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The Philandering Professor

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Andersen/Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Robert Stone, Saint-Malo, France, 2004

Novels about middle-aged male college professors brought low by love affairs with their female students are so numerous, by now, as to constitute a genre of their own. That there can be an erotic dimension to the teacher–student relationship is not exactly news—just look at Socrates and Alcibiades; and that such relationships can be perilous, Abelard and Heloise testify graphically. But when we look at characters like David Lurie, in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace; Mickey Sabbath, in Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater; Lawrence Miller, in James Lasdun’s The Horned Man; or Howard Belsey, in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, it becomes clear that in the last twenty years or so the professor who sleeps with his students has exerted a special fascination on our best writers.

That fascination is, if anything, overdetermined. It makes perfect sense that when many writers spend their careers as college professors, they will end up making professors their protagonists. And the movement of creative writers into the academy happened to coincide with a sea change in sexual mores. Just as college students were becoming completely sexually liberated—as parietal rules gave way to the culture of “hooking up” luridly documented in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons—the old-fashioned tolerance for predatory professors was disappearing. In particular, where some male teachers once felt that they possessed a kind of droit du seigneur over their female students, today’s colleges strictly forbid such relationships. As a result, teacher–student affairs may now be the only sexual relationships that still carry the social stigma once attached to adultery; and adultery has always been one of the novel’s favorite themes.

Steven Brookman, the professor in love with the titular girl in Robert Stone’s new novel, is reminded of this new dispensation by his dean:

It’s an age of transition, isn’t it? The old arrangements fall before the new arrangements. That which was unspeakable may thrive and is blessed. That which was tolerated is an abomination. We’ve been living it. The fine old shit don’t float.

That the shit has stopped floating is unquestionably progress. But every progress has its casualties, and as the novelists have shown us, the philandering professor, unable to reconcile his desires with his redefined responsibilities, is one of these.

In life, when a teacher sexually exploits a student and is punished for it, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the culprit. But the best novels about teacher–student affairs dramatize the irony that, when it comes to love and sex, it is very difficult to recognize when we are victimizing another person, since in the face of our own desires we always feel that we are the victims. Lasdun’s The Horned Man makes a neat parable of this situation: Lawrence Miller grows increasingly terrified by the evidence of rapes and murders that, it turns out, he himself has committed, in another side of his split personality. In a more realistic vein, Zadie Smith asks us to pity and laugh at the all-too-human confusion and weakness that allow Howard Belsey, a pompous art historian, to fall into bed with one of his students. Perhaps only Roth’s Mickey Sabbath is presented as an impenitent sinner: his epically explicit phone-sex talk with a student, transcribed at length in the novel, is a kind of filthy poem, another of his acts of life-affirming transgression.

Compared to Miller or Sabbath, Steven Brookman is a respectable kind of seducer. Most novels about teacher–student affairs find something questionable, even corrupt, at the heart of the relationship, but when Brookman examines his motives for loving Maud Stack, his beautiful, brilliant student, he finds no trace of exploitation, no enjoyment of his power over someone who is vulnerable and dependent. Certainly Brookman is not a serial seducer of his students: “He had indeed dallied with faculty wives, but Maud, with whom he had quite fallen in love, was his first and only student lover and in that regard a violation of his principles.” Instead, Stone writes, he is wholly moved by Maud’s loveliness, which naturally demands love: “Maud’s youth, unquietness, intelligence, passion and lack of judgment were irresistible to him.” At most, he convicts himself of an excess of desire: “He had no excuse but greed.”

Indeed, everything about Maud—from her name, which evokes Tennyson (“Come into the garden, Maud, for the black bat, night, has flown” is actually quoted in the novel), to her poetic description as “the black-haired girl”—makes her seem more like a figure out of a folk legend than a three-dimensional novelistic character. (It’s notable that while Brookman is always referred to by his last name, she is always “Maud.”) “Maud’s hair was silky and black as could be; it dazzled against her pale skin, high color and her bluest of eyes,” Stone writes, in tones that evoke Yeats on yet another Maud, the unrequiting Maud Gonne.

The dangerous, potentially explosive force in this romance comes less from the difference in the lovers’ ages and status, less even from the fact that Brookman is married, than from the lawlessness of Maud’s sexuality. Female desire, as Stone portrays it, is something both lyrical and terrifying, which might well end up devouring its object:

“I love you,” she said. “I love your brains and cock and knees and eyes. I love your hokey dipshit tattoos. I don’t scare and you don’t scare, but I’m shit terrified that I so adore your bones, Professor Brookman. Aren’t you scared of loving me?”

This is not how any living college-age American talks, but Stone is not interested in realism. He is creating a desperate, fateful mood, and Brookman responds in kind: “You’re a little tart. A little Kerry gallows bird of an outlaw. Maybe we’ll swing on a rope in the rain for each other.” For another novelist, this kind of self-aggrandizing talk might function as a way of showing how Brookman, caught in a sordid, conventional kind of adultery, is trying to puff himself up, to lend a mythic grandeur to his predicament. He talks as if they were a combination of Tristan and Isolde with Bonnie and Clyde.

Stone, however, is not the kind of writer who satirizes his characters or cuts them down to size, and he means us to take this stark poetry at face value; starting with the title, Death of the Black-Haired Girl is a chronicle of a death foretold. Fate begins to close in when Brookman, who has learned that his wife Elsa is pregnant with their second child, decides that he is duty-bound to end the affair with Maud. He hopes to salvage some kind of relationship: “Maud. My Maud. I want to be your teacher. I want us to be something in each other’s lives. We cannot be lovers now,” he tells her mournfully.

But Maud is too wild and passionate to accept such a tepid conclusion to the affair. Practically the first thing we learn about her, in the first pages of the novel, is that in high school she once got into trouble for shoplifting an art book from the Metropolitan Museum, “because one of her teachers said there was a Whistler painting of a girl who looked like her.” It is a well-chosen anecdote, showing us that Maud’s beauty and vanity fuel her romantic impulsiveness. There is never any doubt that she will scorn Brookman’s self-serving equivocations: “‘I know what the answer is,’ she said. ‘You’ll be my eternal teacher. I’ll be your eternal student.’ She watched him from the corner of her eye, looking venomous and sly.”

From a bitter breakup to an actual death, however, is quite a distance, and the reader waits tensely for the stakes of the novel to be raised to the promised point. After all, Stone is famous for his tales of suspense and intrigue, the Conradian adventures that take his novels to places like Jerusalem in Damascus Gate or Haiti in Bay of Souls. And compared to his usual cast of characters—the drug runners, cult leaders, and adventurers who populate his novels—Professor Brookman might seem like a tame sort. Indeed, a campus novel by Robert Stone sounds, at first, as unlikely as a novel about pirates by David Lodge.

But in Death of the Black-Haired Girl, Stone gradually infuses the dark glamour of his more exotic stories into the comparatively domestic setting of Amesbury, the New England college town where Brookman and Maud live. (While we never learn the college’s name, it is highly reminiscent of Yale, where Stone has taught, with its Latin motto, faux-medieval architecture, and surrounding urban blight.) Brookman himself has more in common with the standard Stone hero than his title might suggest. He is a professor, but not a scholar; on the contrary, he is a travel writer and photographer who favors exotic subjects like sunken treasure ships and Siberia.

His background, too, is far from the usual academic CV. Brookman, we learn, was raised in an orphanage, joined the Marine Corps, and worked as a crewman on an Alaskan fishing boat; he even did time in federal prison, for what we are given to understand was a minor infraction. We could easily imagine him, in another Stone novel, battling the elements or intriguing in the third world. In Amesbury, however, he is brought to heel, tamely making his living in the classroom, and the affair with Maud can be seen as an inner rebellion against his newfound bourgeois security.

As we learn more about Amesbury, though, we find that it contains a higher proportion of exotic and troubled characters than your average college town. When we first meet Maud, for instance, she is bantering with her roommate, Shelby Magoffin, known as Shell. Shell is not only a student, she is also a semi-famous star of independent films, as well as the ex-wife of John Clammer, a religious fanatic from Kentucky against whom she has a restraining order. Then there is Jo Carr, a college counselor who in the early 1980s had been a nun, doing missionary work in a Latin American country torn by civil war—Nicaragua or El Salvador, we guess, though again Stone avoids proper names.

It is no coincidence that both of these characters are deeply marked by religion, and by the potential violence of religion. We tend to think of college campuses as agnostic places, where religious faith, if present at all, assumes tamely ecumenical forms. But Shell grew up in a snake-handling church, John Clammer is under the sway of a fanatical evangelical preacher, and Jo Carr is haunted by her lost vocation. Then there is Brookman’s wife, Elsa, who is from a Mennonite community in rural Saskatchewan. She is still deeply influenced by her pious, withdrawn childhood, and when she finally calls Brookman to account for his adultery, she does so in language of biblical sternness:

I love you next to God. Don’t think I’m over the top. We’re not in an opera. You see that’s a commonplace, eh. All the girls where I come from, it’s required. Commanded. You’re my husband. You’re my Stevie too. But I have to feel that’s really how it goes. That has to be how it goes from now on. I must feel the rightness of things, the pleasure of things. You must make me have that.
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