“What is this sick Dostoyevskian craving for punishment and expiation?”
There’s a bit of a back story to Blue Angel by Francine Prose. A professor friend of mine recommended the book to me in 2000, and so I bought a copy, read it and loved it. That year I sent copies of the book for Xmas to friends. I was a bit mystified that it subsequently received mixed reviews–especially since I was sure that this was the sort of book they’d enjoy.
Fast forward to 2010. I was in the mood for a character-driven novel–nothing too esoteric. Then I saw Blue Angel sitting on the shelf and decided it was the perfect time to re-read this book. I have a weakness for stories in academic settings, and I also tend to enjoy the fictional foibles of the rogue male. Blue Angel contains both of those aspects. Add the Marlene Dietrich classic film into the mix, and the result is the story of a middle-aged professor who’s stagnating in a dull job in a third-rate university.
When the book begins, the new academic year has just started at New England’s small Euston College. Euston isn’t a first-rate institution by any stretch of the imagination, but it does have its selling points. One of the selling points is its size, along with the idea that students will not get lost in the anonymous mob. There’s also an unspoken notion that the campus offers safety that is absent in larger, prominent or city universities. These are benefits that students, parents and even faculty can assuage themselves with whenever they have the nagging feeling that Euston is a third-rate dump stuck in the backwater. Euston even boasts Dean Bentham, imported from Britain to spruce up the university’s flagging image and to provide a veneer of confidence in both the rigour of instruction and in the ethics of its staff.
This year, however, there’s a new atmosphere on the Euston campus. A neighbouring campus is alight with “grotesqueries” —accusations of sexual harassment, and Euston’s Dean Bentham calls a meeting to discuss the university’s sexual harassment policy. The policy’s major point, of course, is that “No Euston College faculty member shall have sexual relations with a currently enrolled or former student, nor offer to trade sexual favours for academic achievement.” This is all fairly straightforward, but creative writing professor Swenson ruminates during the staff meeting:
“All right. They can agree to that, so long as it’s not retroactive. In the old days, undergraduate paramours were a perk that went with the job. But already Bentham has moved from these clear prohibitions–as simple and as hard to obey as the ten commandments–into the fuzzy area of the hostile workplace, the atmosphere of intimidation.”
Swenson is bored and occasionally amused by the new tension and talk of sexual harassment at Euston. He refuses to take it seriously, and this is partially due to the fact that he doesn’t really think the policy applies to him. While he sees “teacher-student attraction as an occupational hazard” he’s never had a sexual relationship with a student–although the same cannot be said of most of his colleagues, some of whom were notorious predators.
Before taking the job at Euston, Swenson wrote two novels, and the job appeared to offer the security and the free time to work on his next novel. But things haven’t worked out that way, and Swenson’s work-in-progress, The Black and the Black is two years over deadline. The novel, which sounds horribly pretentious, “recasts Stendhal’s Julian Sorel as a young sculptor, the son of a martyred Black Panther dad and a Social register mom” Swenson no longer wants to discuss his book with anyone–including his publisher–and instead he hides in his office at home and thinks about writing.
This is a particularly difficult semester for Swenson, and it doesn’t help that his students seem determined to write stories that push the envelope when it comes to descriptions of sex. A creative writing class (for those who’ve ever taken one or taught one) is a very peculiar environment. Students tend to reveal more than they would in other classes, and this is, of course, done mainly through their writing. What is not autobiographical is often assumed to be so by other students in the class. Friendships and alliances are formed between students, and the microcosm of teacher-student politics becomes a veritable minefield of ego, sensitivity, and carefully couched criticism. Student writing, which is sometimes crap, is subject to the tortures of peer review. The professors are in the awkward position of encouraging talentless students to improve their writing while also trying to spare them the honesty of cutting comments from the more outspoken students. Several excellent scenes in the book depict Swenson in the classroom as he tries to juggle constructive criticism with horribly clichéd and poorly written stories. The class peer review system seems to have little to do with the material at hand, and appears to be much more influenced by classroom politics. Here’s Swenson struggling to conduct one class:
“He’d dragged in Chekhov to tell the class that the writer need not paint a picture of an ideal world, but only describe the actual world, without sermons, without judgement. As if his students give a shit about some dead Russian that Swenson ritually exhumes to support his loser opinions. And yet just mentioning Chekov made Swenson feel less alone, as if he were being watched over by a saint who wouldn’t judge him for the criminal fraud of pretending that these kids could be taught what Swenson’s pretending to teach them. Chekhov would see into his heart and know that he sincerely wished he could give his students what they wanted: talent fame, money, a job.”
One of Blue Angel‘s many ironies is that Swenson is employed to teach writing, but he can no longer put an adequate sentence together. Does that make him a fraud? Well yes in a way, but then again he’s a fraud about quite a few things. Swenson’s life comes grinding to a halt when he begins to read sections of a novel written by Angela Argo, a pierced “leather-jacketed toothpick” in his creative writing class.
Blue Angel isn’t perfect, but for those who enjoy novels in academic settings, it’s really an excellent read. None of the characters are at all likeable, a horrible lot really, and this is an issue that bothers some readers. Not me obviously. Author Francine Prose shows considerable skill when it comes to skewering academia, English departments and their inhabitants. Here the ego of the professor/writer is under the microscope, and there’s a certain nasty streak, a cruelty at play within this tale that somehow complements its main characters.