Blue Angel

By Jack Hafferkamp

One of the pleasures of bookstore browsing is finding unexpected treats on the remainders table. That’s how I found this funny, thoughtful, provocative novel by Francine Prose, author of at least 10 other novels.

It’s not for no reason that Blue Angel’s title reminds one of the famous Josef Von Sternberg film of sexual humiliation from1930 starring Marlena Dietrich and Emil Jannings. This novel is an update of the story of a German professor’s fall from grace through his weirdly powerful attraction to Dietrich’s Lola Lola character.

Prose’s version of the story is a wry twist on the current campus climate that has seen the legitimate issue of sexual harassment turn into Medusa’s snake pit, a place where events are turned on their heads in the name of political correctness, and university administrators cower in fear of losing paying students, endowment gifts and questionable court cases.

In this Blue Angel, Ted Swenson is a hapless novelist and literature professor whose own inability to create literature leads him to an infatuation with a female student’s apparent talent. His impulse to feed that talent by befriending the clumsy, misfit student leads him, eyes wide shut, into a spiral that loses him his tenure, his wife, his daughter and, essentially, his life.

Swenson’s mistake isn’t that he almost had sex with the student, inexcusable as that may be, but that he falls so easily into her trap. The ambitious, unstable student uses Ted Swenson like a protein bar; she chews him up and spits him out, batting her eyes, leading him on and using a system that is so stacked against Swenson that when her accusations are made poor Swenson hasn’t a chance.

What I most like about this well-told tale, is the way Prose juxtaposes her two characters, clearly delineating the vulnerabilities of honored, tenured professor and the power of the seemingly vulnerable student. Things are not quite what they seem at venerable Euston College, but the administration, whipped into submission by fears of harassment lawsuits, has no interest in supporting Professor Swenson in his crisis. When the going gets tough, he is abandoned as if he had a disease, and they dote on the student as if she were the victim. His humiliation is complete.

That’s what makes Blue Angel the kind of read that is both fun and harrowing. In this Blue Angel, as in so much of life in academia, the truth is secondary to appearances, and when there is a clash between them, woe to the truth.

And for us readers, the good news about being on the remainders table is that you can find it marked way down from the original $25 price., for example, is offering it for $11.20. I’d say that’s a steal.

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Blue Angel, by Francine Prose (HarperCollins, 2000. ISBN: 0-06-019541-X/) 314 pages hardcover. $25

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