Interview: C.K. Stead talks about The Necessary Angel
C.K. Stead is a distinguished, award-winning novelist, literary critic, poet, essayist and emeritus professor of English of the University of Auckland. He is the current New Zealand Poet Laureate (until August 2017), has won the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, and is a Member of the Order of New Zealand, the highest honour possible in New Zealand. His 2016 short story collection The Name on the Door is Not Mine (Allen & Unwin) was shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He talks to NZ Booklovers about The Necessary Angel.
Tell us a little about The Necessary Angel.
It’s a novel about people who are deeply involved in the book world – most of the main characters teach or study at the Sorbonne in Paris, though the central character, Max Jackson, is New Zealand-born and possibly feeling rather trapped there by marriage to a senior French professor and their two children. The marriage is shaky and he has been relegated to a downstairs apartment, where he’s not sure whether he is relishing the new freedom, or regretting it. Meanwhile he is deeply attracted to a younger French colleague, Sylvie Renard, (he is in his mid-40s) and at the same time his intellectual interest is engaged by a British student who is a word-obsessed poetry freak who tells him she is bi-polar. The story develops around these characters.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve always loved Paris (though I don’t know it nearly as well as I know London) and I was there at a conference in midsummer 2014 and attended a dinner which sets the scene for the beginning of the novel. It’s a story about book-lovers/readers – a perfect choice for book groups, who could read the novel itself and then, one by one, all the books that are referred to in the course of the narrative. The story involves a valuable painting, thought to be by Cezanne, which goes missing. Has it been stolen by the owner’s jealous relatives, who thought they should have inherited it; or by the strange British student (the bi-polar one) who may have had access to it; or simply greedy thieves who will demand a ransom?
What research was involved?
Visits (and re-visits) to Paris mainly, together with some close and careful enquiries into the Sorbonne university (I have a spy there), how it works, which is rather arcane, and what it looks like inside. I like to get detail right and feel confident that no reader will say ‘He’s got this item or this incident wrong!’ The human story comes out of my own knowledge and instincts about how humans behave and interact; but the external detail is important – so this was rather like the preparation for my previous novel, Risk, which gave an accurate (I hope) picture of the London Banking world at the time of the 2007-8 collapse.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
I wrote part of it, then seemed to lose the narrative line, and so I reworked that part to give me a new story for my collection The Name on the Door is not Mine. But then the process of extracting the story showed me where I needed to go with it to make it the novel I had first embarked on; so part of it exists in the story collection, but now it emerges as the novel it was meant to be!
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
French obviously – so Edith Piaf (especially ‘Je ne regrette rien’); Joe Dassin’s ‘Aux Champs Elysees’; JacquesDutronc’s ‘Il est cinq heures, Paris s’eveille’; anything by Jacques Brel. But I would also want the Kurt Weill song, ‘Autumn leaves’; and maybe Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both sides now’.
If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?
If the movie stuck to the book and he was a New Zealander it could be Cliff Curtis. That would be good because it would add a Maori element that’s not there – or not specified – in the novel. There’s no reason at all why Max Jackson should not be Maori.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
The pleasures and pains of writing fiction are all to do with the days when it goes well and the days when it doesn’t. But I have to say one of the things I especially enjoyed in this one was the dialogue. Dialogue in fiction can be so banal, just an author on auto-pilot, or it can be sharp and fresh and tell you so much indirectly; and I feel the dialogue in The Necessary Angel is clever and engaging, the implications often subtle and oblique. Also I enjoyed seeing the foreground events against the background of what was actually happening in Paris from midsummer 2014 to January 2015 – the period the novel covers. The characters are obsessed with books, with teaching, and with their relations with one another; but out there in the wider world terrible things are happening – the murders, and even public executions, committed by ISIS; poverty and homelessness; and finally the CharlieHebdo murders and the huge ‘Je suis Charlie’ march of solidarity in January 2015. I also enjoyed revealing the inner workings of the mind of Max Jackson’s young colleague, Sylvie Renard, who has absorbed the latest scientific revelations, that our solar system has a ‘use by date’, and feels this is something not known to the great writers and thinkers of the past, and that consequently it requires a whole new view of the human experiment – and that it excuses her purchase of expensive shoes and a beautiful silk scarf for a visit to the Opera! Her thinking about this you might say is frivolous – but it’s not stupid and not illogical. Hers is one kind of original mind; Helen White’s (the bi-polar one) is another, and quite different. She escapes constantly into words, language, the run of remembered poems. She is half in love with Max Jackson, but believes he is in love with Sylvie Renard, and must in the end escape back to her boyfriend Hugh Pennington (‘houseboat Hugh’) in Oxford. Meanwhile Max’s wife Louise, the distinguished professor, is completing her new edition of Flaubert’s classic novel, Sentimental Education, which has a lot to say about the wisdom of ‘falling in love’. These three women revolve around Max, or perhaps I should say he floats between or among them, a not untypical Stead principal character, intelligently bewildered.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
Out to a good dinner with Kay.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I re-read Dickens’s Little Dorrit and loved it. It has some of the bad Dickens qualities – Little Dorrit herself is at time excessively and intolerably virtuous; but the writing has such energy, it just gives you, as a writer, such a kick along – and there are such good jokes in Dickens. You can feel him laughing as he writes. I read James K. Baxter’s only novel, a very short one called Horse (not recommended); and I am currently reading Driving to Treblinka, Diana Wichtel’s brilliant and moving account of her enquiry into what became of her father, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
A short rest and then I think a new collection of poems. There are many written and ready for re-consideration, revision, sorting and arranging into a book.