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Why do we fetishise the poverty memoir?

Would a new British party look more like Le Pen's NF than Ukip? And would Frank Field join it? Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Would a new British party look more like Le Pen's NF than Ukip? And would Frank Field join it? Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

June 29, 2018   6 mins

Since the publics of Western democracies began voting the wrong way a few years ago, a sub-section of literature has developed. Many of those who assumed that the public would behave and continue to vote for the status quo, were shocked to have been proved wrong. The less reflective among them chose to spend the following years attempting to prove that the votes weren’t valid: claiming, for instance, that a couple of dozen Russian Twitter bots had manipulated millions of voters into doing something unforgivable.

For the more reflective there was another option: embarking on the long, slow process of trying to understand their fellow countrymen.

For obvious reasons, the medium of the book is almost perfectly positioned for such people. Rightly or wrongly, books bestow a seriousness of purpose on the reader as well as on the part of the author. They are not merely conveying “I saw something on the telly about that”, but an expression of intent: a promise that the participant really wants to get to the root of something. And since distractions in our societies are now legion, and reading has become a rarity, the idea of ‘the book’ to explain a particular social or political phenomenon is freighted with a certain attraction.

The idea that a single life story could explain the indignities, frustrations and legitimate grievances of millions of people is a presumption in itself

In the wake of the Trump election, Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance assumed this weightiness in the US and abroad. Proclaimed as 2016’s “political book of the year” by The Sunday Times, it was lauded across the right- and left-wing press. The New York Times described it as “essential reading for this moment in history”. The Economist recommended it to its readers as the book to help them understand America. And The Independent proclaimed it “a great insight into Trump and Brexit”.

For anyone who has read the book, these descriptions may seem overstretched. Hillbilly Elegy is an elegant and hopeful memoir written by someone from an inelegant and hopeless world onto which he shines unsparing insight. Set in the poor Rust Belt of America, it is a story of marital disharmony, wider family chaos, joblessness, drink, drugs and poverty.

It is also a memoir of the people who transcended and transformed the situation they had been given. Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw, comes across as a woman of such strength that she is able not just to keep herself alive, but to protect, nurture and see into flight those members of her family who might otherwise never have taken off.

Vance goes into the Marine Corps where he acquires some of the habits of discipline and pride that his upbringing had failed to impart. From there, he makes it to Yale Law School. His is a terrific – and terrifically American – story of success against many odds.

Nevertheless, to assume that Hillbilly Elegy explains the election of Donald Trump – let alone the British choice to vote for Brexit – gives the book a weight it cannot carry. Sure, as a memoir, it certainly provides an insight into a world most Americans – especially most book-buying Americans – know little of. But an explanation for the Trump phenomenon?

There are books that certainly do that (The Great Revolt by Salena Zito and Brad Todd being one of the best), but if Hillbilly does some of that, it certainly cannot do it alone.

Whereas JD Vance comes across at all times as a thoroughly decent and respectful figure, Eribon seems content to portray himself as a shit of the first order

Still the desire for the memoir that explains the oddity of the majority would seem to remain attractive, for publishers and readers alike. And a far more curious – and far less viable – candidate has just appeared in a new English translation.

Retour à Reims (Returning to Reims) was first published in France in 2009. It is part memoir, part reflection, part typically Gallic intellectual detour written by the author and sociology professor Didier Eribon (whose previous work includes a biography of Michel Foucault).

The book gently accumulated readers upon publication, but interest soared (hence the latest English translation) after Marine le Pen made it to the last round of the French Presidential elections. Since when, Returning to Reims has been published in multiple translations across Europe, and adapted into a widely praised stage-play. It has assumed the mantle of ‘the book you need to understand the rise of the far-right’.

If Hillbilly is typical, in many ways, of American literature – a story of struggle with a happy ending; then Rheims reads like the work of a typical Francophobe. Ostensibly the story of a man’s return to his impoverished home town, the supposed political insight comes from his realisation that his estranged family, has, during the decades of his absence, moved from voting for the political Left (including the communists) to voting for the Right (including the Front National).

These family members remain largely voiceless as Eribon himself chooses to ‘explain’ them.

And whereas JD Vance comes across at all times as a thoroughly decent and respectful figure, Eribon seems content to portray himself – accurately it would appear – as a shit of the first order. His explanation for abandoning his family is two-fold: that the world he became interested in (of political theory, of Paris, and of books) was completely removed from them; and because he is gay.

He leaves to go to university and does not even return to attend his father’s funeral. Eribon neglects to stay in touch with his siblings, has not spoken to his elder brother and, by his own admission, did not bother to help up his younger siblings to escape – as he managed to do – from the working class poverty that clearly repelled him as a youngster.

Of his elder brother (who is still alive), he writes: “What I wanted could be summed up like this: not to be like him.”

Of his father, he reflects “My relationship with my father seemed to me to be only a biological and a legal one: he had fathered me, and I bore his name, but other than that he didn’t much matter to me.”

Since this is the work of a French sociologist, these moments of unlovable self-revelation are interspersed with pretentious diversions. There are endless laudings of Sartre. On any subject, on every occasion, Eribon is on team Sartre. If anyone ever said anything mean about Sartre, or dared to contradict him they go into the enemy camp and are attacked.

Whenever he needs to analyse a sociological issue Eribon eschews speaking to people (such as his own family) and instead comfortably coats them – from a distance – in a thick layer of sociology-ese. For instance no sooner has he finally raised the question of immigrant youths in the banlieues than we are given this:

“I know people will accuse me of falling into the realm of conspiracy theories, ascribing hidden purposes to certain institutions and even inventing evil intentions. This is the same criticism Bourdieu offered of the Althusserian notion of ‘ideological state apparatuses’. Such a notion involves thinking in terms of a ‘pessimistic functionalism’. An apparatus, he writes, would be ‘an infernal machine, programmed to accomplish certain purposes’, adding that ‘this fantasy of the conspiracy, the idea that an evil will is responsible for everything that happens in the social world, haunts critical social thought’. Of course, he is right! It is undeniable that Althusser’s concept returns us to an old-fashioned Marxist dramaturgy – or better, an old fashioned Marxist logomachy – in which entities…. Etc etc’ [p.114]

Elsewhere, there is a long diversion describing the novels he has never finished writing. And towards the end, the memoir retreats again into Eribon’s personal comfort zone. The last fifth of the book is a turgid and uninteresting diversion on homosexuality and society. This has been covered by Eribon before, in Insult and the Making of the Gay Self. But what emerges by the end is the clear realisation that he is not in the slightest bit interested in working out what made his family and others move to the political Right.

Instead, he is focuses on himself, and his own right to position himself as callously as he likes away from them and their world. One of the only times Eribon allows his mother to describe, in her own words, her world as she has experienced it is when she describes how the housing estate the family lived on had become – in Didier’s absence – overwhelmed by people of immigrant backgrounds. The Eribon family ends up applying to move elsewhere because they no longer feel safe or at home in the place that had once been theirs.

Eribon’s mother describes some of the indignities and embarrassments of this life and here is what he has to say:

“Did her descriptions really correspond to the reality around her or only to her fantasies? Most likely both at once. I no longer lived with them and never visited them, so I have no way of judging. When I would say to her on the telephone – for she would talk of nothing else – that she must be exaggerating, she would reply: ‘It’s obvious that you don’t live here and that it’s not like that where you live.’  What could I say?  Still I ask myself about how certain discourses come into being, discourses that serve to transform platforms… etc etc.’ [pp.138-9]

In a way it is appropriate that Returning to Reims should continue to hold the reputation of a book which explains why the public are voting the ‘wrong’ way.

The idea that a single life story could explain the indignities, frustrations and legitimate grievances of millions of people is a presumption in itself. But Returning to Reims – and its ongoing critical acclaim – adds an extra layer to the whole phenomenon. For here is a book which is meant to explain the politically wandering working classes. And a person has been found who comes from that background and ought to be able to understand it.

How perfect that the person is Eribon. This is a man who not only dislikes the people in question (and these are kin, not just countrymen) but who is more interested in interpreting the people, or correcting the people, than – even at this late stage – simply listening to them.

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.


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