Édouard Louis, born in 1992, grew up in Hallencourt, a village in the north of France where many live below the poverty line. Now his account of life in that village, written when he was nineteen, has ignited a debate on class and inequality, foisting Louis into the center of French literary life.
En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (Finishing off Eddy Bellegueule) is unsparing in its descriptions of the homophobia, alcoholism, and racism that animated Louis’s youth in Hallencourt. “We thought the book would be as invisible as the people it describes,” said Louis, who rejects any romantic views of the “authenticity” of working-class life. His publisher thought the first edition, two thousand copies, would last years. But hundreds of thousands of copies have sold in France, and the book is being translated into more than twenty languages. The novel, which has earned Louis comparisons to Zola, Genet, and de Beauvoir, is set to appear in English later this year.
Eddy Bellegueule can be read as a straightforward coming-of-age story, but beneath its narrative is an almost systematic examination of the norms and habits of the villagers—inspired, Louis has said, by the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It’s as if he’s taken the whole place and put it behind glass—like observing the inner workings of an anthill.
Who is Eddy Bellegueule, and why do you want to finish him off?
Eddy Bellegueule is the name my parents gave me when I was born. It sounds dramatic, but yes, I wanted to kill him—he wasn’t me, he was the name of a childhood I hated. The book shows how—before I revolted against my childhood, my social class, my family, and, finally, my name—it was my milieu that revolted against me. My father and my brothers wanted to finish off Eddy Bellegueule long before, at a time when I was still trying to save him.
Eddy grows up gay in a world where narrow norms of masculinity are strictly enforced.
The real subject of the book is how people like the ones in my village suffer from exclusion, domination, poverty. In the novel, a series of vignettes—scenes taken from real life—expose this, the constant lack of money for food, how my mother would steal wood from the neighbors in order to heat the house, and so on. And it’s clear these circumstances produce brutality through what Pierre Bourdieu called the principle of the conservation of violence. When you’re subjected to endless violence, in every situation, every moment of your life, you end up reproducing it against others, in other situations, by other means. One of the instruments of this daily violence is the cult of masculinity. I always hated typical masculine activities. I was incapable of them—the sight of me playing football was hilarious—and so from the beginning I was excluded. But the book describes how the boy doesn’t want to be different, how he struggles to be like everyone else.
You were ashamed?
My father used to say, You are the shame of the family. He would tell me the community mocked our family because I acted like a girl, that I was too flamboyant. So I did all I could to change. Wanting so desperately to fit in made me look at class from a different angle than I’d previously encountered in literature. Even from the greatest writers, I always had the impression that the loners in these kinds of books—the literature of the outsider—were already free. They were always so unique, so gifted, so different from the environment they were predestined to escape. When I read Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, or Thomas Bernhard, I was unsettled by the impression that these authors had always been so much freer than those around them, how the story of first part of their life always looked like a struggle against the circumstances into which they had accidentally been born. But I never dreamed of fleeing. My dream was that my parents would look me in the eyes.
I wanted to invert the way the story of the outsider is told. If you say that those who flee have always been different, then you’ll just keep waiting for those individuals to reveal themselves, to set themselves apart. But if you say, Eddy wasn’t born very different, and he certainly did not want to be different, then it’s a story about how this difference is produced—how so much of what we are is created by the words of others.
You write so unflinchingly about your family.
Some scenes were difficult to write. I kept thinking, This is too intimate, too personal. But then I would think, That’s precisely what I must write. The rest, no one cares about. When the first gay or feminist movements emerged, conservatives responded by saying that sexuality or the role of women in daily life weren’t proper subjects for political debate. We often dismiss as too intimate those things we prefer to not talk about. Literature must persist in moving this border, to speak of the things society has relegated to silence and privacy.
Mixed in with the details of the violence you suffered and how you discovered your sexuality, there are chapters with analytical titles like “The Norms of Masculinity”—here the book sounds almost like a sociological survey.
I really believe you can tap into the deepest emotions by way of knowledge. Think about Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex. She writes in her own voice and relates real stories from women’s lives, but she also brings in history, sociology, even biology. By setting the history of the suffering of women in that larger context, the book was able to effect change. When Eddy cries at school because he was bullied, he thinks his tears are the result of the single wicked act of those who call him a faggot. But to write Eddy was, for me, a means of seeing Eddy’s tears as the product of the entire history of homophobia, of masculine domination, and of social violence which had preceded them. When I wrote it down, I understood that even our tears are political. That’s why this book is both a novel and an analysis. I don’t see any difference.
In France you’re often referred to as a kind of spokesperson for the working class—but you’ve been criticized for painting an unflattering picture of that very same class.
I wrote the book to give a voice to these people, to fight for them and with them, because they seem to have disappeared from the public eye. In the novel I use two languages—the one I use now, which is more “literary,” and the one I grew up with, the language of the excluded classes, which is completely absent from the public arena. When you make a language disappear you make the people who speak it disappear. My family would vote for Marine Le Pen, saying, We do it because she’s the only one who talk about us, the little people.” That wasn’t true, but it reveals the sentiment of invisibility that strikes the dispossessed. But I also critique the values of that culture. I don’t need to show that working-class values are above reproach in order to write against the social violence that produces them. To me it’s a crucial distinction—we don’t have to love a culture to support the people who comprise it. For many years we’ve made the mistake of confusing love with politics, as if supporting something politically meant loving everything associated with it, to the point of romanticizing poverty and misery to support the people who endure them. I’ll support prisoners who fight unjust conditions in jail, but that doesn’t mean I want to have dinner with them every day.
Were you concerned with aestheticizing violence, given how violent the novel is?
The book opens with a scene from when I started middle school. Two kids in the hallway begin bullying Eddy, harassing him, spitting on him. When I wrote it, I thought of a famous scene in Jean Genet’s The Miracle of the Rose, where he’s in jail and some guy spits on him. Genet says the spit was like a rose. It struck me when I read it. It was as if in order to write literature, you’d have to make things beautiful, even violence. But I think it’s possible to create works of beauty without creating an aesthetic of violence. Similarly, I don’t buy the idea that the life of the poor is true because it’s so authentic. But there’s a long history of this attitude, even in the finest literature and art. Pasolini, for example, who I’ve learned so much from in other respects, was always praising the beauty of the lives of the working class, creating a fantasy out of poverty and misery. But Pasolini never lived that life. The perception of the beauty and authenticity of the working class is created at an enormous distance. It can be interpreted as a way of saying to people, Stay where you are. You’re starving, but you’re so authentic.
Eddy’s short, simple sentences communicate emotional impact very directly—“I have no happy memories from childhood”—but the passages where villagers’ speech is set in italics. Why did you separate the voices?
Because those languages are separated in real life. I wanted to point out that these two languages are created in relation to each other by mutual exclusion. The greatest literary works have been important because they managed to include what had been excluded from literature—think of the lives of black Americans in Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, or gay lives in André Gide. It seemed to me that the most striking absence in contemporary literature was the people from the world I grew up in. It’s not even the working class, who are more often represented in literature, but those who Marx called the Lumpenproletariat. I wanted to show what the world looks like through their eyes. In Finishing off Eddy, my mother refers to the people who work at the factories as “bourgeois,” because they receive a salary every month and have a retirement pension, and the teacher in the village we saw as an aristocrat. That was how the world looked to us.
Your revitalization of the political novel has been compared to Zola’s. Who do you see as your literary ancestors and inspirations?
I actually hadn’t read Zola before I finished Eddy Bellegueule. But William Faulkner has been very important to me, as have Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and the French philosopher and sociologist Didier Eribon. I am fascinated by the enormous political potential in their books. When I say my writing is political, I don’t mean that it strives to deliver a message—rather, that it’s a literary form forged through politics. Using the language of the working class is political because I’m trying to make literature out of non-literature.
In France, there’s been this ideal for a long time now of moving literature as far away from political realities as possible. For most writers, to intervene in politics would constitute a violation of the purity of literature. I find that the urgent subjects—domination, violence, pain, truth, love—are most often addressed in American and Scandinavian literature. I read Karl Ove Knausgaard and the radical shock of his form inspired me. His revolution was setting his own standard for what a well-made novel might be. I’ve tried to do something similar with the language of my childhood, a language usually considered to be the opposite of “style.” Some have claimed that I’ve just written down what people have said and that that cannot be art. But those were some of the hardest parts to write. How do you find a rhythm in this language, how do you choose what works as a sentence in a book? I think a novel should be bold enough to attempt to define its own construction in a new way. One of the revolutions in modern art was using materials that had previously been excluded—plastic, paper, broken bottles, glass, garbage—to make art out of non-art. When I wrote Eddy, that was my idea—not to rely on refined materials, but to use moments of my childhood like discarded bits of paper, plastic, glass, and try to make art out of them.
What writers inspire you?
Right now something’s happening around the idea of truth in literature. It’s not only the way Knausgaard has reshaped the novel, but also the way Svetlana Alexievich uses real testimonies to make a unique literary form. I think this kind of truth-oriented literature can help us move beyond some of the ingrained prejudices. When Eddy came out, there were people who didn’t believe this sort of violence and misery existed in France. They wanted proof that what I had written was factually true. But there were also some who defended me by claiming that the truth doesn’t matter, because it’s literature. I felt stuck between them. If we believe that literature obviates any question of truth, we create a literature that actually prevents us from asking important questions, from talking about the world we live in.
So political literature is inescapable for you?
All authors are political, even if they don’t realize it. Being apolitical merely reinforces the status quo, supporting the powerful over the weak. Many writers don’t want to know how to speak about politics because they’re from the bourgeoisie, and they’ve been protected from the rough edges of political change. The people I write about are ceaselessly marked by the consequences of political choices. My mother would say, Under Mitterand, we always had meat on our plates. Even if I could show her that Mitterand wasn’t as generous to the poor as she thought, the point is that when the government reformed its policies—on welfare, for example—we felt it in our stomachs. Today I can complain about the government all I want, but political decisions won’t determine the amount of food on my plate tonight. Politics isn’t a question of words, it’s a question of meat. I try never to forget that.
You’ve been embraced by these same cultural elites, though—the ones living at a comfortable distance from political consequences.
I could say I just don’t take part—but that would be terribly naive. It’s what apolitical writers say—I don’t belong to any class. So that’s not what I want to say. When I arrived in Paris, I remember I dreamed about going to all these cocktail parties and dinners. But more and more I realize you can see the literary world as a school of submission. You always have to shake everyone’s hand, in what can be seen as a quiet celebration of the bourgeoisie. I guess this uncomfortable paradox in which I find myself, the separation between the world of my childhood and the world I inhabit today, is what gives me the strength to write, and thus to fight.
Ane Farsethås is a critic and editor at Morgenbladet, a Norwegian newspaper, and the author of a book on contemporary Norwegian literature, From Here to Reality.