Tag Archives: transference

You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

“Fear. That is what separates the hero from the common man. It’s crossing the room. It’s not complicated.”

After concluding Alexander Maksik’s novel, You Deserve Nothing, I began to wonder just who the  ‘you’  refers to.  Could it refer to Will Silver, an American who’s ditched his wife for vague reasons and now teaches at a swanky Parisian school for over-privileged teens? Could it refer to Marie, a young girl who develops a huge crush on Will? Could it refer to Gilad–another adoring pupil of Silver’s? But then again, by the time the novel ends with an emptiness created by absence and a lack of explanations, perhaps  ‘you‘  refers to all those involved in this page-turner tale of teacher-pupil classroom power dynamics & transference.

The story unfolds through three perspectives, and the first three short chapters are narrated by Will, Gilad and Marie post trauma and scandal. The story then moves swiftly back to the past, and we see Will Silver, a young teacher separated from his wife, living in Paris and teaching under dream conditions. By dream conditions,  I should clarify that Will teaches a sum total of four classes; all of the students are bright, inquisitive, already wrapped in a sound education, and what’s more the class size is very small–perhaps, as it turns out, too small….

Will is a dedicated, dynamic and charismatic teacher who’s teaching for the third year at the International School (ISF) in Paris. His reputation in the school is such that students look forward to his classes; he has a way of posing vital questions to his students even as he challenges their cocooned beliefs. Parents–mainly diplomats, high-ranking military personnel and wealthy businessmen–invite Will to their homes and thank him for his genuine interest in their children. Most of the students, while wealthy and privileged, lack stability in their lives, and Will is the intellectual figure that all the students aspire to impress and imitate. While some of the students are extremely cultured and sophisticated, other students suffer from the other issues:

These kids like Mike Chandler who were fluent in several languages and cultures, who were so relaxed, so natural in exquisite apartments at elaborate parties, who moved from country to country, from adult to adolescent with a professional ease, were not the standard at ISF.

Most were kids who’d been plucked from an Air Force base in Virginia and deposited in Paris, who resented the move, refused to adapt. The move only strengthened their faith in conservative American politics. They refused France. Their rebellion was, by default, an adamant rejection of their new home and all things French. Their families bought food from the commissary at the American Embassy. Kid’s who’d return from weekend trips talked excitedly about the Taco Bell and Burger King they’d found at Ramstein.

You Deserve Nothing covers some very familiar ground, but Alexander Masik’s first novel rises above the crowd for its treatment of philosophical and moral issues. While this is manifested in the choices made in the multiple, sometimes conflicting narratives, the moral and philosophical issues also exist as an undercurrent to the drama that takes in the lively and realistic classroom scenes. Silver designs a senior seminar course which includes coverage of Sartre, Camus, Macbeth and Existentialism. He leads the discussions with the aim of sparking independent thought & intellectual curiosity, but Silver runs into some fairly common problems when it comes to the topic of religion, the issue of choice, & taking responsiblity for the decisions we make. The classroom dynamic, however, also begins to encompass Silver’s not-so-secret personal life, and Silver, who’s been put on a pedestal by most of his worshipful students, does not live up to their expectations or follow the creed he teaches. While classroom discussion is supposed to dissect and discuss hypothetical situations, Silver’s behaviour gradually comes under condemnation from all those around him.

It’s very easy to jump in on the band wagon and call for Silver to be run out-of-town, that’s not the only issue here.  Undercurrents of jealousy run between the students, and classroom politics impact what happens–everyone idolizes Silver, and it’s painful for worshippers to witness the fall of someone who’s been judged to be morally superior. In some ways, this is a coming-of-age novel, at least it is for Gilad who finds the entire distasteful episode devastating. To Gilad, who’s half in love with Silver, his hero is a positive male role model–perhaps the man he’d like to be, and certainly a man to be contrasted to his own brutal, half-drunk and abusive father. Gilad is essentially the confused outsider–someone who tries to make sense of it all, and although he’s not directly involved, he’s certainly impacted by the events that take place. Gilad, a sensitive and idealistic young man, can’t understand his parents’ troubled relationship, but as his mother explains, life isn’t always what you expected it to be:

People used to tell me when I was young that I didn’t know what I was capable of, that my intelligence was limitless, that I could do anything. Which I’ve come to realize is true in both directions. I never imagined that I was capable of this life. It would have seemed impossible to me when I was younger, but god do we surprise ourselves. They never tell you that what we surprise ourselves with may be disappointment.  

There’s an incident in the novel that I’m still mulling over. Without ruining the novel with spoilers, both Will and Gilad bizarrely walk way from a horrific event and don’t consider offering to be witnesses. The subject simply never comes up. I’m not sure if this is a failure on the part of the novel or if this is an intentional development which illustrates both Will and Gilad’s detachment from events. I think I’ll land on the latter.

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Mine Own Executioner: Nigel Balchin (1945)

People in my job nearly always get sent the wrong half of a marriage.”

I read an article in which the name of author and screenwriter Nigel Balchin (1908-1970)  is mentioned–along with the claim that he’s one of the most undeservedly neglected writers of 20th century British fiction. Well that’s certainly true in my case as I’ve a number of his books on my shelf–all unread. I’ve been interested in Balchin for some time, and I’m drawn to his books not so much for the neglected contributions to British literature idea, but because a few of his books have been made into films. And a couple of them are noir films, so I finally pulled one of those books off my shelf and read it.

I’d say for about the first 2/3 of Mine Own Executioner, I enjoyed what seemed to be a decent, but fairly average, novel. This is the tale of a London psychologist, a few of his patients, and his troubled relationship with his wife. At about the point of the last 1/3 of the book (just guessing here as I didn’t mark the actual turning point), the novel evolved into something else entirely. I was ambushed by the book’s turn, didn’t see it coming,  and by the book’s conclusion, I was ready to believe that there’s something to this business that Balchin is a greatly neglected writer.

The protagonist of Mine Own Executioner is London psychologist Felix Milne, a man who splits his working time between treating wealthy patients who bore him to tears and poor patients who have a range of serious problems. When the book begins, it’s clear that while Felix  is busy devoting himself to the problems of others, he has a number of unresolved problems of his own. In a typical ‘physician heal thyself’ manner, Felix is often unfairly short-tempered with his pleasant, far-too understanding wife, Patricia, even while he extends endless, patient sage counseling to those who seek his advice.  Felix’s marriage is in trouble–nothing terribly dramatic, but there’s the sense that the spark has long gone, and what’s left is an old, tired machine that just barely manages to do its job. Felix and Patricia are at the point of acknowledging that their marriage may be over. The domestic situation isn’t helped by the fact that Felix is attracted to Patricia’s long-term friend, the very dangerous blonde Barbara. This attraction is painfully obvious to Patricia while Barbara’s patsy of a husband, Peter, remains oblivious to the warning signs. He’s so idiotically oblivious, in fact, that he corners Felix and asks him to take Barbara on as a patient in order to discuss her “sex complex.”

Whoa! Sex complex? Isn’t it a bit unethical for a psychologist to agree to accept a friend (he lusts after) as a patient? Well this took place on page 17, so I was expecting the novel to concentrate on Felix’s unhappy personal life and the dangerous relationship he has with man-eating Barbara. While the novel delves into Felix’s rather bad behaviour, for the most part the novel focuses partly on the inner politics behind the scenes at the Norris Pile Clinic where Felix works for a pittance treating charity cases. Another large section of the novel concerns one of Felix’s most disturbing cases, the very damaged Adam Lucien.

Lucien was shot down while flying a spitfire during WWII. He ended up as a prisoner of the Japanese, and after a long period of torture, interrogation, and imprisonment, Lucien managed to return home, but according to his wife, he’s different. He has a permanent leg injury, but the mental damage is far worse, and Mrs Lucien pleads for Felix’s help after Lucien tries to strangle her. Felix agrees to take on Adam Lucien, a tricky subject, as a patient, but he has serious reservations. Mainly Felix is concerned that he may be out of his depth….

I have a weakness for novels that include therapists, so Mine Own Executioner had a special appeal for me.  Here’s Felix discussing the benefits of therapy to Barbara:

Barbara took her cup and lit another cigarette. “seriously, though, Felix, what do you do to people? I’ve always wanted to know.”

“Well, it’s like this,” said Milne slowly. “The theory of the thing, very roughly, is that in most of us there are two people. One is the natural person, that has various desires and instincts; and the other is the conventional person that believes in the law, and morality, and religion and so on. So there tends to be a scrap between what we want to do and what we know we ought to do.”

The irony of that little speech, of course, is that while Felix can see this in other people and help them resolve their problems, he cannot manage to help himself. He sees his relationship with Patricia as appealing to one side of his nature while Barbara appeals to the dark side, and he tries to explain away this attraction to his wife:

“There’s a bit of me,” he said slowly, “that’s never grown up. It stays at about mental age twelve. Most of the time I’m very grown up indeed. If I weren’t, I couldn’t do my job. But outside the job I come up against this thing. It takes all sorts of forms. You know most of them. I get fun–and not such very nice fun–out of teasing and bullying you. I sulk if a certain sort of thing happens that I don’t like. All sorts of things like that. You know them, don’t you?”

“Some of them, I think.”

“Yes. Well this business with Barbara is a part of that thing. The thing that attracts me about Bab is that it’s so obvious–a sort of deliberate childish wantonness. When she throws herself at your head, she does it like a naughty kid trying to get another kid to be naughty. I know that sounds awful, but I don’t mean that there’s anything charming about it at all–not to an adult. People always talk about a ‘naughty child’ as if it were something too, too sweet. A naughty child isn’t sweet at all. It’s usually rather ugly and a nuisance. But it’s often attractive to other children.”

Patricia said, “And of course Bab does it all very well. It’s always been her technique.”

“I don’t know. In my saner moments it always seems too crude for anything. But it exactly rings the bell for my twelve-year-old bit.”

He sat for a moment in silence.

“What I’m trying to show you is why it happens, and yet why I’m so sure it doesn’t matter fundamentally. It happens because Barbara exactly appeals to a messy twelve-year-old, which is what I am in some ways. And  it doesn’t matter because there’s nowhere it could possibly lead. It’s simply a childish game whose whole point is that it’s forbidden.”

That’s Felix’s rationalisation, presenting his attraction to Barbara, in a nutshell. While he tells his wife it’s innocent and childish, he calls Barbara a “bad little slut” to her face. Wonder how he’d handle a patient stuck in the same dilemma. While the novel begins with Felix dwelling on his own problems, he soon faces the greatest challenge of his career when he tries to treat Lucien.

Since this was published in 1945, there are some derogatory references to the Japanese. But aside from that, Mine Own Executioner really is a terrific novel, a wonderful example of WWII British noir. The film version cuts out some of the uglier (interesting) aspects of the book–I doubt that the 40s were quite ready for some of the aspects of this tale, but in spite of the fact that the film is bleached for public consumption, it’s well worth watching–especially if you’re drawn to noir or tales which involve aspects of psychology.   

For more information on Nigel Balchin, check out the website http://www.nigelmarlinbalchin.co.uk/

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