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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Necessary Angel


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To purchase The Necessary Angel

Title: The Necessary Angel
Author: C.K.Stead
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017
Length: 220 pages
Availability: The Necessary Angel - US
The Necessary Angel - UK
The Necessary Angel - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable, literature-steeped light reading

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 9/3/2018 Zoë Apostolides
Sunday Times . 28/1/2018 David Grylls
Sydney Morning Herald . 13/10/2017 Kerryn Goldworthy
TLS . 13/4/2018 Natasha Lehrer

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Necessary Angel’s literary preoccupations are familiar territory for Stead (.....) Insights on a multitude of different writers are scattered throughout (.....) Stead wrote the book in English, but notes at the start that the conversations between the characters take place in French, and the story examines both the power and prohibitive potential of language." - Zoë Apostolides, Financial Times

  • "In the background, the world's unease is reflected in a plethora of centenary memorials of the Great War. C.K. Stead is an elder statesman of the New Zealand literary world, a professor of literature and noted critic and poet. But he is now well into his 80s and this novel, set in 2014, features characters whose behaviour and attitudes to each other seem more properly to belong to the 1950s." - Kerryn Goldworthy, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Stead plays a nice game of locating the ­narrative in real time (.....) But while time is smartly evoked, place is less so. (...) he Necessary Angel’s uncomplicated structure, with the late addition of a neat and unexpected plot twist, affords certain satisfactions. Stead is an accomplished stylist, his writing spare and focused, and he knows how to handle this kind of naturalistic storytelling. But his novel’s limitations mean it is most likely to appeal to those who see themselves reflected in the protagonist: in this case a washed-up, middle-aged academic who has learned the precise angle from which to look at himself in the mirror before he leaves the house in the morning." - Natasha Lehrer, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Even as its opening scene looks to both the future and the past -- a group of academics discussing a conference planned for the next summer focusing on eight poets who died during the First World War -- The Necessary Angel is clearly presented as a novel of its place -- Paris -- and times: the first of its four parts is even titled: 'Summer 2014', and the closing section involves, inter alia, the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack. Featuring several teachers and students of literature as its main characters, it is also a novel of its time not least in relation to other contemporary fiction, with several characters reading and discussing Martin Amis' The Zone of Interest (published in August 2014) and one of the characters receiving Michel Houellebecq's Submission as a Christmas present (a hard get in December 2014, even for insiders, but: "It was not due for publication until 7 January, but she had an advance copy for review, sent by its publisher, Flammarion"). (So also in the fall of 2014 here Valérie Trierweiler's Merci pour ce moment is the talk of the town.)
       The central figure is Max Jackson, a New Zealand expatriate "who had lived in Paris long enough to feel at ease if not at home" who teaches comparative literature at the Sorbonne. Max is married to the more successful and renowned academic, Louise -- who is currently preparing the latest edition of Flaubert's Sentimental Education (Max -- no great fan -- refers to him as 'Floe-Bert' -- but: "Louise's edition would help to restore his reputation") -- but they are semi-separated at the time:

     'We have two apartments. They both belong to Louise -- to her family. Her father was a distinguished civil servant -- Légion d'Honneur and so on. An earlier forebear was a doctor in Rouen and a friend of Flaubert's. Louis lives upstairs with the kids. I'm downstairs with the dog -- for the moment anyway.'
     'Do you call that an estrangement ?' Sylvie asked.
     'I think we call it an arrangement.'
       Max and Louise are still on fairly good terms, checking in on each other, sharing meals; in two significant scenes each enters the other's apartment while the other is not there. Two other women come to vie for Max's attention, however -- new colleague Sylvie, and student Helen White, a girl from England who is not in his class but reaches out to him after discovering a long poem he had written many years earlier; she is certain the poet still lurks within, even as he dryly tells her that his: "poetry bank's empty, I'm afraid" and that now: "My written work is for the academic journals". Helen also quickly shares that she is bipolar, and needs medication to keep herself in check: "I have to be careful. Lithium's my necessary angel". Max is foolishly much too friendly at this first meeting -- even blurting out, though: "not sure what he meant, but feeling grateful, and even hopeful -- 'You might be my necessary angel'".
       Max does seem to need a bit of shaking up, but on the whole he seems reasonably satisfied with how things are going. He engages then, in various ways, with Helen, Sylvie, and Louise as they continue in their shifting orbits around him, each also dealing with some issues.
       Some drama comes with the disappearance of a painting from Louise's apartment, a genuine -- though never authenticated as such -- Cézanne. As Max explains:
'We call it "the picture",' he said. 'We never allow ourselves to name the painter or the title he gave the work.'
       Louise is on vacation when it disappears -- conveniently having planned to take along: "ten or twenty novels by Simenon on her Kindle", musing even that studying his romans durs she might: "reinterpret these works and perhaps understand why he had thought them so important, so deserving and so unfairly discriminated against by the intellectual snobs of the Swedish Academy". (While he did not win the Nobel Prize, Simenon was often considered for it -- nominated nine times through 1972 alone.) So also then, when the picture is found missing, Stead headlines a chapter: 'A Case for Maigret ?'
       Louise is quite certain that someone in her French family arranged the theft, though Helen is the obvious candidate -- but she denies having taken it when Max asks her, and when the police eventually look into whether she might have taken it they find no evidence that she had. (The police investigation, especially into Helen, seems, however, rather laughably amateur; even as Louise is rather unimpressed by Simenon, Maigret would certainly have done better.)
       Stead uses his fairly simple tale to present Paris and the French and academic experiences. He has fun with the Sorbonne -- "Soviet in its bureaucracy and Ancien Régime it its hierarchy" -- and uses the experiences of the various foreigners in Paris (including Max, Helen, and the man Sylvie is (also) involved with) well. Max has never become truly French -- his command of French excellent and yet not native, a point Stead makes very well. It is Helen, however, for whom the Paris-experience is most simply an episode -- amusingly used and presented by Stead, especially in the story's conclusion.
       The literary discussion is also appealing, from that on Flaubert and Simenon to the contemporary works that figure in the story, such as the Amis. A rare class-scene, late in the novel, has Max lecture at some length on Nabokov's Lolita, too. It's also amusing to see Max -- who doesn't find his way back to poetry ... -- happily writing his book on V.S.Naipaul and Doris Lessing and telling himself (and Helen):
     'It's lit crit,' he said, 'but it's writing too. People don't think lit crit can be beautiful, but it can.'
       If some of the Paris parts can seem a bit forced -- Stead trying too hard to establish the novel there and convey a sense of the city -- it does capture the broader world and specifically its time -- 2014 -- very well (albeit from a narrow perspective of privilege and academia). The shifting relationships are captured quite well too -- odd though they are -- and suffice as scaffolding; what Stead enjoys most is the engagement with literature, in all its forms (looking also often to the authors behind the books, and how they are regarded and treated, such as Simenon not getting the Nobel, and Amis never winning the Booker Prize), and the novel is most enjoyable for that.
       Like Max, The Necessary Angel is amiable and pleasant. It's good fun -- especially if one likes fiction steeped in literature (with Stead's range a definite plus as well).

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 December 2023

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The Necessary Angel: Reviews: C.K.Stead: Other books by C.K.Stead under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       New Zealand writer Christian Karlson Stead was born in 1932. He taught at the University of Auckland and has written many works of fiction, poetry, and criticism.

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© 2023 the complete review

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