C.K. Stead, The Necessary Angel

I tipped this novel off the 'new books' shelf in the Lane Reading Room at the library a few days ago. Why? Nothing else tempted me, I thought I'd heard Stead was an interesting writer, though I'd never read anything of his. Also I thought he was a she, because it is, or used to be, often women who hide behind two initials, hoping not to give away their gender and be overlooked as 'women'.


Stead is a New Zealander (I thought British), but the novel is set in Paris, in the 5th and 6th arrondissements, also mine. The year 2014-15 (it ends with Houellebecq's Submission and the Charlie Hebdo attacks). He must live in Paris I thought, after a while; he certainly seemed to know all the obvious places to eat, walk and have coffee around St Sulpice, though he did get a few details wrong, such as a paid gardener raking/blowing leaves on the first of November, La Toussaint, one of those sacrosanct French holidays on which nobody works. This is not Anglosaxonia and its post-puritan work ethic. Holidays are holidays. There is more to life than work.

The characters: a 50-ish New Zealand professor of literature at the Sorbonne (already a stretch: it is hard for outsiders to get a foot in the highly protectionist academic door in France, especially in an old Paris institution); his French wife, Louise, a formidable academic (she's writing a book on Flaubert) from a formidable French family; a younger academic, Sylvie, with whom he has an affair while they are co-organising a colloquium to celebrate WW I poets; Helen, a charmingly worrisome, bipolar, recent Oxford graduate trying to understand Derrida ('We are dispossessed of the longed-for presence in the gesture of language by which we attempt to seize it'), who may or may not have stolen an heirloom Cezanne from over the mantel in Louise's living room. On the other hand maybe Louise's cousins stole and stashed it in a bank vault, out of spite that Louise inherited it, and they only got the castle which has depreciated, while the painting has increased x-fold in value. (Spoiler? Ok, no spoiler.) 

It's tremendously readable, very well written, and, I think, very good, as long as one likes cool, well-written books. It would be a good movie, but it would have to be a French movie, because it's much too low-key to be an American movie. For example: on the subject of the revelations of American torture in Iraq: 'But either way, a short shrug or a lingering wince, what then? ...[Y]ou knew where yearning ended and reality began.'

Stead, it seems, lives in New Zealand. He was born in 1934. He has written a great deal: poetry collections, criticism, novels, an autobiography. I plan to read more.