A great deal can be read about a society from the books it imbibes. They can give a deeper insight into what a nation is thinking than any day’s media and often provide a glimpse of those anxieties and fears that are often hidden beneath the passing news cycle.
Few recent French writers have received as much praise as Edouard Louis. The young author (born 1992) has written three books to date (and edited another). Yet his name is an almost permanent presence in the French press. As well as the usual review pages, in recent months he has appeared on the cover of the hip culture magazine Inrockuptibles and been the subject of a less obliging profile in the new magazine L’Incorrect.
His novels are short, but densely packed with deep and disturbing material. It’s their subject matter – and especially the background matter – which has allowed him to make a more considerable dent in the culture than young novelists ordinarily manage.
His first novel, The End of Eddy, was published in English in 2017 (the French version, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueulle, came out in 2014). It’s a brutal book, describing the author’s upbringing in a poor village in northern France; he was an effeminate boy and his childhood was characterised by violence and bullying. The novel’s opening line, “From my childhood I have no happy memories”, sets the tone. His second book, History of Violence was published here last month (in France in 2016), is no less hard-hitting, recounting the story of the author’s rape on Christmas Eve in Paris. A short third book, Qui a tué mon père, has just been released in France.
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Even before he wrote about it in The New York Times last May, in a piece headlined Why my father votes for Marine Le Pen, it was clear that the third rail that Louis had touched was not so much the issue of his sexuality (important to his work though that is), but the brutality and boiling resentments of the background from which he comes. In that respect – much like Hillbilly Elegy and Returning to Rheims, which I wrote about for UnHerd – there is an element of poverty porn to it: work which better-off people read about a section of their society they cannot believe exists because they rarely, if ever, visit it.
Louis’s work undoubtedly lifts a veil on a part of France (and other post-industrial societies) which many people would care to forget about. The places inhabited by people who know that they have been forgotten about. Louis’s home town is France’s version of ‘flyover country’. It is a similar scene to that described by Eribon in Returning to Rheims.
But unlike Eribon (who is something of a mentor as well as a friend of Louis), the younger author does not lecture his readers. Rather he simply and brutally reveals his subjects in their full misery. It is a world of terrible violence. Not just the violence exerted on the author, but the violence of people towards themselves. Louis describes his pastis-addled father and the physical effects that labour in a factory has on a body after several decades of intense labour. Everybody leaves school at the earliest possible opportunity. Everybody gets into marital, or quasi-marital, arrangements as soon as they can.
But there is also the thud of a more casual brutality. Louis is a master of the terrible but telling anecdote. Early in Eddy we read of the author’s father dispensing of an unwanted litter of kittens by putting them in a plastic bag and smashing the bag against a wall. It is an unforgiving world from which Eddy – like many heroes before him – must escape.
This desire to escape is, perhaps, what makes the subject matter of History of Violence so doubly bleak. Once in Paris, the author has begun to make a life for himself, with a few friends and a small flat of his own. But then he invites somebody he meets on the street late at night back to his apartment. A casual but tender encounter swiftly turns into robbery and finally rape.
Yet it is the deeper straits in these books which are their more interesting aspect – and arguably explain why these autobiographical novels have sold so well, as well as received such critical acclaim. Louis despises the ugly and casual racism of his Front National voting family. But in running the other way he runs into troubles at least as revealing and terrible in their own way.
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The author’s rapist, as described in History of Violence is the child of an immigrant. Specifically he is Kabyle (an ethnic group from the north of Algeria). When Edouard invites his attacker into his flat, he does so partly struggling to dismiss the ethnic and racial suspicions that his family back home would feel. Attempting to sublimate the racial element of the interaction, it presents itself in its worst imaginable version.
When Edouard steps out of the shower and notices his missing valuables he attempts to avoid implicating the man in his apartment (called Reda). He does everything he can not to make the connection that only a racist would make. Even to the extent that Edouard describes his resistance to reporting his rapist to the police. In one startling passage he describes someone urging him to make a report:
What I thought was, I’m afraid he’ll come back and take revenge, but what I said was, ‘I don’t want to,’ and I added that I had political reasons for not wanting to file a report – which happened to be true, even if those weren’t the main reasons – that it was because I hated repression, the very idea of repression, because I thought Reda didn’t deserve to go to prison. [p.149]
This passage, like the rest of his work, positively reeks of the truth. Just as the descriptions of the damp, rotten council houses of his home village, with their abuse, violence and casual racism and homophobia, strike the reader as disgustingly true, so Louis’s registered attempts to flee from the ideas of his place of birth (as well as the place itself) strike this reader at least as being horrifically accurate.
It is always admirable when the authors of memoirs, or autobiographical fiction, avoid the temptation to sugar-coat their own thoughts and instead present them in all their awful, unavoidable conflictedness. And that is what Louis has proved so extraordinarily adept at.
His political pronouncements – such as they have been – have tended towards the simplistic and cliched. But the world that he writes about, in all its honesty, is very far from that. Louis gives an insight into where his nation actually is. Caught with the consequences of social and societal change. Looking for answers, certainly. But also looking for excuses for, and ways out from, the infinitely complex situation in which that nation (like all our nations) now finds itself.