The Necessary Angel by C.K. Stead (Allen and Unwin, 2017), 204 pp., $36
The Necessary Angel tells, on the face of it, a story about woman problems. Max Jackson, New Zealand-born professor of literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, ricochets between three women: his semi-estranged wife Louse; Helen, a student with a crush on him; and Sylvie, his colleague. Max sleeps with two of the three over the course of the book (spoiler: not the wife). We’re also privy to Sylvie’s relationship with a painfully humourless German.
None of these love triangles generates any heat, nor much in the way of plot. The book has some of the most unerotic sex scenes I’ve read in a long time – there’s snarkiness, irritation, word-play, curiosity, interest – but no urgency, and not much pleasure either. It’s only when an erect penis shows up in a scene that we realise anyone is aroused at all. Afterwards too, everyone is fairly blasé. There’s a bit of mild jealousy to go with the mild enthusiasm. Basially, Max seems bored with it all.
I think this is intentional, and after all, why not? There’s something human, true and also deeply comic about this. But if a novel about a wife and lovers removes all energy from the sexual arena, where is the real pulse of the book?
A certain spark comes from the intellectual currents that run between the four protagonists, all students or teachers of literature. The portion of Max and Louise’s marriage that survives is their shared life in the academy and their respect for one another’s work: Louise, snooping around Max’s apartment, reads his drafts, appreciating him as ‘a critic, lucid and persuasive, who give you the feel of the book he was writing about’. There’s a great scene where Sylvie reads Helen’s paper on poet Edward Thomas, and in spite of her mild jealousy about Helen finds herself almost moved to tears by the thesis. Overall, there’s a good deal more flame and feeling when the characters converse about literature – the lively, witty banter that happens on almost every page and which Stead manages so deftly – than when they get naked with one another.
In the end Max’s woman problems are a false flag. The narrative that Stead weaves in The Necessary Angel is about being an outsider in Europe. Max is torn between three homes: adopted France, birthplace New Zealand, and England – which is no kind of home to him, but is the place where most people assume he is from. We see him tending a small garden with a kōwhai, a mānuka, a lemon-scented verbena ‘for the scent of his childhood’. Katherine Mansfield’s death in exile at Fontainebleau-Avon is a central motif. Even the simple act of reading New Zealand newspapers becomes a cri de coeur for Max, ‘… as if New Zealand was an anchor that kept him from floating off into abstraction’.
At the same time, Max is prickly about his exclusion from French cultural gestures, their shrugs and kisses, their politesse and hauteur; from the practices of Catholicism, for which he has no taste; and most of all from the French language itself, in spite of his fluency. Banished to a downstairs flat while his wife and children continue as a functioning unit, he hears his children speaking ‘in schoolyard French so rapid and totally idiomatic he caught the drift often without the detail’. When he tries to intervene, they look at him as if he is ‘alien’.
The novel sets up the theme of exclusion from Europe’s heartland on multiple levels, for simultaneously, it draws the historical context: ISIS and terrorism form a drumbeat background, and a summary of the times tells us that ‘from all these regions [Syria, Libya, Eritrea, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan] refugees spilled like peas across a kitchen floor, to be received into Europe, if they did not die on the way, sometimes with pity and kindness, more often with resistance and rage’. A deranged woman accosts Max at the entrance to his house, begging for money: he opens the electronic gate briefly to give it to her then barricades himself back in.
At the book’s close, Helen, taking umbrage on Max’s behalf at his eviction from his French family, acts as an extension of his subconscious. In a final gesture that reads as partly revenge, partly mania, partly anger at exclusion, she first steals, then organises to destroy a potent symbol of European high culture. Coming as it does after a climactic scene at the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ rally, where Max seems to falsely and hypocritically fall back into his family’s embrace, Helen’s final actions pull nicely on both personal and political threads.
All this is fluent and enjoyable, but problems dog the novel. In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf takes Charlotte Brontë to task for certain passages in Jane Eyre that express indignation about a lack of freedom for women. ‘Anger,’ Woolf says, ‘was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Brontë the novelist. She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance.’ This seems like a good description of Stead’s preoccupation with Martin Amis in The Necessary Angel.
First Max, and then Helen, take up Amis’ case, both reading and championing his novel The Zone of Interest, set, controversially, in Auschwitz. These thoughts and conversations are of a piece with the other literary preoccupations of the characters. The critical points they make, however, including Helen’s sardonic use of the phrase ‘good boy’ – that common Stead disparagement for writers he deems too obedient – make it impossible not to feel that the author is shoehorning the characters into making his arguments, dealing with his grievances.
There’s a skewiff ‘out of time’ feel to elements in the book, even as it presses down on precise historical events. Helen, in particular, is hard to swallow as a recent graduate of Oxford in 2014, ostensibly born around 1990. Her mind is untainted with pop culture of any kind and we never see her use the internet or a mobile phone. She cheerfully describes herself as ‘mad’ on account of her manic depression, and Max also liberally uses the word (‘as we used to say’) to describe her. Helen’s emotional touchstones are various canonized male writers and theorists and her favourite fantasy of herself is ‘that she was a male writer, an older man, Willie Yeats perhaps’. She’s thrilled to have a fiancé. To dream up a highly educated woman in her mid-twenties coming of age around 2010 who is so completely untouched by any trace of feminist sensibility seems like woolly and wishful thinking on the part of an author who (I don’t want to be mean, but I can’t help but remember) has been awfully vocal about the evils of feminist theory over his career.
Helen and the business with Amis are irritants. If these were the only problems the show would go on merrily enough. Stead’s capable piloting of dialogue and scene make it possible to skim over minor oddities, and the detective-style plot in the second half keeps us reading. However, this sense that we have fallen out of the world of the novel and into some weird personal project of the author’s returns towards the end when Max delivers a lecture on Nabokov’s Lolita. This episode, for me, poisoned the novel to a fatal degree.
It’s an odd moment. The lecture arrives from nowhere and leads nowhere. Nabokov and Lolita are not in play anywhere else in the novel.
The fictional lecture can be a brilliant device, notably used by J.M. Coetzee in Elizabeth Costello. Coeztee messes with his reader, using the fictional elements to undercut intellectual certainty, deliberately sowing confusion. Is the author making an argument or telling a story? With whom should we quarrel if we disagree? Such questions are central to this episode in The Necessary Angel too, but the novel feels wildly ill-equipped to deal with them.
Max starts with a few comments about the ‘distasteful’ topic of paedophilia. He goes on to conflate the character Humbert Humbert with Nabokov to an extraordinary degree, and uses Nabokov’s story about finding inspiration in the image of an ape who drew his own prison bars to imply that Nabokov shares Humbert’s sexual predilections:
Humbert Humbert is the ape behind the bars of middle-class propriety – and so is Nabokov. The throb that lasted ten years was of a lust in Nabokov which he wanted to be free to express, even though he knew it was unacceptable and if acted upon in reality rather than in fiction would put him behind bars.
Humbert Humbert as a victim of middle-class propriety; Humbert Humbert as transparent persona of Nabokov; the text of Lolita as an expression of ‘aching love’, ‘true love’, ‘authentic love’, albeit ‘distasteful’. In a Coetzee novel, someone in the audience would challenge Max on all this, and Max would lie awake questioning himself and his line of argument both before and after delivery. He would harbour skepticism about his own claims. In The Necessary Angel, none of this happens.
If I were a student in Max’s lecture, I’d want to ask about Richard Rorty’s view that in Lolita Nabokov dramatises ‘the possibility that there can be sensitive killers … masters of imagery who are content to turn the lives of other human beings into images on a screen, while simply not noticing that these other people are suffering’. I’d want to ask about the moment in Lolita where Humbert glancingly notices what is otherwise blanked from his narration: that Lolita sobs in the night, ‘every night, every night – the moment I feigned sleep’. You want to claim that this incurious, blindly cruel man ‘loves’ this child, in any sense, Professor Jackson? You’re telling us that Nabokov’s project was to showcase this ‘love’?
Mid-lecture, Max steps around in front of the lectern to be closer to his students and ‘read their faces’. I was curious about the faces of these listeners – skeptical, uncomprehending, enraged, or amused? But on the page there’s nothing to see, nothing to read. We are not invited to see an audience, nor to hear an audience; we are not called upon to particularly believe in an audience at all. The students Max speaks to about Lolita are simply not really there. No one is there; no one is going to put these, or any of the myriad questions one could ask about this reading of Lolita, on my behalf.
On a basic level, this passage creates a credibility problem (a professor at the Sorbonne delivering this lecture in 2014 to no comment, you think?). More fundamentally, I felt a distinct pressure to swallow the lecture whole. Where on earth is Stead in all this? Does he want us to identify him with Max, just as Max encourages us to identify Nabokov with Humbert? Is this actually Stead’s reading of Lolita? The lecture itself seems to instruct us in just such a direction. Maybe it is a distorted championing of Nabokov for not being ‘a good boy’. I just don’t know what to do with it. The entire episode feels so poorly integrated, so shabbily thought through, that for me, it finally sunk this otherwise lively and enjoyable novel.
KATE DUIGNAN’S first novel, Breakwater, appeared in 2001. Her second, The New Ships, is published this month. A former University of Otago Robert Burns fellow, she lives in Wellington with her partner and three children.
Nicholas Reid says
I would hate to say negative things about Karl Stead’s work as there is too much of that sort of thing going around, but the sheer brilliance of Kate Duignan’s second novel makes me want to agree with her. Damn!
C.K. Stead says
I’d like to thank Kate Duignan for her thoughtful and interesting review of my novel The Necessary Angel and respond to one or two points. She suggests I’m guilty, as Virginia Woolf says Charlotte Bronte is in Jane Eyre, of ‘expressing [my own] indignation’ against Martin Amis. But there is no indignation – and to be quite clear, like my character Max, I admire Amis as a novelist second to none among his contemporaries. What is expressed in my novel is anxiety about whether even a novelist of such brilliance as Amis can really get away with writing a comic novel set in Auschwitz; and whether the Afterword at the end of The Zone of Interest, which seems intended to excuse and explain, only enlarges rather than diminishes the problem. It’s a serious literary question, not answered, but raised. Helen of course (in the scene on the punt) is agitated by the horrors the novel contains – but that’s hardly a critical opinion, nor an expression of the novelist’s (my) ‘indignation’.
Kate Duignan finds Helen unconvincing as a young Oxford graduate in 2014 who ‘cheerfully describes herself as “mad”’ and has a favourite fantasy of herself as an elderly writer.’ My problem here is that Helen is based on a real young person who did call herself ‘mad’, did explain what kind of ‘madness’ it was and that she took lithium to keep herself on track, and did say her favourite fantasy was of herself as an elderly male writer. If I had thought more carefully I would have changed that fantasy to something different, but it’s something that can happen when you’re deriving a character from a real person. I’m sure the real ‘Helen’ uses a cell phone (she certainly sends e-mails), and is not in the least ‘untouched by current feminism’, which touches everyone alive and alert of any age and either sex. It just happens there was no scene in the novel where any of that aspect of her life needed to be shown. Of course she is pleased (or says she is) to find herself with ‘fiance’, but like so much else with Helen, this is a kind of joke against herself, focusing more on a word than on the reality.
But Kate Duignan’s biggest complaint, the one she spends most space on and which she says ruins the novel for her, is Max’s lecture on Nabokov’s Lolita. I can only say here that this is a lecture I would be happy to deliver myself, exactly as it is in the novel, and to stand by. In fact I would feel especially pleased with the discovery it makes of an echo in the language of Lolita to the idea Nabokov tells us went back ten years to his time in Paris, and the item he read there about the ape in the cage. It was Nabokov himself who says that the anecdote of the ape was the ‘throb’ (clearly a sexual one) that lasted ten years and which the writing of the novel relieved. Max has picked up the ‘ape ears’ and the ‘ape eyes’ in Humbert Humbert’s description of himself and links them to Nabokov’s account of the novel’s beginning in Paris.
This is simply an example of Max giving a final lecture for the term, and finding a way of making it relevant to his Paris students. And yes I would expect it to be heard in silence at the Sorbonne. Discussion with the students about it could come in later smaller classes.