Fierce bliss, Jane Stafford

The Angel’s Cut
Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780864736000

In Elizabeth Knox’s 1998 novel The Vintner’s Luck an old French peasant from 19th century Burgundy who sees the angel Xas is carted off to the asylum; in its sequel The Angel’s Cut, set in 1930s Los Angeles, an inadvertent passer-by who comes across Xas in conversation with Lucifer looks around for the movie cameras. The celestial may be unvarying; local responses differ according to culture and expectation.

I have read, re-read, thought about, taught, and written about The Vintner’s Luck since it was first published. And yet I felt dismayed when I learnt that a sequel was forthcoming. It seemed to me the premise of The Vintner’s Luck – that, as W H Auden wrote, “Time watches from the shadow/And coughs when you would kiss”, illustrated so exactly by the love between the immortal angel and the human Sobran – precluded more. “I had to have you,” Xas says, “someone I could lose for ever.” Xas loves with the expectation that after Sobran’s life span (relatively short in the face of eternity), he will be eternally bereaved. How could that have a sequel?

I needn’t have worried. The Angel’s Cut is both consistent with the previous novel and entirely new. It maintains the character of Xas – sweet, grave, undogmatic, fallible but constant in what matters. It references and even at times expands on the preceding story and Xas’s love for Sobran. But it shifts to a setting which is utterly different, although it is still drawn with the confident economy that marked The Vintner’s Luck – not research-heavy but deftly evocative of climate, light and landscape, all newness and potential, a place on the point of growth not quite manifest. In The Vintner’s Luck one of the structural and symbolic principles was that of wine and wine making. In The Angel’s Cut it is the movies – the novel is divided into first, second and third reel with an intermission; the setting is that of the early film industry just at the point when talkies were introduced; the characters all work as directors, editors, entrepreneurs, actors, stunt men and women. As The Vintner’s Luck discreetly asked its readers to think about wine symbolism – terroir, cultivation, vintages, luck – so The Angel’s Cut asks us to think about the symbolic possibilities of film: story telling, illusion, the making of versions of reality, the manipulations of those responsible. Time is still a preoccupation: Flora McLeod, a film editor, “handles time”, looks for the best take – in her work and in life itself: “sometimes, when she was alone, she thought she could sense an alteration, as if in time itself, something like the soft click of a splice passing through the gate of her editing machine.” That alteration, Knox suggests, is connected with the presence of Xas, outside time.

At the centre of The Vintner’s Luck is a scene where Lucifer appears to simultaneously save and despoil Xas. In The Angel’s Cut the fallen archangel has a more sustained presence. He is a terrifying antagonist – the novel begins with a bravura description of his attack on Xas while the latter is suspended from a small basket beneath an airship. But he is also in some sense a companion, albeit a disturbing one. Xas, the contract signed by both God and Lucifer with the J-shaped scars on his back, is not just the link between the two, but the way in which Lucifer can still experience the presence of God. How does one characterise such a figure in a novel, and a realist novel at that? Lucifer himself is aware of the weight of convention. “I know you’ve immersed yourself in the local traditions,” he says to Flora, “but is it really necessary for you to go so far as to suppose I always lie?” Knox is aware of the danger of making Lucifer too terrible to register in relation to the human world into which he occasionally erupts, or too folksy to intimidate. “I should warn you,” he says, “that I have no sense of the ridiculous.” With the exactness and conciseness and creatively paradoxical way in which Knox deploys language, she describes him as “brilliant, and princely, and playful, and full of the malice of misery”.

Knox has always been interested in the damaged and the incomplete: The Vintner’s Luck described murder, insanity, and mutilation; in The Angel’s Cut, Flora, once a promising young movie actress, has been burnt in a freak accident and terribly scarred. Xas still carries the marks of his amputation and must hide his back from those around him – until he is forced to ask Lucifer to pluck the downy remnants of wings. Conrad Crow, a Howard Hughes simulacrum and Xas’s lover, himself deeply damaged, observes: “You had wings … You were some kind of angel. But now you’re a wreck. You’re salvage. You don’t belong to anyone.”

To read The Angel’s Cut is to be stunned by the precision and beauty and giddying riskiness of the writing, which can move with ease from the domestic details of a kitchen to a description of the gateway to Hell. It reminds us of how powerful the experience of reading can be, the extent to which it can transport us – which is ironic given that in Knox’s cosmology reading is an attribute of Hell, a place of:

corrosive air and light, its ceaselessly milling shadows – a motion wearying to the eye and the brain. [Xas] remembered how the fallen angels would shut themselves away and read, how they built all the time, like wasps, mixing mortar and shaping stones and piling them one upon another to make more room to house the books, to make shade and seclusion to house themselves in order to read the books … But in Heaven, where everyone was in bliss, even fierce archangels in fierce bliss, no one read.

 

Reading – and film-making – deal with copies and imitations, as does novel writing. They are products of the human and the mutable. But given the uncompromising purity of heaven – and its “fierce archangels in fierce bliss” – how preferable, The Angel’s Cut suggests, is hell and its dependency, earth.

 

Jane Stafford teaches in the English programme of Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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