I recently read an article in the LRB about brothers Heinrich and Thomas Mann. By the article’s conclusion, I’d decided that of the two brothers, I would have much preferred the company of Heinrich, and after deciding that, I realised it was time I picked up The Blue Angel–a novel I’d hoped to read during German literature month. I’ve seen the Marlene Dietrich film, of course, and while the film which made Dietrich an international star is marvellous, the novel pokes fun at the hypocrisy of German bourgeois society and is wickedly delightful and funny.
The Blue Angel, originally titled Professor Unrat, was published in 1905. According to von Sternberg’s memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, literally translated Unrat “is the equivalent of filth, garbage, or excrement.” In the German edition, the main character is Raat, but in English version, the main character is Professor Mut nicknamed Mud by his students. As Mann notes, “teachers were all given nicknames,” but in this case, the nickname is a “joke” which has spread outside of the classroom and is used by Mut’s colleagues and also the townspeople.
Professor Mut teaches at a boy’s school in an unnamed backwater town. He’s a widower (unlike the film version in which he’s portrayed as a bachelor), and estranged from his son who insists on keeping “bad company” with women of “doubtful character.” Mut has taught at the school for decades, and generations of the same families have passed through his hands.
The events of the school life seemed to old Mud as serious as anything in later life, laziness was to him equivalent to the worthlessness of a ne’er-do-well and disrespectful laughing at a master was a revolt against authority and law, while a boy letting off a squib was perpetrating an act of revolution, and an attempt to cheat meant a ruined future. Such things were life to Old Mud; when he sent any boy out of the room, he was as proud of it as a detective might be who sends a batch of criminals to gaol, but he felt both triumph and grief, as if he knew he had brought his highest powers to bear upon the matter and yet–as if he felt a secret dread that something gnawed at the roots of his being.
As the generations pass through his classroom, Old Mud has become an institutional joke. He’s aware of the fact that he’s the object of ridicule, and that’s precisely why he takes his disciplinary actions and observations of the boys’ bad character traits so seriously. It’s a way of simultaneously denying his impotence and, in his mind, predicting their futures (an “evil fate“) while inflating his role by detecting their theoretically insurmountable flaws. At the worst of times, teaching has a stagnation quality to it–the Professor sits behind the desk year after year as a steady stream of pupils pass through. They eventually leave the classroom forever and pass into adulthood. Some will fail, but some will go on to splendid careers, and some of Mut’s own mediocrity chafes at his subconscious and shapes his treatment of the pupils. In Mut’s malicious eyes “everywhere he saw unruly, depraved boys,” who need to be punished and learn discipline, but of course, they are just normal rowdy schoolboys–no better or worse than any others.
The professor’s Bête Noire, “the worst of them all,” is the schoolboy named Lohmann–a rather cool customer who comes from an affluent family. There’s a component of envy to Mut’s loathing of Lohmann, and he silently rages that he is “so badly paid that a well-dressed cub of that sort, with money in his pocket, thought he could swagger and strut in front of his betters.” Lohmann, who’s probably the most intelligent boy in the class, is above Mud’s petty rages, and when Lohmann doesn’t respond to Mut’s rants, the situation is only exacerbated.
Old Mud hated Lohmann even more than the others, chiefly because of his insubordination, and almost as much because Lohmann did not use his nickname, for he felt vaguely that he thought of him by an even worse one. Lohmann met the old man’s hate with quiet contempt, and even a spice of pity was apparent in his disgust.
Mud discovers that his pupils are hanging around a club called The Blue Angel and are ardent admirers of a, “actress woman” called Rosa Frölich. Mud decides he needs to “interfere,” and of course this is partially motivated by his desire to catch the pupils at any perceived bad behaviour but also perhaps there’s a little sublimated and misplaced parenting afoot. After all, the professor’s own son gambles and runs around with women of ill-repute, so while he can no longer curtail his son’s behaviour perhaps on some level he derives a displaced satisfaction from nipping youthful corruption in its first throes of iniquity.
Mut’s excited and expectant initial storming of the club soon finds him as part of the audience watching the entertainers. He watches a singer performing a titillating number as she “lift[s] her frock and with a sly pretence of bashfulness cover her face with it“ and sings, “I’m such an innocent little thing.” The Professor becomes angry:
He grew angry again, feeling himself imprisoned in this world which seemed the negation of himself, and a contempt rose from his innermost heart for these men who did not read, but went to a concert without even running through the programme. It irritated him to think that there must be over a hundred people gathered here, who observed nothing, thought of nothing clearly and spoke of intimate things openly and without shame.
Rosa thinks very little of the Professor’s moral quest, and when he threatens her, she responds aggressively. The Professor has never met anyone quite like the slovenly, sexually liberated singer, and he suddenly finds himself outmaneuvered.
The force of her personality seemed to imprison his thoughts, driving them down to some innermost place where even he himself could not distinguish them. He stared at her; this was no naughty schoolboy, disobedient and meet for punishment, as were to him the inhabitants of the little town. No, this was something new. He managed to collect the gist of what she had been saying and weighed it in his mind; he found it confusing. She was a new experience and she seemed utterly indifferent to him. He did not know how to answer her and something began to stir in him–a certain respect for her.
The Professor becomes obsessed with Rosa, and sacrificing all for her, he makes Rosa his wife ….
If you’ve seen Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, then it’s around the point of the marriage that the film begins to differ significantly from the novel. The film is tragic, but the book is really quite funny as Mut and his wife, sink into a “regrettable mode of life.” After the Professor marries Rosa and leaves his former employment–which to a great extent formed his identity–Mut should become the town laughing-stock, but something else much more twisted occurs. It would seem that Mut has finally discovered a way of exacting revenge on his former pupils and thereby he sows the seeds of his own destruction.
Hate and love worked upon one another, dangerously inflammable. He was haunted by the delectable vision of mankind at his feet begging for mercy; of the town, shattered and laid waste; one mass of gold and blood running molten to grey, burnt out ashes. But then he would be seized with the thought of Rosa loved by others, and the vision of her in their arms suffocated him. And they all showed the face of Lohmann! The worst, the most hated, most deserving of hate was always–Lohmann! The boy he had never been able to “catch” and who had now left the town.
A note on my copy which is published by Howard Fertig and is a reprint of the 1932 edition published by Jarrolds. My copy makes no mention of the translator–although I discovered that Ernest Boyd translated the novel as Small Town Tyrant in 1905. My edition has strange little curlicues over some of the letters ‘s’ and ‘c’.