Ah, Paris. In Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing it provides the backdrop for Will Silver, a sharp, unconventional teacher whose methods have earned him somewhat of a rock-star status among his wealthy students. But when Will, haunted by his own failures, begins an affair with a student, well, his seemingly ideal life becomes quite a mess. In a starred review, we said the book was “both intelligent and intellectual, this is both a tribute to brilliant teachers and a cautionary tale of their imperfections.”
Read more about great new fiction, including Amy Waldman's The Submission.
Here, a brief excerpt:
As the story goes, they fell in love here—my mom just out of college and beautiful. In the photographs she has long dark hair and dark skin. After graduating from Berkeley, she flew to Paris in 1980 and rented a little apartment. She wandered around with a leather-bound notebook. My grandparents had given her, as a graduation gift, an around-the-world plane ticket and some money. Paris should have been the beginning of along series of adventures.
There’s a photograph of her in black and white. She’s sitting on the Pont Neuf with her head cocked to the side. She’s wearing a thick turtleneck sweater, the sleeves drawn over her hands. She’s wearing jeans and a beat up old military coat.
The photograph is one of the few things I’ve kept. I study it for clues of her life before my father. There’s a box of Gitanes beside her, a silver Zippo, a leather satchel at her feet.
It’s a great photograph, the light on her face, her closed eyes, the shadows, her lips just barely parted as if she were speaking to someone. She says she doesn’t remember who took it. I don’t believe her.
I imagine she’s always dressed this way—big sweater, used coat. She’s smoking cigarettes, sitting in the sun, men chasing her. She’s full of ideas—places she’ll go, paintings she’ll paint, love she’ll find. I can see her walking along the Seine with nowhere to be, a little money in her pocket but not too much. She’s at bars, in cafés, one of those women who prefers men, who is loved by them, who flirts with strength rather than weakness. She’s smiling at everyone and everyone is in awe of her or in love with her. The bartender, the butchers, the florists, the cheese man, the fishmonger, everyone in her neighborhood protects her, keeps an eye on her, hoping, with their protection, that she won’t leave them, that she’ll love them in return.
Beautiful Annabelle Lumen, twenty-two, smoker of French cigarettes, wanderer of the city, who loved art so much but had never entered Paris’ greatest museum. She’d waited, “preserving my virginity,” she says, spending days sitting in the sun, eating her lunch, reading in the muted quiet of the Cour Carrée, listening to the musicians. She sat on the steps and sketched tourists. She waited until the weather got colder, until the tour buses were fewer. She waited for the winter to come and then, one cold day at the end of January, she walked from her apartment on the rue Montmartre into the grand courtyard, passed through the gleaming new glass pyramid and descended slowly into the dark center of the Louvre.
The story of how my parents’ romance began is family legend. I’ve heard it told a thousand times. At embassy dinners and cocktail parties. It is a part of their public selves, part of their advertising.
It goes this way:
My father, Michael Fisher, straight out of Yale with a Masters in Economics, in Paris for a vacation before he flies to Africa for his first assignment at the US Embassy in Pretoria, looks away from Prud’hon’s The Empress Josephine and sees my mother walking slowly across the gallery.
She is the first person to have passed in ten minutes and my father hears her footsteps before she appears. He glances at her and then returns to the painting. “It is as if,” he says, “Josephine herself has wandered into the room.”
Dad watches her. The way she’s dressed, the ease with which she moves through the gallery, the way she swings her arms, all make him believe she’s French. My father, a master of languages, has not then mastered French and wonders what to do.
“She is,” he says he says to himself, “the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
She terrifies him. And so rather than speaking to her, he takes from his wallet one of his fresh-cut business cards. On the back he writes: Do you speak English? He keeps the card in his hand and goes on pretending to admire Josephine. Then he gives himself an out: if she doesn’t stop at this painting, he will let her leave undisturbed.
His heart beats. His palms sweat. She stops just behind him. He can feel her there. He can hear her pencil scratching across paper. He takes a breath. He counts to ten. He turns to her. He hands her the card, she looks at him surprised, thinks at first, she later says, that he’s a missionary, a Jehovah’s Witness, but accepts the card, reads his message, smiles, writes an answer on her half-finished sketch of Josephine, tears it from her notebook and gives it to him: Are you dumb?
Run with permission of publisher Europa Editions.