‘When I arrived in Paris for school, all these bourgeois kids would say Eddy Bellegueule, what a funny name.’
A year before the publication of his internationally acclaimed first novel, The End of Eddy, Edouard Louis edited a collection of essays in homage to the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Like Bourdieu, Louis identifies as a ‘transfuge de classe’, which can translate as something between class-crossover and class ‘defector’: someone who has been impelled by class humiliation to transcend their social identity. In the collection’s opening essay, Louis describes the ‘folie sociale’ (social madness) which took him over after moving to Paris in his late teens, when he started actively and obsessively pursuing entry into the capital’s most selective milieux out of a desire to erase his modest social origins. Bourdieu’s work on social distinction and class identity — which describe his own successive social reinventions — informed Louis’s own writing on that transfer; it also influenced the work of two of Louis’s contemporaries and literary models, Didier Eribon and Annie Ernaux, who each contributed an essay to the collection. Like Louis, Eribon and Ernaux have written about their respective transfers from poverty to middle-class life through their access to education and, later, to writer status. Bourdieu wrote, referring to Flaubert, of his own futile desire to ‘live all the lives in one life’. All these writers, too, address their ambitions to live multiple lives at once, and interrogate the problematic nature of that ambition. All are confronting a complex problem: is it possible to write about the transcendence of working-class condition in a way that is not effectively betrayal, or an implicit praise of bourgeois life?
I grew up in a Picardy town about 100 km west from Louis’s home village of Hallencourt, and many moments in Louis’s autobiographical novel take me straight back to childhood: the image, for example, of three children riding a single bike around a stone structure commemorating the dead of the First World War, the kind that peppers the landscape of so many towns in northern France. Louis’s language, also, reads like home: he manages to write in two tongues, both the French of his access to education and culture and the regional French of his recollected childhood, the latter often transposed in italics, signifying borrowed or remembered speech. Even his given name, Eddy, encapsulates some of my earliest and fuzziest experiences of class identity and distinction in rural France: in interviews, Louis has explained the French working class’s taste for American names borrowed from television shows, a phenomenon almost completely absent among the bourgeoisie, who tend to prefer names that have historical (Christian) rooting in France. It was not rare for a middle-class kid at school to take the piss out of another child for being called Brian, Jayson, Kevin — names which consistently occur in Louis’s work. Sociologists have written about this extensively, but I cannot think of another work of fiction that has dwelled on an awareness of this phenomenon, albeit so subtly, before The End of Eddy, a novel about the author’s experience of precarious living and social alienation, which tells the story of a name change as a move towards a more acceptable, bourgeois identity.
Louis dedicated The End of Eddy to Didier Eribon, saying that Eribon’s 2009 memoir, Returning to Reims, had influenced not only his desire to write about his life but the process of his own class transfer. Returning to Reims was published in the UK last summer, closely following the appearance of Annie Ernaux’s The Years. The translations of these autobiographical works, previously little-known outside France, highlighted, in the wake of Louis’s international success, the comparative scarcity of working-class authors on the French cultural landscape. Yet for Louis, Eribon’s autobiography had set a precedent for discussing and interrogating this desire to transcend working-class identity. Among Parisian intellectual circles, Louis had noted that it was comparatively easier to talk about his identity as a gay man than to speak of class identity and the associated feelings of shame. In Returning to Reims, as in The End of Eddy, a move to Paris enables, crucially, an authentic experience of gay life, which felt hardly more accessible for Eribon in the large provincial town of Reims than it did in Louis’s isolated village. The higher education available in Paris also, ultimately, grants these writers access to the intellectual sophistication they seek. Though Reims is a university town, Eribon writes of the less-than-progressive curriculum and overall disappointment of his philosophy degree such as it was taught to him there; he only realised much later that philosophy students in Paris read Deleuze, Foucault, and Althusser. These philosophers would greatly influence his work, but he had to discover them in his own time. The gilet-jaunes protests since November 2018 have brought a feeling of geographic alienation, felt in areas across France, to public attention: through anecdotes like these, the autobiographical texts of Louis and Eribon, set in neighbouring regions of northern France, echo a sense of being cut off outside the metropolis.
Louis’s latest book, Who Killed my Father, recently published in English translation, is a more direct echo of Eribon’s memoir of reluctant homecoming, in which the author’s revisiting of his hometown is experienced with a mixture of dread and guilt, proportional to the initial desire to escape. Who Killed my Father, which has almost instantly been compared to Zola’s ‘J’accuse’, reads both like a theatre monologue and as an indictment against the succession of governments who, from Chirac to Macron, have directly contributed to the steep physical decline of Louis’s father after a workplace injury in 2000. While The End of Eddy challenged Louis’s father’s homophobia, alcoholism, and violence in a way that hardly seemed to accommodate emotional distance or compassion, this short coda to Louis’s debut offers a radical reversal of point of view, one which seeks to understand the way French politics have dictated both the trajectory of Eddy’s father’s life and the identity by which he lived. Louis has said that he wrote the book after his father unexpectedly tried to reconnect with him after years of estrangement, even congratulating him on the publication of his first two novels. Louis does here precisely what Eribon failed to do at the beginning of Returning to Reims: forgive his father while he is still alive, and ask who he might have been able to be, had the circumstances of his life been different. Louis describes his effort as ‘negative ontology’, suggesting that the history of his father’s life can only be told as the history of all that was denied to him.
Social and geographic locality, as expressed through language, is crucial to each of these protagonists’ projects of self-reinvention. All these books manage the language of rural, provincial or precarious childhoods with a certain stylistic distance, seeking ways to mirror, in form, the way the choice of a language register over another works as a signifier of their change in class status. Eribon reports this language through speech marks, because this language is no longer his. Louis’s choice of italics, on the other hand, supports the linguistic distinction between two temporalities and socio-geographic locations without clearly attributing the words to characters distinct from the narrator. This device can be traced back to the older writer Annie Ernaux, who in her 1983 memoir La Place (A Man’s Place), written after the death of her father, used italics to retrieve the linguistic tenor of lower-middle-class life in the Normandy town she left as a young adult. In a particularly lucid passage, she interrogates the choice. ‘There is no joy for me,’ she writes, ‘in keeping so close to overheard words and phrases, highlighting them with italics. I do not wish to signal a dual position or be complicit, with the reader, of a sense of nostalgic, pathetic or derisive distance, all of which I reject. Only those words can say the colours and limits of the world in which my father lived, where I also lived.’
This is reminiscent of Ernaux’s book The Years, in which the passing of sixty years is narrated through a ‘we’ pronoun, telling a story that is collective — but not nationally collective; it’s a class collective, which shifts subtly from rural working-class to an urban, left-wing, bohemian bourgeoisie. It’s not as if Ernaux, Louis, or Eribon were the first writers to have written with and about the regional and working-class inflections of the French language, but the majority of those who did before them have been bourgeois writers. Ernaux notes that Proust delighted in the idioms used by his governess Françoise, this ‘colourful French’, precisely because she was his governess, not his mother. For Ernaux, whose parents spoke a Normandy patois on a day-to-day basis, this entranced curiosity is itself a mark of class status. While Louis, like her, is from the working class, Ernaux has openly criticised The End of Eddy for playing up to the bourgeoisie by emphasising the rough aspects of precarious living, including the violence of the language, for emotional impact. She suggests that she, too, has accidentally placed herself on the side of the bourgeois reader, but argues that striving for a more nuanced approach, notably through less subjective forms, is possible.
Yet there seems to be something of a political statement in Ernaux’s claim, issued in her recently reissued memoir Happening, about the experience of an illegal abortion in the mid-1960s, that any human experience has the ‘inalienable right to be chronicled’. In Ernaux’s work, which often derives from or recreates the form of past diary entries, this is as true of the horror of social stigma as it is of the mundane of daily experience. Her as-yet-untranslated 2016 work Regarde les lumières mon amour seems to demonstrate this position. The text chronicles her day-to-day visits to a supermarket in the Trois Fontaines commercial zone of Cergy-Pontoise, a new town on the outskirts of Paris, over the course of a year, and describes the paradox of this space of social mixing, central to the lives of suburbs and provincial towns, which, for years, has been absent from representation in French literature. Not so surprisingly, the French press was sceptical of the project as a whole, asking whether this supermarket journal, both in its content and intent, could really qualify as literature. In terms of style, it is not very distant from The Years, only it focuses more specifically, almost radically, on a cultural object that seems unrefined.
I wonder if the scepticism with which the text was received has to do with a snobbery about any chronicling of day-to-day experience that does not pertain to or validate the bourgeois point of view. Perhaps because France is the birthplace of autofiction, I notice time and time again a critical concern for “purity” in examining the cultural intent of the literary texts, generally more prevalent than in the UK. I wonder if this concern goes beyond a question of literary form, and is itself related to the cultural value assigned to the chronicled experience — a value mediated through the eyes of the dominant class. France’s enduring concern with the ‘status’ of literature has consistently come up in critical responses to Louis’s work since Eddy, and other young authors of autobiographical writing about class. ‘Is it possible,’ jaded critics ask, soon after the release of Louis’ second novel and Emmanuelle Richard’s Désintégration, another tale of class crossover, ‘to still be writing autofiction in 2016?’
The French writer who allegedly coined the term ‘autofiction’ in the 1970s, Serge Doubrovsky, explained that he did so in order to reclaim autobiography from the powerful — from the belief that only dominant figures, historically, were entitled to write their autobiography. Louis, Ernaux and Eribon’s projects might be seen as elements of a similar project: to reclaim autobiography from privilege, and assert the right to chronicle experience.
*As with Louis’ previous novel History of Violence, a fictionalised account of his experience of sexual assault, Qui a tué mon père was translated into English by Lorin Stein, the former editor of The Paris Review who stepped down from his post in December 2017 amid accusations of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct during his time as editor. Questioned about his choice of translator in an interview with Electric Literature last year, Louis said that he insisted that Stein translate the book, and argued that responding to violence with punishment has never done anything to reduce violence. In his writing as well as in the building of his public persona, Louis has presented himself as a voice for those who were struggling to make themselves heard by the powerful — offering support to the Gilets Jaunes and to the Adama committee which speaks out against the French police’s violent treatment of racial minorities. In this context, his response to the question of his choice of translator may read as hypocrisy.