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...
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