The village overwhelmingly votes for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front, and, as France has braced itself for the possibility of a Le Pen Presidency, Louis’s book has become the subject of political discussion in a way that novels rarely do. (In the first round of the current Presidential election, Le Pen received nearly twice as many votes in Hallencourt as any other candidate.) For Louis, the tide of populism sweeping Europe and the United States is a consequence of what he, citing the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, calls “the principle of the conservation of violence.” “When you’re subjected to endless violence, in every situation, every moment of your life,” Louis told an interviewer, referring to the indignities of poverty, “you end up reproducing it against others, in other situations, by other means.”
“The End of Eddy” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; translated, from the French, by Michael Lucey) covers five or six years in the life of Eddy Bellegueule, a child growing up poor and gay in Hallencourt—in the novel, Louis refers to it only as “the village”—where he’s viciously mocked for his effeminate manners, what his family calls his “fancy ways.” In the book’s opening pages, Eddy is ten, and two boys, somewhat older, are assaulting him in a middle-school hallway. They call him “faggot” before spitting in his face; soon they’re shoving him; finally, as his head slams against the wall, they kick him, laughing. The passage is brutal and vivid, but it lacks the usual markers of tension or urgency: the narration wavers unsteadily between past and present tense, and there’s a lyrical slowing of time, an almost luxurious lingering on sensation as the boys’ saliva slides down Eddy’s face. Louis pauses the drama for digressions on violence in the village, on how the structures of domination in the playground mirror those in the world at large, even on dental care:
I could smell their breath as they got closer, an odor of sour milk, dead animals. Like me, they probably never brushed their teeth. Mothers in the village weren’t too concerned about their children’s dental hygiene. Dentists were expensive and as usual a lack of money came to seem like a matter of choice. Mothers would say There’s way more important things in life. That family negligence, class-based negligence, means that I still suffer from acute pain, sleepless nights, and years later, when I arrived in Paris and at the École Normale, I would hear my classmates ask me But why didn’t your parents send you to an orthodontist. I would lie.
The assault, it soon becomes clear, is not a single event, but a composite, a kind of ritual repeated over two years. It happens in a regular spot, a secluded corridor outside the school library, where Eddy appears daily. He submits to the beatings out of fear, and out of a desire to suffer in privacy; he wonders if his actions constitute complicity. A weird intimacy develops between him and the two boys. When one of them seems sad, Eddy worries about him. Later, attempting to have sex with a woman, he will think about the boys and their violence in a failed effort to arouse himself.
In interviews, Louis has said that everything he recounts in the novel is true. (Members of his family, as well as other inhabitants of Hallencourt, have disputed elements of his account.) Édouard Louis was born in 1992, in Hallencourt, as Eddy Bellegueule—his father, a fan of American television, thought that Eddy was “a tough guy’s name.” After joining a drama club at his middle school, Louis was accepted into a residential theatre program at a high school in a nearby city, Amiens, which provided his escape from the world of his childhood. From there, he went on to the University of Picardy Jules Verne, to study history, and to the prestigious École Normale Supérieur, in Paris, for graduate work. Shortly before his novel was published, he legally changed his name to Édouard Louis.
“The End of Eddy” is an instance of what is sometimes called autofiction, which has been the source of some of the most interesting English-language fiction of the past decade. There is a long tradition of such writing, especially in French, and queer writers are central to it: behind all such novels lies the example of Proust; the works of the French novelist Hervé Guibert and the American Edmund White are more recent precursors of Louis’s book. The novel is dedicated to the sociologist Didier Eribon, whom Louis met as a university student. Eribon’s memoir, “Returning to Reims,” also recounts a gay man’s trajectory from provincial poverty to academic prestige.
“The End of Eddy” largely dispenses with the conventions of the realist novel. The book is organized topically, in short chapters, several with the feel of essays, bearing titles like “My Parents’ Bedroom” and “A Man’s Role.” While the novel is full of incident and anecdote, scenes are interrupted by commentary so often that there is almost no sense of a forward-moving plot. The most common narrative mode is the generalized past. What distinguishes “The End of Eddy” from its autofictional antecedents is the urgency with which Louis seeks to separate himself from his previous self, a desire so intense that the novel can be seen as a kind of wake. The French title, “En Finir Avec Eddy Bellegueule,” might have been more literally translated “Finishing Off Eddy Bellegueule.”
Queerness is the key that springs Eddy from the various cycles—of poverty, of alcoholism, of violence—that he sees as determining life in the village. “Being attracted to boys transformed my whole relationship to the world,” he writes, “encouraging me to identify with values that were different from my family’s.” This doesn’t mean that queerness represents freedom; it’s an “unknown force that got hold of me at birth and that imprisoned me in my own body.” While his parents regard his mannerisms as a choice, “some personal aesthetic project that I was pursuing to annoy them,” Louis considers not only his desires but also elements of cultural style often coded as queer to be corporeal, determined in and by the body: “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—not cries that I uttered but ones that literally escaped through my throat whenever I was surprised, delighted, or frightened.”
The sense that his sexual identity is hardwired and essential is shared by his tormentors. After he’s discovered having sex with some friends, Eddy wonders why they escape the bullying directed at him. The adult Louis, echoing the philosopher Michel Foucault, realizes that “the crime was not having done something, it was being something.”
Throughout the novel, Louis catalogues the baffling contradictions of the world of his childhood: brutal racism next to friendliness toward the village’s single person of color; his father’s scorn for the bourgeoisie and his hope that Eddy will join their ranks; the villagers’ hatred of government, which they insist must take action against immigrants and sexual minorities. Describing his mother’s incoherent politics, Louis cites Stefan Zweig’s account of peasant women who protested at Versailles and then shouted “Long live the King!” at the sight of Louis XVI: “their bodies—which had spoken for them—torn between absolute submission to power and an enduring sense of revolt.”
Above all, Louis is perplexed by the simultaneous pride and humiliation that his parents and their neighbors feel for their particular way of life. But he comes to believe that these seeming contradictions appear paradoxical only because of his own manner of looking at things. Of his mother, he writes, “It was I myself, arrogant class renegade that I was, who tried to force her discourse into a foreign kind of coherence, one more compatible with my values—values I’d adopted precisely in order to construct a self in opposition to my parents”:
I came to understand that many different modes of discourse intersected in my mother and spoke through her, that she was constantly torn between her shame at not having finished school and her pride that even so, as she would say, she’d made it through and had a bunch of beautiful kids, and that these two modes of discourse existed only in relation to each other.
Louis, who has edited a collection of essays on Bourdieu, uses such theory-inflected language throughout the novel. As analysis, his comments don’t take us very far: he doesn’t dissect which “modes of discourse intersected” in his mother, or how or why they “existed only in relation to each other.” Passages like this often do little more than align his observations with common reference points in French social theory, especially Bourdieu and Foucault. Some of them echo more academically rigorous passages in “Returning to Reims,” which also attempts to explain the shift of the working classes in France from leftist political parties to the National Front.
For the novelist, there’s a danger in this kind of language. Structures become visible through abstraction at the cost of suppressing local variation and noise, the apparently aberrant, the individual. It’s out of such noise that novels are made. French critics have compared Louis with Zola, who also wrote about the French working classes in novels informed by sociological theories. But Zola, in a novel like “L’Assommoir,” sticks close to individual lives and experiences, without importing the language of specialists. The abstractions that Louis deploys can flatten out novelistic texture, rendering invisible any details that they can’t accommodate. This problem is suggested in passages where Louis speaks of “the simplicity of those who possess little,” or of a specific incident as “the first in an endless series, each time the same—down to the tiniest details.”
Louis is a canny writer, however, and he signals his awareness of this danger in the novel’s first lines. “From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all of those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system.” The word that Lucey renders as “all-consuming” is more discomfiting in the French original: “La souffrance est totalitaire.” “The End of Eddy” is a dark book, but it isn’t an entirely joyless one; nor is it “totalitarian.” If the narrator occasionally offers a reductive view of his world, the novel itself doesn’t exclude what falls outside his system. Its characters act in ways that offer the novelistic pleasure of surprise.
This is especially true of Eddy’s father, who is introduced in the novel’s first pages as an almost gothic figure, taking startling delight in the everyday violence of rural places. He kills a litter of kittens by placing them in a plastic shopping bag and slamming it against concrete; he drinks the warm blood of pigs he has slaughtered. He joins eagerly in the brawls that are part of the rituals of manhood and falls victim to the alcoholism that is the plague of the village. And yet, despite having been brutalized by his own father, he never hits his wife or his children, breaking a cycle that Louis elsewhere suggests is invincible. In one agonizing scene, the father allows himself to be beaten, refusing to strike back as he shields Eddy from his older brother’s drunken rage. For all the shame he feels at Eddy’s effeminacy, he repeatedly assures him of his love. When Eddy’s mother tells him stories of his father as a young man, when he struck out for a new life, travelling to Toulon and becoming best friends with an Arab man, she expresses bewilderment: “It don’t make sense, when he says we should kill all the ragheads but then when he lived in the Midi his best mate was a raghead.” That attempt to change his life failed, and it may be irrelevant to structural analysis; Louis doesn’t try to explain it. But it is not irrelevant to the human interest, which is to say the novelistic richness, of character.
Even Louis’s use of academic language ultimately comes to feel less analytical than aesthetic and dramatic. For the young Eddy, refined language is a weapon, a way to turn the stigma of difference into the prestige of distinction. When Eddy uses the formal verb dîner at home instead of the familiar bouffer (“to chow down”), his family takes umbrage. They accuse him of putting on airs, of “philosophizing” (“to philosophize meant talking like the class enemy, the haves, the rich folk”). The full implications of this come clear in the book’s most sustained narrative, a story Louis tells late in the novel about Eddy’s cousin Sylvain, whose short, harsh life of petty crime arouses both dismay and pride in his family. When a prosecutor offers him a chance to provide extenuating circumstances for his crimes—“Can you affirm that your acts are imputable to external influences of some kind ”—Sylvain is unable to follow the question:
He wasn’t embarrassed, he didn’t feel the violence the prosecutor was exercising, the class violence that had excluded him from the world of education, the violence that had, in the end, led him to the courtroom where he now stood. In fact he must have thought that the prosecutor was ridiculous. That he spoke like a faggot.
The passage is brilliant in its management of sympathy. The final clipped sentence reminds us that Sylvain, here a victim, is also an agent of the violence that Eddy suffers again and again in the novel. Louis knows that the language of social theory, which requires the kind of education the poor are denied, is complicit in the system that it seeks to make visible. His use of that language in “The End of Eddy” is freighted with an ambivalence that animates the book and gives it a devastating emotional force. To write the novel is at once an act of solidarity and an act of vengeance.
“For us, a book was a kind of assault,” Louis wrote of his family recently in the Guardian. Some of the residents of Hallencourt have received “The End of Eddy” as just that. “It’s not right, what he’s done,” Louis’s mother told a reporter. “He presents us like backward hicks.” Louis’s second novel, “Histoire de la Violence,” has also provoked controversy. It recounts a terrifying altercation between Louis and a man he picks up on the street on Christmas night in 2012. Their sexual encounter begins tenderly; then, after Louis catches the man attempting to rob him, the man rapes and beats him.
We learn the details of the encounter in large part in the voice of Louis’s sister: he is back in Hallencourt, in her home, listening as she relates for her husband the story he has told her earlier. The book doesn’t offer any resolution to the conflicts of “The End of Eddy,” but it does imply that Louis hasn’t turned his back on Eddy’s past as finally as his first novel suggests. Injured and frightened, he wants a kind of solace that his friends in Paris can’t offer him. He wants to go home.
Author: Garth Greenwell