French colleagues blithely assume that to come from New Zealand is, essentially, to be English.

His wife Louise is part of the problem. She has exiled him from the family apartment to a small flat a couple of floors below, ostensibly because she needs to be able to work undisturbed, completing her latest book – a scholarly critical edition of Flaubert’s L’Éducation Sentimentale – so, as Max himself says, he’s now simply ‘the foreigner – downstairs with the dog’. It is symptomatic of the difference between them that whereas Louise is working on what will be the crowning project of her literary and academic career, the definitive edition of a major work by one of France’s most celebrated authors, Max is trying to write a short book comparing two Anglophone writers, Doris Lessing and V.S. Naipaul, both of whom had cut themselves off from their native homes. In the last lecture of term, he discusses Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel by a Russian exile set in America but begun in Paris.

One thing Max and Louise still share, however, is their mutual appreciation of each other’s work.  When she picks up a page he has just written, she ‘read a few sentences, and then had to read it all. It was elegant, concise …. That was Max: not a literary theorist at all – theory didn’t interest him – but a critic, lucid and persuasive, who could give you the feel of the book he was writing about.’  Louise herself shares the same literary critical outlook. She argues in the introduction to her edition that it was the writers who succeeded Flaubert, not Flaubert himself, who had made a fetish of art for art’s sake. ‘Against Barthes and his kind, Louise spoke up for precision, for style, for Flaubert’ – what he had achieved, she demonstrates, was ‘clarity, intelligibility, elegance’. And Max doesn’t hesitate to tell her what he thinks: ‘I’m full of admiration – and envy, Louise. It’s brilliant.’

Another writer whose presence is strongly felt in The Necessary Angel is Martin Amis. Exponent of close reading that he is, Max is encountered ‘reading and rereading’ the opening section of The Zone of Interest, Amis’s controversial and sometimes comic novel about Auschwitz, just published in 2014. He is interested in why Amis (‘often acknowledged as the major talent of his generation’) is so disliked, and why he has never won a major literary award – not even the Booker, never mind the Nobel Prize for Literature. Max concludes:

It was something about the style of the man, and his refusal to hide the light of his genius under a bushel of green tea. As some writers emanated moral merit, Amis put talent on display. This was what the literary life taught.

The literary life: in their different ways, all Stead’s protagonists in The Necessary Angel are trying to lead the literary life, though there are times when Max has to call its value into question. 2014 is both a year of gathering political crisis and the centenary of the start of the First World War. Max’s contribution to this is to plan a study day on poets of the Great War, but he has to admit that his seminar seems somehow an inadequate response:

It meant literature, which meant almost nothing in the bigger picture, and almost everything to those oddballs for whom life was meaningless and ugly without it.

Later in the year, on Armistice Day, November 11th, Max finds himself confronted by an abusive homeless woman. He feels guilty after locking the courtyard gate in her face to keep her out, and the encounter leaves him ‘divided against himself – a weightless person, academic, literary, disconnected from reality’. It is only at the end of the book that, reunited with his wife and children, he regains both a sense of his self-worth and of the worth of ‘the big world of books’.

What unites Louise and Max intellectually is a shared sense of the importance of intelligibility and style in writing. When Patrick Modiano wins the 2014 Nobel Prize, Louise is delighted, seeing the award as a vote for the ‘limpidity, transparency for which French literature had always been celebrated’. Finally, indeed, Max, Louise (and C.K. Stead) – are in good company:  in the cutting I’ve kept, John Banville too ends by praising Elizabeth Hardwick’s essays for vindicating her ‘old-fashioned requirement of a good, clear prose style’.

Adrian Barlow

The Necessary Angel in published in the UK by Allen & Unwin.: ISBN 978-1760631154


I have not attempted here to write a review of The Necesssary Angel, though I hope I have expressed my enthusiasm for this novel. The first UK review was by David Grylls for the Sunday Times, (28.1.18) and can be accessed here.

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