April 5, 2019

It was Tom Stoppard who pointed out that if you wanted to affect a specific policy somewhere, then you should write an opinion piece, whereas if you wanted to affect the moral tenor of the times, you should write a play.

If a play can indeed do such a thing, then other creative acts of writing – novels, say, and film scripts – might be said to do so as well. This presumption is why authors and playwrights are held to be on a slightly higher plane than hacks. Other than in America, of course, where hacks are regarded – by themselves at least – as the major moral legislators of their time.

For this reason it is always interesting when people who are writers veer into the business more commonly practised by hacks. When they start giving their views on the day’s news, or laying out the pros and cons of a particular administration, the writer rarely receives a reputational boost. Often, the opposite.

When Harold Pinter applied himself to politics, he tended to be reduced to four line rants composed of four letter words. Where his writing for stage relied on a mystery that drew you in, his interventions into politics were so crude that they could not help but push the reader away. And not only from that work, but from the work that had preceded it. The reader wondered: if something so simplistic could come from such a mind, perhaps we were wrong to credit that same mind with much profundity before?

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I recently experienced a wave of this when reading the latest work by the young French novelist Edouard Louis. I have written here before about this talented author’s first two novels (The End of Eddy and History of Violence). And I have also written in less flattering terms about his friend and supposed mentor Didier Eribon (who wrote Returning to Rheims).

A third work by Louis has now been published (in English as Who Killed my Father?), and the issue of novelistic versus journalistic imagination is at the fore.

If there is a reason for the critical acclaim that Louis has enjoyed both in and outside France, it comes from the same cause that has given Eribon and JD Vance (author of the novelistic memoir Hillbilly Elegy) their extraordinary international attention. That is, it comes from the belief that these writers have given the reading public an insight into a substrate of their country which most people – especially most literary people – do not see.

Just as Vance gave the world a sympathetic but stark depiction of the world of the American underclass, so Eribon and Louis are granted to have given France (and a wider Francophile audience) a view into parts of their country that most people would resile from.

But books of this kind work when they are impressionistic – when they paint a canvas which is at once grandly striking but also lacking in journalistic here-today, gone-tomorrow-ism. If we wish to know which specific under-secretary of state a particular person believes to have been better than another, then we tend not to reach for a hardback book.

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When we do reach for these books, it is in the hope of accessing some truth not just about the state of a nation but the state beneath the nation.

That, to a certain degree, is what Louis managed to depict in his memoir-istic first book – an account of a young, gay Frenchman from a working-class background, absorbing the indignities which came with each strand and layer of his identity.

In the subsequent History of Violence, he approached some of the same subject matter along with meditations on the nature of sex, violence, and prejudice. Both were successful on their own novelistic terms, which is why the content of Who killed my father? is both surprising and deflating. For it points not only to Louis’s personal failure but a failure of the era – the failure of literature to keep itself above the hyper-politicisation of absolutely everything, which has become the tone of our times.

This new book sets out to explore key scenes in the life of Louis’s father, a working-class man from one of the forgotten bits of France. His body is wrecked by the manual labour he has had to perform throughout his adult life, from the time he left school early to the moment when his body could take it no more.

In one way this gives Louis an excuse to re-examine some of the issues of class, race and sexuality which he explored in his previous books. But something else creeps into this work. It arrives on the opening page, where we are launched into an analysis of the meaning of racism, and its summary by the American scholar Ruth Gilmore (that racism is “the exposure of certain populations to premature death”).

The same claim is then made by the author about other forms of oppression (“male privilege”, “hatred of homosexuality or trans people” and “domination by class”). This is a seminar from a social sciences course, not a work of literature.

The trouble is, chunks of this now-dominant school of thinking and writing are inserted amid scenes which describe the author’s views of his father – and these have a true literary and observational quality. Take the author’s account of his father’s reaction upon hearing the news of his own father’s death: “This calls for a toast,” he says, over the noise of the TV.

But it is Louis’s reflection on this, rather than the recounting on its own, which makes it valuable:

“Looking back, I think you said it too loud, there was something artificial, as if it were a line you’d been working on for months.”

Given his father’s taciturnity, which the reader is by now familiar with, the suggestion that this line – that any line – would have been ‘worked on’ in advance by his father is the observation of a true novelist. As are some of the tiny interjections, and their careful clauses and qualification – such as the interjection, in the middle of a passage of other details, of the single line: “It often seems to me that I love you”

Being a French author, of course, Louis cannot ever allow a text – even a novel – to be unencumbered by those intellectual credentials that French writers still believe they need to flash in order to prove their seriousness. This explains why Louis, at one point, suddenly changes tack:  “In his book Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre probes the connection between one’s being and one’s actions. Are we defined by what we do? Are we defined by the projects we undertake? Are a woman and a man simply what they do? …. Are you still reading this?”

Ok that last question was mine. But these idiosyncratic flaws – the need to cite the approved texts – are flaws of the French literary world. (While journalese is the flaw of our own.)

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Louis’s text descends into little more than an attack on a succession of French governments and government officials. Seventy pages in, we are being told about the actions of Xavier Bertrand, a health minister in Jacques Chirac’s government.

Perhaps some readers will see such passages as bold and confrontational. After Louis’s father is unable to work, a set of governments – from Chirac, through Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and right up to Emmanuel Macron – are blamed for various actions in trying to get people off the dole.

Certainly for family members of people who are unfit to work and who are put through the indignities of trying to prove this, such episodes are doubtless enraging and even politically radicalising. But should polemical hyperbole really be the realm of the novelist?

By the work’s end, Louis is explaining why he wants the names of various officials in the governments of every political stripe in France in recent years to be remembered as ‘murderers’. And that they be remembered everywhere in the world, from Laos to Siberia and the Congo, alongside the names of Richard III and Jack the Ripper.

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This is the stuff of an opinion piece – and a rather terrible opinion piece at that. Most editors would remove such a claim or demand as being not just histrionic, but embarrassingly reductive and simplistic.

An author, let alone a novelist, ought to be embarrassed to attempt such a feat. For everything is more complicated than this. One doubts that Xavier Bertrand thinks of himself as a murderer, or of his actions as being so entirely without justification. What might those justifications be? The novelist will not tell us.

Changing the moral tenor of the times cannot be achieved by such hackery, and literature should at least aspire to escape from such simplistic narratives – to engage on a different plane. But the fact that a novelist would be attracted to such a register is telling in itself. For that tone – the lock-step sociological analysis, reductionist claims and ‘calling out’ of guilty parties – is very much the tenor of the times. It may be considered a triumph for journalism, but it is a dead-end for literature.