…the village, far from the city with its movement and activity, was also sheltered from the passage of time…
From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all of those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system.
Édouard Louis (b.1992) has written without sentimentality about violence, poverty, class, racism and sexuality in his autobiographical novel, The End of Eddy, first published in 2014 but only recently translated into English by Michael Lucey (2017). Set in Picardy during the late twentieth century, the novel details a world the author wishes to escape. It feels like a bildungsroman but as a self-consciously political novel is much more than that.
The writing is intimate yet detached and impersonal. There is very little dialogue and the sentences short. The voices of the protagonist’s mother, father, cousin, school peers and other locals are italicised as we hear from a class of people trapped in a world of poverty and ignorance fuelled by television and alcohol. This is very political life-writing but it is also impactful prose. From the opening pages the reader is confronted in a semantically brutal fashion with descriptive passages that physically repel almost leading one to push the book away to avoid the spittle:
The tall redhead spat in my face How do you like that, punk. The gob of spit dripped slowly down my cheek, thick and yellow, like the noisy mucus that obstructs the throats of old people or people who are ill, with a strong, sickening smell to it. Shrill, strident laughter from the two boys Look, right in his face, the little pussy. It is dripping from my eye towards my lips, ready to enter my mouth. I don’t dare wipe it off. I could; I’d only have to lift my sleeve. It wouldn’t even take a second, a tiny movement, to prevent the spit from coming into contact with my lips, but I do nothing for fear of offending them, for fear of making them more agitated than they already are.
As with Karl Ove Knausgaard in Norway, this is life-writing that stirred many outside French literary circles but for different reasons. The depictions of the working poor and unemployed as xenophobic, violently homophobic and abusively alcoholic was deeply offensive – depending on perspective – as either a misrepresentation of a class of people or a condemnation of such brutish behaviour. There are very narrow ideas about masculinity in the village and Eddy struggles with his effeminacy, often aping the machoism of his peers and elders. Some of the episodes are very challenging on numerous levels. The imagery in the novel is often cruelly effective. The following passages are deeply moving:
I never saw a shooting star without wishing that I’d stop being a boy. There was not a single page of my journal on which I didn’t make some reference to my secret desire to become a girl – and then the fear, which was always present, that my mother would discover this journal.
Between the hallway at school, my parents, and the people in the village, I was trapped. My only reprieve was in the classroom. I liked school. Not the school itself, not school life: the two boys were there. But I liked the teachers. They never talked about pussies or dirty faggots. They explained that differences should be accepted, they voiced the discourse of the French educational system, that we were all equal. People were not to be judged by the colour of their skin, their religion, or their sexual orientation…
While I was spending my time at the bus stop, other children like her, Amélie, were reading books their parents had given them, were going to the cinema, even to the theatre. In the evenings their parents spoke about literature, about history – a conversation between Amélie and her mother about Eleanor of Aquitaine had left me white with shame – while they ate their dinner.
He would bring the fish home to the house and my mother would clean them and then freeze them, wrapped in newspaper or in plastic bags from the supermarket. A horrible sight for me: opening the freezer door and finding these cadavers wrapped in a layer of ice. The most troubling part was seeing their eyes, imprisoned in ice after having been frozen by death.
The world of school is so often not the world children inhabit but Eddy often found it to be a reprieve from relentless physical and verbal brutality. He does try to deny his sexuality to survive at school and home but the reality is he knew from the youngest age what he really wanted. The challenge of leaving a working or under class background at the gates of the school is very apparent to Eddy – and the author.
My books are born out of an absence: I began writing because I could not find the world of my childhood anywhere in books.
This was how it was when I was a young reader too. Very few books were recognisably about the world I inhabited. Colin Thiele’s Blue Fin spoke to me as I recognised the characters and the boy’s situation. As an Australian, I recognised a great deal of Eddy’s world from my own childhood and related to the challenges of class, poverty, dirt, violence and racism. The story is more universal than French. Education has always been a way out. Sort of.
Louis was the editor of essays examining the importance of Pierre Bourdieu – the French philosopher whose most important work, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984) explores how classes distinguish themselves aesthetically – just prior to this debut novel being published. With this in mind, it is important to know the author changed his name on publication of the novel signifying that he had left the world of his past behind. Eddy Bellegueule, the protagonist, grew up in the village of Hallencourt before departing to study social sciences and philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.
This interview in The Paris Review illuminates Louis’ thinking:
I wrote the book to give a voice to these people, to fight for them and with them, because they seem to have disappeared from the public eye. In the novel I use two languages—the one I use now, which is more “literary,” and the one I grew up with, the language of the excluded classes, which is completely absent from the public arena. When you make a language disappear you make the people who speak it disappear. My family would vote for Marine Le Pen, saying, We do it because she’s the only one who talk about us, the little people.” That wasn’t true, but it reveals the sentiment of invisibility that strikes the dispossessed. But I also critique the values of that culture. I don’t need to show that working-class values are above reproach in order to write against the social violence that produces them. To me it’s a crucial distinction—we don’t have to love a culture to support the people who comprise it.
This is an important novel and has my highest recommendation. I look forward to the translation of his latest novel, Histoire de la violence (2016) and it is worth reading his Manifesto for an Intellectual and Political Counteroffensive with Geoffroy de Lagasnerie – originally published in Le Monde on September 27–28, 2015 – while you wait to see the outcome of the French elections this year.
Other titles read during February
Hegel’s Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith (2016) by Sheridan Palmer
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014) by Steven Pinker
Mindfulness in Plain English (1991) by Bhante Henepola Gunarantana
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell