I picked up You Deserve Nothing on a whim following an event a local bookshop – for the benefit of the Hamburgers reading this, Stories at Hanseviertel. The idea is great: staff present English language books they’ve recently read, in English. The girl presenting You Deserve Nothing spoke with such enthusiasm about it that I cast away the prejudices the cover evoked in me and bought it.
And, what can I say, for a while I actually thought it was quite good. You Deserve Nothing covers the story of an inappropriate teacher-student relationship. Will, a charismatic and enigmatic English teacher at the International School of France in Paris, gets into a sexual relationship with a student, Marie, at a party just at the end of the school year. As the new school year begins, they keep seeing each other.
The novel is composed of sections told by different characters: Will himself, Marie, and Gilad. Gilad is a student in Will’s English class and develops a somewhat unhealthy obsession with his teacher. It’s not quite clear whether Gilad is gay, to me it seemed more like the sort of infatuation teenagers can for adults who seem genuine – Gilad tries to emulate Will, he reads his assignments with a passion, and he starts thinking Deep Thoughts as a result of Will’s unconventional way of teaching. The obsession, I think, is likely more of the intellectual than the sexual variety.
Gilad’s perspective brings in experiences of Will teaching his class and the impact he has on his students (as we shall see, this is probably very much premeditated). Gilad’s point of view also introduces what is pretty much presented the only flaw of Will’s character: he’s a bit of a coward, at least in the eyes of Gilad, when he doesn’t stand up to an antisemitic mob at an anti-war demonstration. A rational adult would’ve thought Will sensible, but Gilad and his friend Colin view him as a fake as a result (again, this is very much premeditated, I think).
But how genuine is Will really? Initially he seemed to be the real deal. A passionate teacher who gets his students to think rather than stubbornly follow the curriculum. Even so, from the beginning his narration transmits just a tad too much enjoyment of the love his students seem to have for him. Later on it transpires that he puts on his classes like an act. It seems like he enjoys controlling his students, making them love him, a bit like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Marie’s narrative, finally, shows her as obsessed with Will too, but in a different way than Gilad. Marie, who leads the Terribly Lonely Life of the Misunderstood Teenager, feels like Will understands her. He’s experienced, loving, affectionate, mature, a great lover. She pretends they’re an actual couple. Will, meanwhile, just lets it happen.
At first I thought that this would be a different sort of teacher-student relationship. But then I quickly started getting irritated with the Will character. He just seems too full of himself, too convinced of his methods, too sure of the love of his students. Marie’s character remains a bit superficial and flat, just your stereotypical High School girl. And Gilad just seems to be there to reinforce Will’s magical effect on his students.
And so when I came across an article on Jezebel about You Deserve Nothing, it all came together. Apparently, Alexander Maksik used the novel format to cook up his own story in a very thin disguise. He was fired from the American School of Paris for having, guess what, an affair with a student. What had initially seemed like a slightly over the top construction of Will’s wonderfulness now comes together nicely as a defence of – well, I don’t quite know whom, the character or the author.
Through Gilad and Marie’s perceptions, the students are placed firmly in the overly emotional teenager camp. Maksik, through them, constructs a vision where you can’t quite take the students’ viewpoints seriously, because aww, really they’re just kids. Gilad has Catcher in the Rye-like over the top expectations of adults and views anyone who doesn’t correspond to his ideals as a phony. Marie is full of admiration for her mature lover Will, and he provides her with the love and affection she so badly needs. What’s more, Gilad’s perspective introduces the way Will makes his students dig deeper, think, turns them into philosophers and adults. Will is portrayed as quite the gifted pedagogue. If you’re not on to the real story behind, it’s quite easy to find Will’s own conviction of himself and his manipulativeness the only irritating aspect of You Deserve Nothing.
It’s quite easy not to be on to the real story behind, because nowhere (at least not that I could find) does Maksik provide an indication of the fact that this novel is based on real events, worse even, his own experience of having an affair with a student. If you’re an unsuspecting reader, you could be easily fooled. Indeed, Maksik seems to have convinced the New York Times and his publisher Alice Sebold, among others, that what we have here is a deep philosophical deconstruction of what is morally right and wrong. To me, it seemed more like a quite transparent self-defence tool.