My Body Was Not My Own

‘From my childhood I have no happy memories’. Edouard Louis opens The End of Eddy with a statement that is as political as it is personal. What follows is a deeply autobiographical study of the poverty, prejudice and violence which characterised Louis’ adolescence in Hallencourt, a poor and remote region in Picardy, Northern France. The young Eddy Bellegueule (Edouard’s name by birth) bears the brunt of this violence. He is beaten and abused daily by two thuggish teens in the corridors of his lycée (‘they waited for me there every day… as if we had an appointment’), and he is likewise bullied by his father, who is ashamed of Eddy’s difference from the other boys: his slightness, his so-called ‘fancy ways’ and ‘queeny gestures’ – in short, his homosexuality, although the villagers have other words for it, including ‘faggot, fairy, cocksucker’. Louis writes unsparingly about the difficulties of growing up gay on the margins of society. Every morning in the bathroom mirror before school (and before the daily beatings), Eddy desperately ‘repeats the same sentence, in the same way as you repeat a prayer: “today I’m gonna be a tough guy.”’ Years later, as Louis puts his experience into The End of Eddy, he begins to cry. In his words: ‘I find that sentence hideous and ridiculous, that sentence that went everywhere with me for several years and was… at the centre of my being.’

Louis’ upset turns into anger, which is often directed towards the French Establishment. While The End of Eddy charts his suffering and his eventual escape from the village, it also lays bare the social deprivation experienced by the impoverished working class in France. In his highly-acclaimed second novel, History of Violence, Louis reconstructs with forensic precision the aftermath of Edouard’s sexual assault and attempted murder by Reda, a man he invites back to his Paris apartment late at night on Christmas Eve 2012. But the novel also interrogates how the police’s ‘compulsive racism’ towards immigrants complicates the course of justice (Edouard’s attacker is an Algerian, a Kabyle). Louis’ third and most recent novel, Who Killed My Father, about his father’s deteriorating health, has recently been released in France — it is another unrelenting attack on French society, as Louis explores how the poor working conditions of the factory where his father worked belong to a larger programme of political neglect.

Although Louis says autobiographical writing is ‘considered less legitimate than fiction’, his novels have nevertheless won huge acclaim, especially in France, where they are bestsellers. Louis is attracted to autobiography, rather than fiction, because it enables the simple act of speaking the truth, about himself and society: ‘there is a huge political strength in writing autobiography’, he tells me. ‘There is something very disturbing in putting truth at the core of a literary project, and to be disturbing should be the requirement or any writer. People are disturbed by the fact I am writing about real life. My writing forces people to confront real life.’

In The End of Eddy, Louis documents what it is like to grow up gay in a community where the norms of masculinity are strictly enforced. To be a man – like Eddy’s father, or his cousin Sylvain, who is admired for his careless criminality – is to be macho and violent, to drink yourself into a coma with cheap whisky and Pattis, to hate the ‘fags’ and ‘Arabs’. The burden of social expectations Eddy is forced to shoulder, his family’s hope that he will be dominant even in this realm of the dominated, are signalled by the typically ‘tough guy’s name’ his parents give him: Eddy Bellegueule. A man with ‘une belle gueule’ is strong – ‘a huge monster of flesh’ (like Eddy’s brothers) and not ‘so skinny a breeze could blow you away’ (like Eddy). Understandably, Eddy – more interested in theatre than football, less interested in girls than their clothes – is full of self-hatred. He tries to curb his body’s desires, its ‘high-pitched voice’ and swinging hips: he gains weight; he wanks, passionlessly, over his brother’s porn collection; he gets a girlfriend – all the while reassuring himself that ‘bodies can go through sudden transformations, that perhaps my body can suddenly change into a tough guy’s.’ But the gradual clarification of Eddy’s homosexuality brings with it another significant clarification: it is not Eddy at fault, but the gender expectations he is measured against. Louis’ dawning awareness of the social domination he suffers pushes him away from its perpetrators, his family and his village. Later, it motivates the ‘ending’ of his name ‘Eddy’, which he changes to Edouard upon his arrival in Paris.

Louis’ writing is populated by the socially dominated, the dispossessed and downtrodden. The villagers who live amongst Hallencourt’s ‘grim little churches, abandoned petrol stations, and its rusted-out, falling down supermarkets’, are victims of socially domination, no less than Eddy. Their homophobia, misogyny and racism is fuelled by their social deprivation. ‘When you’re subjected to endless violence, in every situation, every moment of your life’, Louis reasons, ‘you end up reproducing it against others, in other situations, by other means’. The overwhelming success of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in Hallencourt last year is proof of what The End of Eddy defines as the ‘desperate, continual, constantly renewed effort to place some people on a level below you, not to be the lowest rung on the social ladder’. Louis is clear-eyed but also sympathetic when he writes about the poverty of his village: families survive on food bank handouts, while children steal and swig cheap beer at the bus stop. Social prospects are narrow, even non-existent: boys will finish school one day and start at the factory the next, while the girls of the village will ‘have babies in order to become women’. Casual violence breaks up the tedium of everyday existence. Time does not seem to touch Hallencourt; the rituals and patterns of working class experience are as unchanging as Picardy’s fields of rapeseed and sugar beet.

Louis realised early into his literary career the extent to which the French working class was under-represented. He discovered literature when he arrived in Paris, where he ‘found that the world of my childhood wouldn’t appear in books… And so I wanted to write because of that, as revenge, in order to include the people excluded in literature of the past. It doesn’t mean there isn’t literature which talks about poor people – that would be absurd – but most of the time, the perceptions are so wrong, so distant, that it becomes another way of not talking about them. It is another way of putting these people on the other side of silence.’ He recalls watching, as a child, a TV interview with the French author J.M.G. Le Clézio, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize: ‘he was talking about the way he builds his characters and his books… and I remember thinking “we are suffering”… [yet] we are totally invisible in literature – why didn’t Le Clézio talk about us? He is creating characters while we are dying.’ Louis is politically outspoken in public life and asks the same of the literature he reads. He says he cannot ‘afford to write fiction’ – not when he has ‘met so many people and touched so many bodies that have been destroyed by social violence’. He has a ‘feeling of responsibility’ to these people, and hopes his novels bring the ‘left to life’ by foregrounding the effects of social violence on the working classes.

Louis recently penned an op-ed for The New York Times titled ‘Why My Father Votes for Le Pen’. It is a powerful piece, which attacks left-wing writers for their failure to engage with the issues faced by the working class, and then blaming them for the rise of the French far-right. Elsewhere, Louis has critiqued what he calls an ‘injunction of depoliticisation’ in France – the ongoing refusal of authors to intervene in political debate. His novels set out to change this.  They have had tangible effects, in France and further afield. In Norway, Louis tells me that History of Violence has prompted new questions amongst lawyers about the inveterate racism within their ‘penalty, justice and police systems’. Meanwhile, in Madrid, ‘Foundation Eddy’ has been created with the aim of providing ‘free apartments for LGBT+ people who have been expelled from their home, for them to escape’. ‘See’, Louis says, ‘a book can do something’.

It is fitting, then, that Louis describes his writing as a ‘different kind of literature’, even an attempt to ‘write against literature’. What does this new, different kind of literature look like? Louis is an enthusiastic scholar of sociology, having edited a collection of essays on Bourdieu before writing The End of Eddy. Each of his novels are written with a sociologist’s precision. In Eddy, for instance, observations are organised under headings like ‘A Portrait of My Mother in the Morning’ (‘she is not one who knows what to do with the hatred that never leaves her’), or ‘On Why Men Don’t Trust Doctors’ (it is ‘unmanly’ to take medication: ‘You won’t see me popping pills all the time, I’m no fairy’, Eddy’s father says, gritting his teeth through his crippling back-pain). Louis also weaves voices from the village into the novel, denoted by the irruption of italics into his otherwise learned, polished prose – the boys who beat Eddy know how to have a good time; his father ‘gets hammered’ on cheap beer; his mother has got balls’. It is important, Louis says, to ‘put these voices in the literary field’, for ‘most of the time when we write working class vernacular in literature, it is not this vernacular, but the bourgeois perspective on working class vernacular’. This is part of Louis’ commitment to the empirical, to representing things exactly as they are, which lends his writing authority and authenticity.

So vivid is Louis’ portrait of Hallencourt that the novel’s initial readers, the disbelieving Parisian elite and journalists, tracked down Edouard’s estranged family and put them before cameras in an attempt to sort fact from fiction. How could such poverty and homophobia exist in multi-cultural and tolerant modern France? How could the intelligent and articulate Louis – then a student at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure – have hailed from small, poor Hallencourt? Louis, however, responded with his characteristic reliance on the empirical, publishing several photos of his neglected, ramshackle family home. I ask Louis why his readers are so keen to disprove the novel’s content, and what this says about society. He replies: ‘Most of the time, the history of our society is the history of a struggle in order to deny what we know. When we see homeless people, we turn our heads in order not to see. And so the more you confront people to reality, its poverty and social exclusion, the more they want to deny it. It’s always a reaction when you talk about violence: racist violence, sexual violence, class violence. People will tell you it’s exaggerated, it’s not that bad – but obviously it’s a mechanism of defence.’

History of Violence, like The End of Eddy, is a form of ‘confrontational literature’, seeking to challenge society’s ‘mechanism of defence’ by putting an act of violence front and centre. Edouard (no longer Eddy) meticulously details the aftermath of his rape. His story of that night – how he made love to Reda, giddily, over ‘four or five times’, before his assault – is told to family and friends, and now to us, the readers. If Edouard does not exactly identify with Reda, then he does at least express an ambivalent sympathy with Reda’s situation. Reda has suffered social violence, the full force of its marginalisation and exclusion. His father travelled to Paris from Algeria in the 1960s and, like Edouard when he first arrived in Paris, he ‘must have thought he could get rid of his past, that with no past, no history, and thus no shame, he could try on all the styles and poses we secretly want to try but deny ourselves’. Reda is also on the receiving end of racism – the French police are ‘triumphant’ when they discover Reda was an ‘Arab’. Throughout the novel, Edouard is reluctant to tell the police and initiate the process of criminal justice, the necessary giving of statements and visit to the forensic emergency unit. Edouard is all too aware of the violence embedded in the French justice system. He remembers the ‘worn, ravaged, lacerated faces’ of his cousin Sylvain, wasting away in prison. ‘I know what jail does to a body’, Louis tells me: ‘It creates more violence. There are so many other ways, other than prison, to fix violence. We don’t fix violence with violence.’ History of Violence, like The End of Eddy, looks at how the patterns of violence are perpetuated between people. Edouard’s is reluctant to reproduce this violence against Reda – ‘those who have survived violence should have the right to keep it to themselves’, he explains.

Although he is now a (somewhat reluctant) member of the French literary elite, living apart from his working-class community, Louis still feel connected to his family and his village— if nothing else, he feels responsible for narrating their experience, with the hope that it may change their experience. Louis’ portrait of the working class might, at times, seem unflattering, but Louis argues that working class values and voices must not be idealised, and can be reproachable, because it is the very fact Louis is telling these stories that matters, so as to highlight the violence they produce, but also the social violence to which they fall victim:

I can fight for my mother. But I can also say that my mother is a homophobe and a racist, because Im fighting against an objective situation of dispossession, an objective situation of exclusion and domination. So I dont care if people deserveit or not, if people are goodor notFor me its a trap of capitalism, of the ideology of meritocracy. You should not have to show that people deserve it before deciding whether you fight for them. For me, the issue is truth. The issue is political. I dont want to be good or bad, kind or not kind, I want to write and thus to fight against an objective situation.

Louis’ mother is, for him, bound up with general social truths and the pursuit of political justice. Louis has the incredible strength to treat himself, his body, as the human link between the painfully personal and the powerfully political: something most writers can only manage through the veil of fiction. He writes from truth, and, through him, the truth speaks.