Lucy and Todd

The Necessary Angel — C. K. Stead

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 5:54 pm

Don’t you hate it when people come up to you at a party and say, ‘Did I mention that I’m giving a lecture at the Sorbonne, actually?’

The Sorbonne, or The Sorbonne Nouvelle as it’s now called, is merely a department of the University of Paris. It used to have some kind of intellectual glamour, if you admit such a thing possible. Now its primary use is to be drooled over by academics from other countries who think that even the mention of it will confer on them kudos and wisdom.

The characters in The Necessary Angel are connected with this place, and if you would expect them to be engaged in lofty pursuits, you’re in for a let-down. Instead of arguing for hours about philosophy and (gulp) literary theory, they’re sitting around reading The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis. Or languidly passing a copy between them, because they’re bored by it.

Max Jackson is from New Zealand, but somehow the deities of the Sorbonne allowed him admittance some decades ago and he has become a fixture. His wife Louise is a fixture, too – she’s doing an ‘edition’ of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education for the famous Bibliothèque Pléiade. This operation is something of a wonder, as Louise seems to write her annotations, send them off to the publisher, receive the proofs, see the book printed, and plan her launch party all within the space of a couple of months. French publishing must really be hot.

Max is living that portion of middle age when all he can do is think about women and try to bed them. Every woman in this novel is described in terms of her looks: she is beautiful or she is not beautiful. The shape of breasts is guessed at. Yet we know nothing about what Max looks like, except that he gets red in the face from chasing one femme up the stairs of the Opéra. (That’s the Opéra Bastille, CK Stead will have you know.) So now you can probably guess what Max looks like.

Max and Louise have two children and two apartments, because Louise has ‘banished’ Max from the family – he lives downstairs with their dog. Louise is a real snoop and in touring Max’s flat, sniffing his sheets to see if he’s having sex or just becoming a smelly middle-aged academic, she predictably finds a letter written to him by an odd English girl, Helen, a student.

Max is afraid of Helen, who’s a bit fragile, but he sleeps with her anyway, at the same time trying to construct a middle-aged obsession over his colleague Sylvie Renard. Sylvie hopes to become a fixture. Everybody in this book wants to become a fixture. Renard means fox, the author explains. Max attempts his obsession but he can’t really do anything. At all.

It’s strange that someone this vague could keep a teaching job. Scraps of terribly canonic, musty novels and poems walk across his thoughts like a nursemaid pushing a pram. He’s writing a book about Doris Lessing and VS Naipaul, which again seems a pretty lowly pursuit for the SORBONNE, especially since it’s only at the end of the novel that we get a single cogent, extended thought on literature from Max. That’s too late.

There are a few other characters. The children don’t matter – the dog might. Max has an office-mate with whom he shares coffee. Sylvie is in a relationship with a German TV producer whose only detectable trait is that he’s German.

Philip Roth once said that the reason there is so much back-stabbing, plotting and underhanded behaviour in academia is because ‘there is so little at stake’. But here, there doesn’t even seem to be that: ultra-competitiveness is mentioned, as if it’s expected, and it’s even attributed to some of the characters, but we see none of it and nothing really happens except a lot of contemplation of infidelity, and the name-checking of every important monument in the relevant arrondissements.

Sub-plot to the rescue: Louise’s family owns a small Cézanne, possibly an early version of the Etang des Soeurs, which is in the Courtauld Gallery in London, we are told sedulously, as we are told everything in this novel. The painting goes missing from Louise’s apartment after Max has taken a girl there, which he won’t admit.

Academics are always showily turning their attention from the classics to trash, and now that Louise has wrecked Flaubert for the general public she hopes that her new interest in Georges Simenon will yield her even more fame and success. She decides he’s no good, of course, but there is a brief Simenon razzle-dazzle in the faint bit of real action in this novel, police business regarding the search for the painting.

Is this meant to be the story of Max? Does he fit in? Is he smart? Is his French good enough? In the denouement the story makes a frantic rush from limp, coffee-sozzled romance into very badly written thriller. This is not a win-win situation, and it includes the dastardly trick of turning a slumbering female character into a terrorist, which male writers love to do.

As Anglo takes on Paris go, it doesn’t compare well with Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado – a master class in wit, energy and, well, Paris. In the end this is a campus novel, and like most campus novels it doesn’t work, because nobody cares what goes on in universities. Er – did I mention that it takes place at the Sorbonne? Actually?

 

TMcE

 

 

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