Alexander Maksik: You Deserve Nothing (2011)

Set in an international high school in Paris, YOU DESERVE NOTHING is told in three voices: that of Will, a charismatic young teacher who brings ideas alive in the classroom in a way that profoundly affects his students; Gilad, one of Will’s students who has grown up behind compound walls in places like Dakar and Dubai, and for whom Paris and Will’s senior seminar are the first heady tastes of freedom; and Marie, the beautiful, vulnerable senior. 

You Deserve Nothing was certainly one of the most entertaining reads this year. It offers an interesting mix of alternating and very realistic sounding voices, a Parisian setting and a wide range of themes.

The story is told by three people, Will, a charismatic teacher at an international school in Paris, Gilad, one of his students and Marie, a younger student who goes to another class. Will teaches literature in a very unorthodox way, challenging his students to think for themselves and provoking them as well. There are no taboo topics in his courses, religion, ethics, philosophy, they are equally discussed. Not every student feels comfortable to be challenged like this and while some admire Will as if he was a pop star, others resent him.

Those three voices tell the story four years after it has taken place. We see what happened from three different angles and point of views. I really liked those voices, they sounded authentic, very different from each other.

Since they tell the story four years after it occurred, we know from the beginning that something bad must have happened and we watch the story unfold slowly.

In the beginning we are amazed by Will and his unique teaching style. But after a while he does sound like a self-help book. In one class he teaches them about fear and his slogan is “Feel the fear and do it anyway” which is the title of a bestselling self help book by Susan Jeffers. There are many such instances. At first he sounds profound in his analysis of Sartre and Camus but when he tells his students to trust their feelings and follow their dreams, his concepts start to unravel.

Different incidents slowly show us another side of Will, a side that he would probably rather hide but funnily enough, he doesn’t really try to go on pretending. He seems a bit tired and the things he left in his past and which he tried to forget are resurfacing with force.

It’s not difficult to imagine what causes the downfall but I’m not going to reveal it.

I liked a lot of things in this book. It’s quite suspenseful and the characters are captivating and even more than that I liked the story and the themes. I always feel that school, teachers and teaching are some of the most fascinating topics and certainly topics we can all relate to. We have all gone or go to school and some of us have been or are teachers. We know both sides. The importance and influence, I would even say the power, that teachers have is almost frightening. Being a charismatic teacher can be dangerous.

The question of how far a teacher can and should go, is one of the core questions, another one being the discrepancy between theory and practice. Will knows how influential he is, yet he isn’t fully aware of his responsibility to be who he pretends to be. It’s a catastrophe for his students to find out that a lot of what he preaches may just be empty words.

I read about this book first on Guy’s blog (here is his review) and was already very interested in reading it. Some weeks later Jackie reviewed it as well (here is her review). It even made her best of 2011 and will also make mine. Jackie compared the book to Notes on a Scandal (and two other novels that I have not read) which is very accurate.

After having finished the book, I returned to Jackie’s blog and saw that someone had left an intriguing comment and a link to an article about Maksik. It seems as if Maksik’s novel was based on his own story. I’m not sure what to think now but while I was reading the book, I sympathized a lot with Will.