Learning The Hard Way

Why is it that the student-teacher relationship is such a potent and hypnotic one? Inevitably, this is something I’ve thought a lot about over the years, not least because of a strange sense I always had that teaching is easy. I loved the relationships I had with my students because teaching was the one place where I felt I knew exactly what was expected of me, and exactly what my students needed. Most relationships have an opaque quality, a nagging suspicion that we’re not sure of doing or saying the right thing, the necessary thing. But my students, I felt sure (and do correct me if I’ve been labouring under a delusion), just wanted to be seen, truthfully – though they preferred that truth to be palatable – and then guided kindly in the right direction. Because those things together, truth and guidance, are transformational. To be told by someone whose judgement  you trust that you are either okay, or on the path to being okay, breeds confidence, which is a properly magical quality. I’ve seen clever, able students completely crippled by a lack of confidence and students with ostensibly fewer abilities soar to amazing heights on its warm thermals. Confidence is mostly very hard won, but a few beings can confer it upon a person, and teachers are one of them.

So it’s unsurprising that the relationship between a teacher and a student can become unbalanced with all sorts of emotional messiness; truth and guidance can topple over into love and obsession, they can welter in hatred and resentment, they can breed cynicism or despair. No wonder then that it can make for some pretty fascinating pieces of fiction.

you deserve nothingAlexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing was an excellent novel. The story revolves around teacher-guru Will Silver, a young, handsome and brilliant professor of philosophy at an international school in Paris.  The story begins at the end of one summer term, as students say their heartfelt goodbyes to Mr Silver, thanking him for changing their lives, for opening their minds, and giving them experiences they will never forget. Graduation melts into a party at the grand flat of one of Mr Silver’s students, and he ends up going to the nightclub with a gaggle of teenagers. There he meets and dances with Marie, an encounter that spills over into unexpected eroticism, but he leaves it alone, no damage done.

The new school year begins and Mr Silver embarks on his voyage of discovery with a new group, that includes Gilead, a young man with troubled parents who is looking for a hero, Ariel, Marie’s best frenemy, Colin, Marie’s angry ex-boyfriend and Abdul, a Muslim boy with powerful parents. This gets awkward when the topic under discussion is Existentialism, a philosophical movement that denies the existence of God, and which the class debate with the gloves off. Before long, that dazzling ability of Mr Silver to open up students’ minds is finding disfavour with the school authorities, who believe it is incompatible with respect for less open-minded religions. And what they don’t know yet is that Marie has come back into Will Silver’s life.

The narrative swaps hands between Will, Marie and Gilead, with different perspectives often going back and forth over the same events, showing the difference in the way they have been experienced. The hothouse atmosphere of further education: adolescents exploring their sexuality and their intellects, crushed by disappointments, longing for stable role models, breaking away from family difficulties, is brilliantly portrayed. Paris makes a glorious, vibrant backdrop, and most enigmatic and mesmerising of all is Will Silver himself, a man aware of the power of his teaching, and the emptiness of his soul. This is a narrative that starts quiet but builds inexorably. If I had a criticism, it would be that the ending becomes obvious from three-quarters of the way through and happens without surprise. But it’s a quibble, really, about a very, very good book.


amber furyThe Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes shows what radical differences can be achieved by similar ingredients. Alex Morris is a theatre director fallen on hard times. A personal tragedy has destroyed her life, and she has come to Edinburgh out of hopelessness and helplessness. Her most beloved old university tutor now runs a Pupil Referral Unit for kids who have been kicked out of all the obvious schools. He has given her a job, filling in for a teacher who has left on maternity leave, and Alex has taken it with no real idea of what she is letting herself in for. Her class is a mere five students, but such troublesome and troubled ones that keeping control is out of the question. Alex is there to teach drama, and they end up reading Greek tragedies together. We know from the opening pages that somehow, this has ended in disaster.

Alex is another enigmatic teacher, but her secrets will form the basis of the story. The reader learns what they are in the same time frame as the students – one of whom, a deaf girl, Mel, has become exceedingly curious about their careworn, unhappy mentor. It’s Alex’s own vulnerability that has attracted Mel’s attention to her, and with very little else to occupy her mind, Mel is intent on discovering what has happened in Alex’s past. As she does so, the plots of the tragedies they are reading, and the meaning the class draws from them, become entangled with real events as they unfold.

This is a good book, well-written, but slightly marred for me by implausibilities. No way would any teaching establishment for difficult kids take on an inexperienced teacher like Alex, or stand for the haphazard way she runs her classes. Nor do troubled teens come out with impressive insights into Greek literature that they have no real interest in. I can see why Natalie Haynes makes these choices – her plot depends on them – and probably if you didn’t teach literature to students they wouldn’t mar your enjoyment of the book (and a story full of the accurate grunts and sighs of bored adolescents would be no fun to read). So. More generally, I was a bit fed up with all the slow reveals going on in the early sections – what happened in Alex’s past, what happens in her time at the unit – common thinking is that readers love this sort of suspense, and that it pulls them through the story, but I much preferred watching a situation build in the Maksik novel. Saying all of this makes it sound like I didn’t like The Amber Fury or that it isn’t a good book. And that would be wrong. I thought the ending of this novel was the best part of it, and that Haynes nailed it perfectly. The referral unit is vividly portrayed and the expositions on Greek literature are interesting. There’s a lot to enjoy.


indexFinally, I’ll mention The Lessons by Naomi Alderman, but this was a miss for me. It’s an Oxbridge-group-of-friends novel, split into two parts: the first describing their time at Oxford together, the second describing the fallout of their relationships in the world after graduation. The main protagonist is unhappy, struggling James. He’s followed older sister, Anne, to Oxford but is unable to emulate her glittering success. Instead, his physics tutorials are incomprehensible, the loneliness threatens to overwhelm him, and then, an accident leaves him with a painfully damaged knee. By chance, he falls in with a group of friends surrounding a wildly wealthy but unbalanced undergraduate, Mark. Mark lives in a huge, ramshackle pile and likes to throw dangerous parties. He has A Mother, the beautiful, much-married Isabelle, who sets a local priest on him to make sure he is keeping up his Catholicism. Mark cuts himself in mute protest. The priest nabs James and tries to turn him informer.

I confess I skim-read the second half, in which things go from bad to worse. This is another exquisitely written book, but somehow I wasn’t in the mood to read about screwed, self-destructive people screwing their lives up and destroying themselves. There’s a glimmer of hope maybe at the end, but I had to go through a lot of yelling ‘No! Don’t do it!’ at the book, while the characters went ahead and did it, before getting there. For me this was not really a bleak midwinter option, but you shouldn’t let that put you off if you like a bit of darkness and melancholy. The language and characterisation are both sharp and impressive.

So what do we learn from all of these? Well, that fictional teachers ought to be like doctors and have the same option of being struck off; that fictional schools are full of crazy students; that a little learning, particularly of literature, can be a dangerous thing. Does that sound more exciting than your school days? It was all a lot more dramatic than my teaching ones – thankfully.


23 thoughts on “Learning The Hard Way

  1. I guess we should be glad that life doesn’t always imitate art (though I believe it sometimes does, from what I read in the papers….) 🙂

    • Yes – there seems to be more in the papers about inappropriate relationships between teachers and students than ever before! Still, I can assure you my own lessons were completely ordinary and dull in that respect 🙂

    • Me too, I loved the Amber Fury. I usually don’t like implausibilities, but the similarity to Greek myth (or what I know about it) made it work within that structure. Also, with the point about the untrained and haphazard teachers, there are so many teachers leaving/being driven out of the profession now that I didn’t have any difficulties believing that they would hire Alex! I found the precarious nature of her wanting to believe that her charges could change, and the danger of overcommitment, scarily realistic.

    • Annabel, yes, there’s a lot to enjoy and admire in the novel and sometimes I guess you have to go with the unlikely in the interests of the plot!

      Denise – yes when you put it that way, it does seem more plausible! I do know just what you mean.

  2. I read You Deserve Nothing back when it first came out, and it was a strange experience because when I was in the middle of reading it allegations surfaced that the story was drawn from life and his own relationship with a student. Knowing that colored my own reading of the book, which leaned positive at first but soured when I thought about the real young woman behind the story. The conversation at my blog about it was pretty interesting. Some people close to the situation weighed in, which was interesting, but to me, the whole experience really got me thinking about art that draws from life and when it’s fair and when it’s exploitative. The descriptions of Marie’s body made skeeved me out when I considered that the story could be true, yet there were some times when the text seemed to turn against Will, making me wonder if it was the author’s way of taking some ownership of the mistake he’d made (but without quite owning up to it).

    • Teresa, I’m going to reply more fully to your question in response to Jenny (who read the same thing you did) because it deserves a full answer and I think I can only write it out once! But one thing I will say here is that I did not think the novel was about justifying or exculpating Will in any way. It felt to me like it was about the way any idol has feet of clay, and that it is always dangerous to get too close to them for that very reason. So I’m with you in thinking that the text turns against Will – that’s very much how it felt to me.

  3. I really like how you’ve opened this post with your reflections on the teacher-student relationship – it’s adds valuable context to your reviews of the novels.

    Like you, I wasn’t crazy about The Lessons. Your review sums it up very well – I felt rather worn down by it in the end (despite its qualities). 🙂

    • Oh I’m really relieved you found The Lessons a bit too much too! I know you don’t mind melancholy narratives, and I thought it was probably me being wimpish. So thank you for the solidarity! It’s much appreciated!

  4. I’m currently reading A Little Life, which also touches upon teacher (or mentor) and student relationships. It’s still early days, so I’m not entirely sure how they will evolve – but they already make me very uneasy…

    • I was surprised how few storylines seemed to be available in the novel-about-learning. It’s always about students becoming obsessed with teachers, or teachers being obsessed with students. I think there are lots of other, more interesting things happening in education, but them’s the plots that get published!

  5. I’m so glad you liked the Maksik. After loving A Marker to Measure Drift I was a little nervous about You Deserve Nothing in that way that readers often are in case their illusions are about to be shattered, but you’re quite right – it’s an excellent novel.

    • I am so glad that you found it a good novel, too. Reading Jenny’s and Theresa’s comments about the background to the novel (allegedly) do make me think that taking fiction at face value is the best way to get the most out of a novel.

  6. Yes, I agree with your thoughts on The Amber Fury. I though Haynes captured the dialogue of teenagers very well, but there were some jarring moments. I love any book that alludes to Greek Mythology though!

  7. My shoulders went up around my ears when I was reading about the Maksik book, and I couldn’t place why for the longest time. And then I remembered that I read a thing (this here http://jezebel.com/5863188/how-a-teachers-alleged-student-affair-became-his-acclaimed-novel) saying that Maksik based a lot of the aspects of his book on his own life. Which, squicky.

    SO I bring this up because you and I have talked before, I think, about separating the author and the work. If it is the case that the guy drew on the life of a student of his (who he’d already taken advantage of) for this book, that to me makes it very, very hard to read the book. It feels like — I dunno, it feels the same way it would feel to look at naked pictures of actresses that someone had hacked from their phones. You know? WHAT DO YOU THINK PLEASE TELL ME YOUR THOUGHTS.

    • Jenny, thank you for the question, which Teresa brings up too. I’ve been thinking about this and I’ll do my best to explain my own position.

      I suppose the first thing to say is that I was trained to read in a way that removed all autobiographical context from the book. It was considered a hindrance, looking at a novel in a way that reduced it to some measly incident in an author’s life. And believe me, if you see your essay returned to you covered in red ink, with angry exclamation marks by your teacher alongside it, saying ‘who do you think YOU are to judge Goethe?’ or whatever, you do not do it twice. So, as a general rule, I learned that historical context was valuable, but everything else was irrelevant. I studied like this, and researched like this and then taught for 12 years like this. So at the very least, it’s a habit.

      Then, once I’d left the university and begun to get curious about all the stuff we hadn’t been allowed to be curious about – including the process of creativity – I started looking into the lives of some of the great authors and was astounded by how many of them (ie all of them) drew heavily and clearly from events in their own lives to write their books. Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Hermann Hesse, Dodie Smith, Doris Lessing, James Joyce, Hans Christian Andersen, Proust, I mean the list is endless. Whether it’s right or wrong, the vast majority of authors put their lives in their books, and the question is only what level of disguise they use. As a purely practical consideration, if we can’t read fiction inspired by real events, or written by people who displease us, then there aren’t going to be many books to read.

      The hardest thing for me was reading a biography of Colette, about whom I’d written half a PhD. I thought I knew her through her writing, because she has very autobiographical fictions, and of course it turned out she was not at all the person I thought, and had some deeply unpleasant traits. Funnily enough, what critics reprimand Colette about is the way she makes her relationship with her mother much better than it was in reality, in the memoirs she wrote after her mother’s death. And I began to think, a) that I didn’t want to lose the pleasure of Colette’s writing just because I wouldn’t have hung out with her – that in fact surely there was nothing wrong with trying to be better than you were in reality through the act of writing, and b) that no matter how you portray a person in narrative, someone will come along and say it’s not truthful, or accurate, or right, or whatever. Because everyone who knows that person will have a different story to tell, a different perspective. That’s the thing with reality – it’s just a mess of competing perspectives, with no one ever emerging as the right and perfect version. If it’s incredibly hard to write non-fiction because no one is going to agree with your version of reality, then why on earth would we think that fiction provides a transparent window onto the reality supposedly lurking behind it?

      The thing is, the story is the dominating force in any story, all the elements are subordinated to it. If the story is to be any good, characters have to do what the story dictates, they have to be coherent with it. And all sorts of deformations and omissions and alterations are made. I mean, that’s why it’s called fiction, because it’s been processed through the writer’s imagination. You could look at it another way around and say that if I think I ‘know’ anything about a real life person through their novels, or ‘know’ anything about a character in the fiction they have created, I’d be ridiculous. And laughably far from the truth.

      I’ve only looked quickly over the link you sent me because, essentially, when I treat a piece of fiction as just that – fiction – anyone who may have inspired it gets to keep their privacy.

      As for the article, the one type of writing that pays absolutely no heed to the truth, that seeks in fact to sensationalise and portray events in the worst light possible as a rule, is journalism of the muck-raking kind. I always mistrust what such articles tell me because whatever else is going on, I’m definitely being manipulated. My shameful voyeurism is being appealed to, and then when I am inevitably unsettled by what I learn, the culprit is never the journalist who dragged the mud up and put it in front of me, even if half of it is made up and the other half exaggerated. (I have a very low opinion of the media, as you may be able to tell). I can’t judge the truth value of that article because Maksik hasn’t put his side of the case, and I have no reason to believe what any of the suspiciously unnamed sources say. All I know is that its author wants me to be morally outraged, and I’m not going to respond like that precisely because he or she tells me to. I do believe in innocent until proven guilty.

      But of course, all this being said, when you have an emotional reaction to a book, or to something you read about the book, then it isn’t always possible to be rational about it. I read the book with no idea of the background. Now you’ve got this scurrilous dirt in your mind about the author it’s hard for you to read it – and that may just be the way it is. We’ve all got to come to our own decisions about what books we pick up and why. Just the other evening, I was listening to David Sedaris on audiobook and heard a memoir essay of his about a boil his partner lanced on his backside. I was treated to a couple of minutes of the most gross and disturbing description ever. Now I can’t listen to the rest of the book, not because he shouldn’t have written about the boil particularly, but because I can’t trust him not to say something else I can never unhear again…. Reading can be a real minefield, can’t it!

      • Fascinating.

        I agree with you about needing to see the author as writer and as person separately. It can be very disillusioning when it’s someone whose work really speaks to you – you want them to be the person who wrote those books. I tend to be wary of biographies of favourite authors because it can affect the way you read their work in future – or stop you altogether.

        The reading relationship as one of ‘trust’ – interesting…

        I like ‘reality as a mess of competing perspectives.’

    • p.s (How can I possibly not have exhausted this topic?) One anecdote occurred to me. I have a friend, A, who is quite a well-known novelist, and we had a close mutual friend, B. When A published her first novel it contained a character that B thought was herself. She was annoyed and wouldn’t speak to A for some time (though they are reconciled now). A said to me that the character borrowed some details from B but what was there, ‘was there with love’. When I came to read the novel, I would never have known that the character had any relation to B without being aware of this dispute. It would not have occurred to me to put the two together, and I knew B very well indeed. I guess B was looking to see herself and her upset did the rest. We are not the best judges of this sort of thing, being often too sensitive and too ready to project, and too afraid of the censure of the world, which is indeed scary. Anyway, just another thought.

    • I’m pretty sure I got hold of this novel after reading your review of it! Yes, I think you’d enjoy The Amber Fury – I’d be very interested to know what you made of it!

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