Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1727
Francine Prose is an American novelist and short-story writer whose subject matter has included a sixteenth century troupe of commedia dell’arte players (The Glorious Ones, 1974), a nineteenth century mulatto mystic and healer (Marie Laveau, 1977), a Yiddish stage star from the 1920’s (Hungry Hearts, 1983), a nineteenth century practitioner of animal magnetism (Animal Magnetism, 1978), and a thirty-seven-year-old female tabloid reporter (Bigfoot Dreams, 1986). Despite the obvious and radical surface differences of subject matter in her novels, several important themes recur in most of her works: the difficulties of separating fact from fiction, appearance from reality, and art from life. These same themes are at the heart of Prose’s novel Blue Angel, a modern update of a very old story.
The basic plot line and title of Blue Angel are clearly and lovingly derived from the 1930 film in which Marlene Dietrich plays Lola Lola, a cruel femme fatale who takes great pleasure in mining and humiliating pathetic old Herr Professor Rath. The film treatment was not itself original but was appropriated from Heinrich Mann’s earlier novel entitled Professor Unrat. Like Shakespeare and many other fine writers, Prose takes her stories where she finds them, but enriches them with her contemporary concerns, her sharp powers of observation, her unadorned prose style, and her somewhat magical sensibility. While the reader knows from the first line of the book that the protagonist, Swenson, is a professor slated for doom, the nature and character of that doom are revealed in terms that are both contemporary and original.
Theodore (Ted) Swenson is a creative writing teacher at Euston College in Vermont, a second-tier school whose students have parents who are rich or who know how to work the system of minority grievances. He is twenty years into a teaching career that has become increasingly onerous because of the deteriorating skills of his students, the internecine squabbles of a small and isolated faculty, the draconian effects of a climate of political correctness on campus, and the nagging frustration of knowing that his own creative juices are being bled away in the endless short-story seminars that occupy his time but not his intellect. He is, even by his own account, happily married to a perfect wife: a Sicilian beauty, college nurse, and prodigious cook. He has never once had even the slightest dalliance with a student, though like all faculty he has had his opportunities. It is only after his college begins to educate the faculty about sexual harassment in an attempt to preempt any lawsuits that he begins to wonder, in a desultory way, why not? Just as his mind is playing devil’s advocate, an actual temptress throws herself into the path of his blossoming midlife crisis.
There is nothing obvious about Swenson’s choice of obsessive love object. He does not fall for his creative writing student Claris Williams, with her statuesque model’s poise and beauty. He is not, in fact, a salacious old man simply lusting after young flesh. He falls, slowly, imperceptibly even to himself, into a trap carefully laid for him, or not, by Angela Argo. Angela, whose school attire is “pure sci-fi,” whose favorite book is Jane Eyre, whose writing style is both unnerving and compelling, seduces him with installment after installment of her own novel-in-progress, “Eggs.” “Eggs” is, ironically enough, a novel about a young girl who has an enormous crush on her high school music teacher. It is one of the wonders of Prose’s writing that she has been able to give this novel-within-a-novel its own distinctive voice, a voice so powerful that it halfway seduces the reader of Blue Angel as well.
Swenson knows, yet does not know, that he is on a slippery slope that could be called the Blue Angel syndrome. His involvement with Angela begins with small concessions: He invites her to his office for a conference; he reads her novel outside the rubric of his seminar; he excuses her from the scrutiny of her cretinous peers; he gives her his home phone number. He starts to think about her constantly. He can’t wait for the next installment of her novel, which becomes more graphic and apropos, in places even cannibalizing the details of his own life and earlier literary efforts. He acts out at a faculty party where the topic of sexual harassment is raised, creating one of many situations that come back to haunt him later. He does not confide in his wife. He knows he is in profound trouble, but he is feeling so powerfully alive, and that feeling overshadows his common sense, his fear of censure, and his love for his wife.
Swenson at this point could still save himself. Words and thoughts are not deeds. The reader wants to shout to him, “Don’t go in there,” as if he were the hapless couple about to enter the haunted house, when Angela invites him up to her dorm room, ostensibly to hook up her new computer. What he knows about computers is only slightly less useful than what he knows about Angela, and his naïveté ultimately is his downfall. He and Angela are only in the room for a few minutes when she pushes him onto her single dorm bed, and, with shockingly little foreplay, changes the nature of their relationship, and Swenson’s future, forever. The only thing that keeps Swenson from fully consummating this illicit affair is a tooth that breaks inopportunely. With characteristic humor, Prose describes his plight: “How middle-aged, how pathetic to be unmasked as a geriatric case with emergency dental problems!” On leaving, he discovers that Angela had locked the door to her dorm room. Her forethought unnerves him.
Swenson is jangled, confused, and wondering what it all means when Angela cuts to the chase and asks him to give her novel to Len Currie, his New York agent. Having not much to show for his own writing, and unsure whether this request is a lover’s favor or an attempt at blackmail, he consents. Predictably, Mr. Currie declines to look at student prose, and, to make matters worse, Swenson leaves Angela’s manuscript on the seat of the posh New York restaurant where writers and their agents meet. On his return to Euston, Swenson has an uncomfortable confrontation with Angela, which she surreptitiously tapes, and which leaves him more confused than ever about the exact nature of their “relationship.”
Swenson does not have to wait long, however, to find out where he stands. He is called to the office of Francis Bentham, president of Euston College, where he discovers that Angela has brought sexual harassment charges against him, alleging that he used his power to further her career as a novelist in order to coerce her into a sexual liaison. Knowing that he should quietly resign, he decides to go ahead with a hearing that is reminiscent of the Salem witch trials. The evidence against him is strong, though all circumstantial and not entirely true. With the backing of the Women’s Alliance, Angela exchanges her leather and piercings for khakis and a preppy red sweater. Her hair goes from green to auburn. She transforms herself into the classic female student victim, parents loyally at her side, while a parade of witnesses comes forward to damn Swenson with their petty dislikes. The campus librarian testifies that he has checked out a self-published book of Angela’s erotic poems about her experiences as a phone sex worker, and, even worse, returned it late. His colleagues recall his outré comments at Bentham’s faculty party. Students whom he has criticized in class come to critique him in turn. The school nurse says that Angela has been repeatedly seen for depression and suicidal thoughts. It is not a trial. No one is cross-examined. The outcome is a foregone conclusion: Swenson is a dangerous sexual predator who has to be removed to keep the college safe. During the trial, Swenson is overcome by the need to look Angela in the eyes to ask her what really happened between them.
Swenson is predictably destroyed, or is he? True, he has lost his job and his scholarly reputation. True, his charming and mature wife has left him. True, he will never really know what happened between him and Angela; was there ever a spark of affection, mutual attraction, or at least literary respect? True, it is hard to discern if he has been more Humbert Humbert or Herr Professor Rath. As he walks away from the hearing, the campus has never looked so beautiful, the bells have never rung so sonorously, and the impossibility of knowing the complete truth has never been such a relief. He has an encounter with a young doe on the edge of his path, and he is unaccountably filled with intimations of hope, possibility, and perhaps even forgiveness. This is not the unmitigated tragedy that the reader was led to expect. This is, in the end, a different and more modern version of the Blue Angel saga.
Whereas the original novel is a black-and-white story of a man’s degradation at the hands of an almost-sadistic paramour, Prose is more interested in the ambiguity of human encounters, the gray areas of human experience. Her Blue Angel asks hard questions about motivation, intent, and responsibility. It wonders aloud about whether art imitates life or life imitates art. By letting Swenson tell his own story in the first person, the same technique Vladimir Nabokov used so successfully to make Humbert Humbert a quasi-sympathetic character in Lolita(1955), the reader is forced to imagine a situation in which a teacher might have a sexual encounter with a student and be a fool, but perhaps not a monster; in which people’s personal appearances hide as much as they reveal; in which happiness might be construed in terms of freedom rather than comfort; in which a teacher might lust after a student’s fine mind rather than her body; in which the allure of art might be more seductive than sex; and, ultimately, in which human relationships might be more complex than what any scholastic sexual harassment tribunal could ever hope to ferret out.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (April 15, 2000): 1525.
Library Journal 125 (February 1, 2000): 118.
National Review 52 (May 22, 2000): 73.
New York 34 (March 27, 2000): 143.
The New York Times Book Review 149 (April 16, 2000): 12.
Newsweek 135 (April 3, 2000): 80.
Publishers Weekly 247 (February 14, 2000): 170.
Time 155 (April 10, 2000): 132.
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