[Reviewed by Christopher Bernard]
You Deserve This Book
I’m a notoriously slow reader – but I swept through this lengthy, idea-packed volume in a little more than 24 hours. My friend put me on notice “to put that blessed book when I’m talking to you. Or else . . . !”
As the author’s existentialism-obsessed protagonists would have been the first to remind me, I had a choice . . .
For Alexander Maksik’s debut novel is that fine and rare thing, at least on these shores: a compulsively readable novel of ideas, both stimulating and addictive; it is also a major contribution to the renaissance of existentialism that has emerged since 9/11.
In an ambience steeped in the romance of the Left Bank and Baron Haussmann’s boulevards, we follow a year in the life of a charismatic teacher, William Silver, at an elite high school in Paris during the period just before and during the American invasion of Iraq. He runs a seminar for seniors where they explore the moral paradoxes of Sartre, Nietzsche and Camus, only to find those paradoxes searing his own and his students’ lives with a precision and ferocity that perhaps should not have shocked either teacher or students but that enlightens the reader as only certain shocks can.
We watch the emotional conflicts inflicted by existentialist questions, and some of the most provocative answers given to them, on young people at their most impressionable and vulnerable – conflicts that then explode the most well-considered ideas like so many landmines.
Christopher Bernard is a novelist (A Spy in the Ruins), critic and poet, and co-founder of Caveat Lector magazine.
Is human life defined by the decisions we make? Are we in fact free? Do we “decide” consciously what we do, what we think, what we believe, how we live? Are we responsible for our lives and their outcomes? Is everything ultimately “our fault”?
A major tenet of the novel’s philosophical framework is the Rashomon-like idea that no one has access to an ultimate, objective truth outside our individual and limiting perspectives and values. Maksik embodies this idea by skillfully alternating between the viewpoints of Silver, one of his male students who takes philosophical questions seriously (and ultimately is liberated by so doing), and a female student in the school who, through a series of mutually reinforcing impulses, passions, decisions (but are they decisions?) becomes romantically involved with Silver.
Which brings us to the central, and ambiguous, role in all of this of the teacher – and by implication of every moral leader, from parents to priests to presidents. The book’s central drama – a debate that escapes the classroom to ride heart, blood and body – works through Silver himself as he learns only at the end the full price that his lessons exact – and forces him to confront the questionable “good faith” of his own teachings.
The novel’s overly harsh title does not fully characterize the story or themes, though it certainly catches one’s attention. Some readers might be put off by it, expecting a nihilistic screed. They’d be wrong to think so, as the book’s warmth and humanity are as impressive as its clear-eyed but never bitter honesty.
We owe postwar existentialism a debt for getting generations of young people to take philosophical issues seriously; it is the one philosophical movement that forces us to consider our lives – our choices, evasions, self-deceptions – with clarity and candor before the world of “maturity” does everything it can to anaesthetize us morally and divert us from thinking about anything beyond the moment’s gluttonies and the calculus of personal advantage.
Maksik’s enthralling novel is a reminder of the necessity of hard thinking in a morally dangerous and sometimes unforgiving world, of how perilous ideas can be, and how vital they are for anything that can be called a worthwhile human life.
You Deserve Nothing: A Novel
Europa Editions (Tonga Books)
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