Book review: You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

Will Silver is the archetypal inspirational teacher, a classic combination of Mr Chips, Muriel Sparks’ Jean Brodie and John Keating of the Dead Poets’ Society.

By Pam Norfolk
Friday, 10th February 2012, 6:00 am

He’s a hero to his impressionable and wealthy, mainly American, teenage students at an international high school in Paris where he brings lessons alive, sets imaginations on fire and offers youngsters their first heady taste of freedom.

Silver’s heroes are Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway and the French existentialist writers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, but the 33-year-old English teacher falls short of his own ideals when he launches into an illicit affair with a student at the school, a beautiful and vulnerable 17-year-old girl called Marie de Cléry...

Alexander Maksik’s impressive debut novel is as intellectually and emotionally stimulating as it is wry, entertaining and utterly gripping.

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The constant wrestling with ideas, the tensions between ambition and reality, our dreams and our limits, our public faces and our private thoughts are standard existential territory.

But You Deserve Nothing is also an intimate examination of the nature of sexual temptation and the emotional battle between desire and action, all set against the simmering political tensions in Paris during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The novel plays out through three voices – Will, Marie and quiet, introverted Jewish student Gilad Fisher who regards Silver as a mentor and father figure as replacement for an unhappy home life.

This narrative device adds depth, dimension and diversity to the plot by allowing back stories to emerge and ambiguities and cracks to appear in the testaments of the three major protagonists voiced four years after the disastrous affair.

In the exciting atmosphere of Paris, Silver’s lessons provide added glamour to the lives of his pupils so when he is invited to a student’s party at an upmarket apartment where the wine flows freely, it seems almost inevitable that he might be ‘seduced’ by one of his adoring fans.

Marie’s version of what happened is somewhat different; she wasn’t one of his students and claims she ‘barely knew who the guy was.’ Ominously, she also cannot resist telling her school friend Ariel what has happened...

Maksik’s spare and unpretentious prose lends a subtle simplicity to this challenging tale about the relationship between teachers and pupils, the unravelling of moral certainties and the advent of adulthood.

He allows us no objective view of the teacher/pupil affair ... each character has a different and totally subjective take on relationships and events, thus opening up a typical Modernist ideological dilemma.

Sad, haunting and piquantly perceptive, You Deserve Nothing is a brilliant first novel.

(John Murray, paperback, £7.99)