Why do novelists love affairs between professors and students?

Teacher-student affairs have captured the minds of many writers, among them David Mamet, Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, Christopher Isherwood, J M Coetzee, Zoë Heller, and Susan Choi. What is the fascination?

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Earlier this year, Colin McGinn, a philosophy professor at the University of Miami with a reputation for erudition and arrogance, resigned in disgrace. Accused of having an inappropriate relationship with one of his twentysomething grad students, he became the latest poster child for the hoary professor who makes advances on his young charges. A few voices – including the deliberately provocative but independent writer Katie Roiphe, and a colleague of McGinn’s who claimed he didn’t even like the guy –  came to his defense. According to McGinn’s defenders, e-mails and text messages exchanged between professor and student showed that the relationship (never consummated) had been affectionate and mutual until shortly before the end.

In other words, McGinn and his student were operating in a gray area – gray areas being anathema to college disciplinary committees, self-righteous commentators, and (naturally) parents everywhere. But they’re the very stuff of fiction. Because the dynamic of power and desire is so difficult to parse, teacher-student affairs have captured the minds of writers, among them David Mamet (Oleanna), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Philip Roth (The Dying Animal), Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man), J M Coetzee (Disgrace), Zoë Heller (Notes on a Scandal), and Susan Choi (My Education). The prospect of Robert Stone, winner of a National Book Award and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, adding his name to this list is appealing. What fearless take will the author of such muscularly bleak novels as Dog Soldiers and Damascus Gate, now a sage at 76, offer on our modern response to the intellectual/erotic dichotomy of the teacher and the prize student?

And yet Death of the Black-Haired Girl is a puzzling, dispiriting book. The relationship between student Maud Stack and English professor Steven Brookman is peripheral much of the time. The germination of the affair, which Brookman is attempting to end as the book starts, is never fully sketched. Instead, Maud’s and Brookman’s scenes are interspersed with passages from the perspectives of Maud’s counselor, her glamorous roommate, her aging father, a homicide police detective, and even Maud’s roommate’s Bible-thumping ex-husband. Halfway through, Maud dies, an event that is more dreary than devastating. (I give nothing away here, since it’s obvious from the first pages that she is the titular girl.) The rest of the novel concerns the investigation into her death, her father’s attempts to lay her to rest in a Catholic church that is ambivalent about accepting her remains, and the fate of Brookman, a compromised man who, despite some mental handwringing and a couple uncomfortable conversations with his wife, isn’t troubled enough by all that’s happened to be deeply interesting.

The character who does engender interest is, unlikely enough, Maud’s father, an alcoholic widower whiling away his last days in Queens. Eddie Stack once worked as a policeman but now spends his time trying to resist having a drink. He suffers from severe emphysema as well as the recognition that the women on whom he once turned a philandering eye now see him as a man who needs help getting up the stairs. He has largely failed the two women he cared most about: Maud and her late mother. In interviews, Stone has described his own affliction with emphysema, a humbling and debilitating disease, and the sections devoted to Eddie stand out. This broken man, determined to do something right after all he has done wrong, hobbles through the book gradually ennobled through his successive humiliations.

Death of the Black-Haired Girl is, at heart, a campus novel. That campus resembles Yale, at which Stone taught creative writing for a number of years. (In 1998, a Yale senior was stabbed to death and her thesis advisor fell under suspicion, an event that perhaps helped to inspire Stone’s tale.) As an alum, I can say that his descriptions of town-gown relations are incisively accurate. In a single paragraph, for example, he offers a history of physical access to the college from colonial years to the 1960s, when the college inaugurated a “Throwing Open of the Gates,” buoyed by the free spirit of the times. “What ensued, drug-wise, crime-wise and in terms of bitterness between the college and the town, was brief but ugly. The opening forth was followed by the locking up, down and sideways . . . and now there were three or four doors for everything – even clerks’ offices were secured, and elderly dons retired because they spent half their working days trying to distinguish in a dour economy of light which of the cards or keys on their chains opened their outermost office door, which the second, which the third and so on.”

Unfortunately, Stone doesn’t confine Death of the Black-Haired Girl to campus. His book is also, sporadically, a thriller, a meditation on aging, and a social novel. A key plot point is the publication of a school newspaper column in which Maud attacks abortion demonstrators. It’s regarded by everyone who knows her as dangerous, but the quoted excerpts are more silly than incendiary. Maud, observing that some babies are born hideously deformed, writes that they “are made in the image and likeness of the Great Imaginary Paperweight in the Vast Eternal Blue. It’s true that the Great Paperweight is also the Great Abortionist – a freeze-chilling twenty percent of the sparkly tykes he generates abort – but he don’t like some girl doin’ it.” The abortion controversy is old news that stays news, but the Catholic-tinted lens through which Maud’s ostensible transgressions are presented is dated. Though the book is set in the present day, I frequently had to remind myself that it didn’t take place decades ago.

That’s not only because of its political and religious overtones, but also because of the relationship between Maud and Brookman. Despite other characters’ assertions that she’s brilliant and possesses a power over men that leaves even the “alpha boys” on campus swooning at her feet, Maud comes off as damaged, habitually drunk, and occasionally deluded, a girl so lost that it’s difficult to absorb her absence as a loss. Whatever the nature of their relationship once was, by the time the book opens, the power between Maud and Brookman only flows one way. There can be none of the ambiguity of Oleanna or, perhaps, former philosophy professor McGinn’s case. Given Maud’s volatility, Brookman’s urge to extricate himself seems natural.

Reading Death of the Black-Haired Girl, I found it impossible not to think of James Salter’s latest novel, All That Is, about a World War II vet who becomes a book editor and takes up with a succession of women. Salter, one of the great prose stylists of the English language,  has always been a nostalgia artist, but, at age 88, he is obsessed with evoking  a time when men and women understood their respective places. In one scene, two men drinking at a private club discuss the women’s movement. Though presumably Salter means us to understand that they are speaking as men of their time, he leaves the impression that they’re speaking as some of the men of ours:

“They’re going to let them be members here, what’s your position on that? Probably not the good-looking ones, just the ones you avoid at parties. We’re in the middle of the woman thing. They want equality, in work, marriage, everywhere. They don’t want to be desired unless they feel like it.”

“Outrageous.”

“The thing is, they want a life like ours. We both can’t have a life like ours.”

To really break open Death of a Black-Haired Girl, Stone would have had to give Maud a more confident and intelligent voice than that of the girl who writes hysterical diatribes in the school newspaper. Perhaps a lot has changed on campus, but those dons fumbling with their keys still don’t seem prepared to confront, on truly equal terms, the women who streamed into their classrooms during the great Throwing Open of the Gates.

Sarah L Courteau is a writer living in the South Bronx. Her work has appeared in The Oxford American, the Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and elsewhere. Follow @slcourteau.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

 

Cate Blanchett and Andrew Simpson in the 2006 film adaptation of Zoë Heller's novel "Notes from a Scandal".
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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred