Theodore Swenson regrets his virtues. The protagonist of Francine Prose’s novel has been a popular creative writing professor for twenty years, but he has never – not once – slept with a student. Most of the time he attributes this to his love for his wife: ‘His marriage meant everything to him. That’s what he imagined telling admiring students if it ever came to that.’ Unfortunately, it never did come to that. In gloomier moods, Swenson knows he is simply ‘too stupid or timid or scared’ to elicit so much as an invitation to impropriety. This, after all, is the guy who ‘finds it trying to walk anywhere with a student’, to whom ‘conversation is tough enough when everyone stands in one place,’ and who shudders to think that ‘forward movement creates so many chances for awkward stalls and collisions, decisions about who goes first, right or left, mini-crises.’ This is Prufrock repackaged for the 21st-century college campus.
The author of nearly twenty books, among them 13 novels, Prose is frighteningly good at portraying the fears, affectations and self-delusions of her protagonists: the roles they play to sustain themselves, and the roles they play in front of others. At faculty dinners she tells us that ‘Swenson cherished those moments’ when people misunderstood his wife’s jokes, ‘for making him feel that he and Sherrie were still dangerous outsiders . . . Even after Ruby’ – their daughter – ‘was born, he and Sherrie still clung to that sense of being rebels, partners in crime passing for respectable citizens at nursery school Halloween parties.’ Swenson’s greatest crises of faith come about when someone he believes to be more conventional than he is expresses something he thinks as well. ‘Essentially that’s what Swenson thought, but it infuriates him to hear it from Arlene’ – his wife’s matronly and bourgeois colleague.
It is this sort of precise observation of people’s social responses – their secret vanities, compulsive self-doubt and mixed motives – that lends Prose’s work its intricacy and intensity. She shows us how interesting we are when we resist the temptation to airbrush our experience; how interesting other people are when we don’t caricature them.
Very little is caricatured in Blue Angel. Nearly everything is immediately observed, concrete, complicated and – after a moment’s surprise – bracingly familiar. Prose spurns the conventional representation of student-teacher sexual relationships. She isn’t interested in notions of the innocent, infantile female victim or in the stereotype of the Lecherous Professor, touted in the classic American sexual harassment handbook of that title, echoed in countless university policy statements, and supported by a flurry of recent novels. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace,for example, portrays a sex-starved manipulator in the role of professor and a passive lily as his student victim; Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal goes further and paints a boastful sexual predator for whom all women students are ‘meat’, all conversation is foreplay, and all love is lust. The protagonists of The Dying Animal and its predecessor, The Human Stain, insist that what they’re after is ‘sex . . . all by itself’, ‘the blind drive’. Their (and Roth’s) main purpose is ostensibly to free sex from its unfortunate entanglement with sentiment.
Swenson isn’t like that. When, ultimately, he does drift dangerously close to a student, he believes he is deeply in love – and in love, moreover, with her literary recommendations rather than with her secondary sexual characteristics, which initially revolt him. Angela Argo is a heavily pierced, neon-haired punk Paddington Bear who stumbles down the corridor and crashes remarkably often into Swenson’s office door. More important than her physical ‘irregularity’, though, is the fact that she takes the initiative in the relationship that ensues; it is the professor who proves to be – increasingly and even spookily – passive. Passive, and also divided, for unlike the Cheating Professor of myth, Swenson is neither out of love with his wife nor sexually desperate. In fact, he finds it painful to know something his wife does not – which, of course, is what happens when he falls for his Blue Angel, the rainbow-stained Angela.
A novelist’s job is not necessarily to be realistic – much less to represent the most-frequent-case scenario. That said, Prose’s account of a student-teacher affair strikes me as far more plausible than the version we find, and find again, in Roth and in the large body of monitory sexual harassment literature on campuses today. Where the Lecherous Professor of handbooks is a hackneyed, one-dimensional phantom, and Professor Kepesh of The Dying Animal is an idiosyncratic Rothian brainchild (this is the same guy who, in The Breast, an earlier Roth novel, turned into a mammary gland), Prose’s narrator is easy to identify with and to identify. Committed to ‘true love’ but trammelled in self-deception, well-intentioned but clumsy, not unhappy in his marriage, but often unhappy with himself (with all that that makes one susceptible to), he is someone every student knows.
So is Angela, despite her literary origin in Lola, the jazz singer who wreaks havoc in the life of the professor in Heinrich Mann’s Blue Angel. Ambitious and sexual, she has far more life than the pale Ophelias, intimidated by ‘power differentials’ between themselves and their professors, of whom we hear so much. And Prose contends, quite rightly, that ‘student-teacher attraction . . . is an occupational hazard.’ More than that, it is an occupational incentive for student and teacher alike – an ingredient without which higher education would be anaemic. ‘Over the years, plenty of students have had crushes on Swenson,’ Prose tells us. No matter that neither they nor he acted on these crushes: ‘there’s something erotic about the act of teaching, all that information streaming back and forth like some . . . bodily fluid. Doesn’t Genesis trace sex to that first bite of apple, not the fruit from just any tree, but the Tree of Knowledge?’
Unlike Eve, however, the girls who have nurtured an attraction for Swenson did not get expelled from Paradise: on the contrary, ‘those students worked harder and learned more.’ For his part, Swenson ‘read Miss A.’s paper first’ and ‘looked to see if Miss B. got his joke . . . So what?’ More likely than not, the whole class benefited from his improved jokes and heightened enthusiasm. Erotic chemistry does not compromise pedagogy so much as it charges and vitalises it. The best students have always fallen in love with their teachers, and the best teachers have always been enthralled, in various ways, by their students. This is not to imply that their affection was – or should be – articulated, much less consummated, or even reciprocated. But it gives an edge to their pedagogy, juice to their theory. And sometimes of course it has been articulated. Socrates embraced Agathon (among others), Abelard made love with Heloïse in the convent cafeteria, Rodin seduced Camille Claudel, Heidegger courted Arendt, Verlaine loved Rimbaud. Should these relationships have been prevented? Should we forbid them in the future? The more we try, of course, the more tantalising they become. Just as the campus harassment police in the US was starting to think it had its target nailed, a new school of novels has appeared. These are the dirty American stepchildren of the English campus novel of the 1980s, fascinated with university harassment – in other words, with teacher-student (or teacher-staff) romance. Not only Roth and Coetzee, but John L’Heureux with The Handmaid of Desire, Charles Baxter with A Feast of Love and Tim O’Brien with Tomcat in Love. Even Angela Argo is writing a novel about a teacher-student affair. She is writing it for Swenson’s class. And as she writes it, she lives it, art preceding life.
It is often ‘in the love that vainly yearns from behind prison bars that we have . . . the love supreme’ – as St Exupéry said. Most of us don’t elope with our instructors or pupils. It would be a colossal waste of energy, among other things – energy far better funnelled into appropriating our instructors’ intellectual enthusiasms. And this is where it usually is funnelled. Except on the rare occasions that it spills – in which case, to be sure, we have a bit of a mess. Certainly Swenson has a mess: but not an uninteresting one. Faced with the unforeseen consequences of his actions, he summons a courage we could not have foreseen. He doesn’t disappear on request, but thrusts his sullied self in the face of his accusers. Prose has said that she is intrigued by self-destructive personalities, and maybe we should see Swenson as self-destructive, but maybe we should see him as defiant and darkly hopeful. Maybe we should think of him as having dared to eat a peach.