A chance encounter on Christmas Eve ends with Edouard Louis, a student at the École Normale Supérieure, taking a stranger back to his apartment. Louis has struggled with the decision to invite the man to share his home and his body, and now, poised on the brink of terrible physical and emotional violence that will have long-standing consequences for both of them, the young men have choices to make. Both have a chance to end the sequence of events that led them to this point: in other words, to flee. But neither does. ‘I believe that each decision made that evening,’ Louis writes in Histoire de la violence, ‘on my part as well as his, rendered all other decisions impossible the very moment afterwards; that each choice destroyed all other possible choices, and that the more he chose, the less free he became.’
This sense of being trapped – by society, class, family, one’s own body and desires, even by seemingly free choice itself – permeates Louis’s work. His pair of heavily autobiographical novels – both huge bestsellers in France – are built on the conflict between the urge to break free of social and emotional shackles and the inability to do so. Violence is everywhere, manifesting itself both in physical brutality and in the long-standing cycles of oppression and deprivation that render the principal players in Louis’s story powerless to change their fate. Everyone – the young Louis himself, his family and the inhabitants of his childhood village, and, much later, his assailant in Paris, and even the bigoted police officers who interview him after his ordeal – is merely fulfilling a predestined role.
In a brief interlude in Histoire de la violence, Louis reflects on his reading of Faulkner’s Sanctuary, and notes Temple Drake’s inability to escape from the people who raped and abducted her, even when the opportunity presents itself. She has no clear understanding of her actions, and is incapable of resisting bad choices. The interlude takes place at a point of high drama in Louis’s novel – he will soon be strangled and raped at gunpoint by the man he has picked up – but even at that moment he is aware of the alternative choices available to him. He does not take them.
Much of his extraordinary first novel, The End of Eddy, is concerned with explaining and understanding this inability to break free, both on his part and on the part of the people around him. The novel is, on the surface at least, the coming-of-age story of a boy, Eddy Bellegueule (Louis’s name at birth), who realises early on that he is different from the others in his remote working-class village in northern France – an intelligent child attracted to theatre, music and, above all, other boys. It is the story of his struggles with identity, of his survival of the casual brutality of the community he lives in: the near daily beatings at school, the rampant homophobia, racism and sexism, the patterns of alcoholism, crime and violence that are normalised in the families of the village.
Despite his best efforts, he is incapable of changing his physical comportment: ‘I was dominated, subjugated by these mannerisms and I had not chosen that high-pitched voice. I had not chosen my way of walking, the pronounced, much too pronounced, way my hips swayed from side to side, or the shrill cries that escaped my body.’ His manner is a particular source of shame for his father, un dur, one of the hard men of the village, who begins to join in with the casual homophobic abuse of his own son (at the age of ten, Eddy is drawn into sexual relations with other boys in the village, including one of his own cousins, and rumours abound).
In order to survive, Louis has to escape the village, his family, even himself. The novel’s title in French, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, translates as ‘Finishing Off’, or ‘Putting an End to Eddy Bellegueule’, which gives a sharper edge to the act of escape and transformation than the English translation’s more neutral version: somehow, Eddy has to break free not only from the village, but from the generations of cultural and social baggage he is burdened with. Like so much in Louis’s richly specific picture of working-class rural France, the full significance of a family name such as Bellegueule is a challenge to even the most skilful translator. Michael Lucey opts for ‘Prettymug’, which is as close as English gets: a man with ‘une belle gueule’ tends to be rugged and macho, while one with ‘un beau visage’ is handsome in a more standard fashion. When combined with Eddy (very much not Édouard), the narrator’s name takes on a markedly working-class flavour – it’s ‘a tough guy’s name’. In order to exist in the present, Louis has to finish off his past as Eddy Bellegueule.
Escaping the village (which is always referred to that way, without being named) isn’t as easy as it seems: its presence asserts itself throughout both novels, which are anchored in its rhythms, its language, populated by its inhabitants – all of whom, unlike Eddy, defy attempts to be finished off. The harsh coming-of-age story in The End of Eddy is also a portrait of this community surrounded by the windswept fields of Picardy, observed in microscopic detail with a sociologist’s eye: the chapter titles include ‘A Man’s Role’, ‘Portrait of My Mother in the Morning’ and ‘Sylvain (An Eyewitness Account)’. It is Louis’s dedication to the empirical that gives the novel its authority: he is describing the real lives of marginalised communities – often white, Front National-voting, working-class and rural – far removed from centres of power and totally absent from the consciousness of the Paris-centric bourgeoisie.
In a country struggling to comprehend the rise of right-wing politics, the very sense of the hyper-real that made the novel a cause célèbre on its publication in 2014 also caused a tide of polemic against Louis, typified by an exposé in the Nouvel Observateur (‘Qui est vraiment Eddy Bellegueule?’) which challenged the veracity of his account of village life and included a melodramatic description of his mother’s appearance at a reading at a Parisian bookstore in order to set the record straight. The events of that day, along with numerous details in the article, were fiercely contested, and the journal was forced to withdraw several allegations, but by then the surrounding furore had transformed En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule from bestseller to social phenomenon.
Like many of the other articles suspicious of the novel’s autobiographical element, the Nouvel Obs relied on first-hand rebuttals, carefully collected from people in the village appalled by what they had heard of the book (very few, if any, seemed to have read it). As their testimonies spread through the national press, it became clear that the denials were in a sense coming not merely from a single village in Picardy but from an entire country. Perhaps fittingly, the violence of the dispute over the authenticity of the book mirrored the violence it sought to portray. Even for readers far removed from the village, Louis’s revelations of life in rural France made disturbing reading. Observations such as ‘Going out always involved the bus stop, the centre of a boy’s life,’ or ‘Fights were a frequent feature of these evenings,’ are uncontroversial, but what to do with the book’s more forceful assertions?
Like all the men in the village, my father was violent. And my mother, like all the women in the village, complained about her husband’s violence.
In the village it’s as if women have babies in order to become women, as if they can’t be women otherwise. People take them for lesbians, or frigid.
Or, recounting one of his mother’s many stories:
I’m telling you this because I can’t figure out why your dad is such a racist, ’cause I’m not, even if it’s true the Arabs and the blacks get away with everything, and the government spends way too much money on them so there’s less for us, but still it’s not like I’m for killing them or hanging them or putting them in camps like your dad is.
Louis doesn’t pretend that the novel’s aesthetic of violence and suffering isn’t coloured by Eddy’s ordeals, as the first line of the novel makes clear: ‘From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into the system.’ This is the story of someone excluded from the majority, dominated by it; but that majority is itself excluded and dominated by greater powers.
Talk of Louis’s novels in the village is more common these days, though in a community where higher education is the exception, literature isn’t high on people’s list of priorities, and most have still not read his books. But the few who have speak about them without the discomfort they felt three years ago. There are rumours of a film adaptation, which people of the village mention with an awkward sense of pride mixed with wariness. Do they now feel more comfortable with Eddy’s view of life there?
I could ask the people of the village, I suppose; ask them directly whether they accept Eddy’s version of events. Because, through a chain of coincidences at once complicated and simple, I have lived there myself for the last 12 years, on and off, observing from its margins, half-hidden and determined to avoid confrontation. Every detail in Louis’s novels is familiar to me: the bus stop (now moved thirty yards down the road), the mild threat of the band of teenagers gathered there from dusk, ‘Jeanine, the old lady who lives across from the bus stop’, the church square, the muddy paths that lead out of the village into the vast fields of wheat and rape beyond, the impoverished households as well as the more middle-class ones, the factory on the edge of the village – I know them all.
One afternoon in the early spring of 2014 – it must have been before the clocks went forward, because the nights still drew in early – I was looking for a newspaper to light the fire with, and picked up a recent copy of the Courrier Picard, the local paper. As I peeled the pages away and scrunched them up, an article caught my eye, complete with a large photograph of a family from our village, a mother and three children, nicely dressed, sitting round a kitchen table. Before them, on the table, lay a double-page spread featuring their son, who had just written a scandalous novel about their family life. ‘Eddy’s my son, my pride, my favourite … I just don’t understand.’ No one understood. The younger brother was distraught: ‘I couldn’t read to the end, my brother was my hero, an example to me, I don’t understand why he’s done this to us.’ A former friend of Eddy’s, however, had it figured out: it was the type of sensational discourse peddled to shock and frighten the bourgeois of Paris with images of a deprived working class, pour vendre – to sell copies and make money. The truth about Eddy Bellegueule, according to the Courrier Picard, was plain.
I looked at the photo, at the just-styled hair of the women, the brother’s street-cool black T-shirt, the dresser in the background, decorated with framed photos of family members at weddings, the faux-leather sofa. The image’s portrayal of solid family life, of normality, seemed to resonate precisely – too precisely – with the family’s narrative. They looked familiar to me, but I didn’t know them or the book. Further down the page, the writer briefly defended himself, but I had stopped reading. I crumpled up the paper and put a match to it.
Without knowing it, I had been drawn into the divisions of the village, into its invisible expressions of loyalty and belonging. With us or against us. Working-class or bourgeois. French or Arab. Insider or outsider. The choices are binary and powerful. As I was absent from the village for long stretches of time, I had assumed that these choices were nothing to do with me. I wasn’t really part of village life; I didn’t need to get involved. But here I was, declaring my loyalty to the village and its official narrative; here I was, hoping that the article in the Courrier Picard was true, despite my strong suspicions to the contrary. I stood out in every way: bourgeois by profession, Asian by appearance, non-local by speech. I was – am – the only foreigner among the thousand or so inhabitants. I didn’t want to risk emphasising my difference by taking the side of a troublemaker – someone who appeared to stand so clearly against the village. In the same way that Eddy instinctively and publicly insults a new boy at school – someone even more effeminate and vulnerable than him – I was instinctively siding with the majority, seeking comfort in their protection. I had done so without any forethought, without even really knowing why. I had become like the characters in Louis’s work, making decisions despite myself, and feeling that my choice was inevitable.
A few days later, I plucked up the courage to go to the village newsagent to see if they had a copy of the novel. The woman who ran the shop replied curtly: ‘We don’t sell that kind of thing.’ I was ashamed to have asked, and may even have muttered something about its being for a friend in Paris, or some other implausible excuse. I eventually bought a copy in Abbeville, some twenty minutes’ drive away. For a long time, however, whenever anyone asked about my work, or if the conversation veered towards books and writing, and the name Bellegueule was mentioned, as it often was, I would respond with studied neutrality, skilfully avoiding any discussion of the book or the issues it raised – or, indeed, the way it had made me confront the problems in the village, which I had either wilfully ignored or come to accept as normal, either because I could leave (thanks to my middle-class work and life away from the village), or because it was simply more convenient to look away.
Of the many divisions in the village – gay v. straight, white v. Arab, left-wing v. right-wing – two demand particularly complex declarations of loyalty: the demarcations between men and women, and bourgeois and poor. Louis’s response to the first of these is clear. What it means to be a man is passed from father to son (‘A father reinforced his own masculine identity through his sons, to whom he was duty-bound to transmit his own virility’), and since Eddy is incapable of inheriting this burden, he quickly rejects his father’s world. Although Louis’s portrayal of his mother and the other women in the village can’t – in any conventional sense at least – be considered affectionate, his decision to put their lives at the centre of both novels feels like the righting of an imbalance of power, a celebration of their resilience in a male-dominated world. When Eddy’s father can no longer work and the family is living hand-to-mouth, it is his mother who finds ways of providing meals, who pretends to organise a game in the woods so the children can help collect firewood to cook and heat the house with, who later struggles with a difficult job as a domestic help in the village. In novels that seem to turn their back on tenderness, this meticulous record of her hardships feels like a tribute.
The women of the village pass local stories on to Eddy before they are lost – and here Louis rights another imbalance, by capturing the lives of people who have no place in official narratives. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the prominence of Clara, Louis’s sister and co-narrator of Histoire de la violence, who recounts to her husband everything Louis has told her of the attack. What she reveals, and the manner in which she does so, makes clear Louis’s struggles against the other major division in his work, perhaps the most important: class.
Clara’s narrative, rendered intimately in the first person, is woven into Louis’s, with the richness of her language – breathless, colourful and resolutely non-standard in its vocabulary and phrasing – mirroring the studied run-ons of his sentences. There are no half-measures in the way Louis captures Clara’s way of speaking, no filtering of her stories in order to achieve a neat novelistic fit: there are no instances of the double negative that characterises standard written French, he sometimes leaves out commas and full stops and determinedly preserves her numerous and often lengthy digressions (she can’t help talking about herself, their mother and their childhood). His own language is richer than in En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, with elegant long sentences that may seem to have been honed at the École Normale Supérieure but in fact replicate the hypnotic cadences of his sister’s spoken French.
Clara speaks in a way that would make chic Parisians raise their eyebrows, but her frequent bawdiness is built on a richness of imagery that is summoned with consummate ease. Like all the other women in the village, she doesn’t hesitate to say, when she goes to the loo: ‘Je vais secouer ma salade’ (secouer means ‘to shake’, in this case referring to the French way of drying a washed salad). She describes her brother as being ‘stout as a plaice’, and dismisses his sex-obsessed teenage friends as so desperate that they’d be happy with ‘a goat with a bit of lipstick’.
The fusing of these two forms of language confuses their hierarchy. Which do we admire more, Louis’s educated cadences or Clara’s earthy Picard-infused tones? The lack of a clear answer provides a clue to the true nature of Louis’s literary project: the deliberate collapsing of the space between two extremes, even as those spaces resist being collapsed.
That it is Clara, not Louis himself, who describes his departure from the village is highly significant. His story is seen not through the eyes of the educated – he has, at last, passed to the other side, that of the hated bourgeoisie, or so it seems – but those of the ordinary people, ‘les campagnards’, ‘les ploucs’ (country folk, bumpkins). We see the return of the now highly educated Louis to the village, and his initial struggles to adapt: his newly acquired manners and ways of speaking mark him out. ‘It’s as if he wants to show at all cost that he is no longer like us … that he has become different. Too good for us.’ She understands her brother’s obsession with the estrangement brought about by education, his constant comparison of himself with his friends from the days of hanging out at the bus stop. ‘What a journey, what a damned long journey.’ But after a few days he begins to relax into the ways of the village, to laugh at the coarse jokes and even to speak Picard again. Despite the divisions between them, despite his escape, the village has reclaimed him.
At first glance, Louis’s struggle to make sense of his new identity as class renegade appears to continue the tradition of French writers like Annie Ernaux, in her trio of slim autobiographical novels, and, especially, Didier Eribon (to whom The End of Eddy is dedicated), whose influential memoir Retour à Reims involves a now celebrated writer revisiting the tough working-class childhood in which he struggled with sexuality, education and the weight of France’s social hierarchy. But Louis’s work involves even greater schisms. He doesn’t merely push the boundaries of the autobiographical novel: in fusing the political and the personal he seems to do away with them altogether.
One final source of tension runs through his novels, barely visible but striking when it does appear: the traces of beauty in writing that seems determined to scrub them out. In prose that revels in describing pain and deprivation, moments of extreme tenderness surface even in the midst of violence. Just after his ordeal in Histoire de la violence, Louis listens to his attacker at the entrance to the apartment, and hears the soft scratching of the man’s stubble on the door – a detail so intimate it threatens to collapse the space between aggressor and victim all over again (the division between them, we realise, isn’t as great as it seems).
Mostly, these fleeting yet intense expressions of beauty are attached to descriptions of the village. Recalling the dull grey mud of the building site in Paris’s Place de la République that Christmas Eve, he compares it to the red-brown mud of his childhood, ‘this mud that smelled of fresh earth, gleaming like clay, which seemed so clean and nourishing that we would gladly spread it on our faces’.
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