MAY 28, 2017
BOOK-READING has become a form of slow activism. On erudite corners of the internet, Trump syllabi proliferate. The mainstream press, too, chimes in with recommendations of dystopian classics or accounts of the white working class. A recognizable genre has emerged: books one must read to “understand our political moment.” We are exhorted to read this or that — or, more accurately, this and that — in the limited time left before the Republic falls, in hopes of unearthing an insight that could save us. One must be forgiven for feeling weary as unread books tremble in precipitous stacks upon the bedside table. Our bedtime reading, like our political culture, is in a state of imminent collapse.
Critics have hailed Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy, now out in English translation, as one such book. This autobiographical novel about a boy growing up gay in Hallencourt, a small, poor village in northern France, has, reviewers say, shed light on the roiling tides of populism and the urban-rural cleavages that fueled the victories of Trump and Brexit, and which have also powered the far-right National Front party in France. (An exemplary headline, from the Guardian: “French literary boy wonder Édouard Louis on saving the working class from Marine Le Pen.”) Louis’s novel, however, goes down not like cod-liver oil but whiskey. What a relief to leave the other pundit-prescribed books wilting on the bedside table in exchange for a novel that scorches and seethes.
In 2014, when The End of Eddy appeared in France as En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (“Finishing Off Eddy Bellegueule”), it became a critical darling on arrival, winning rapturous reviews and a place on the shortlist in the Prix Goncourt’s debut novel category. It has since sold hundreds of thousands of copies, been translated into 20 languages, and is being made into a film featuring Isabelle Huppert. The delay required by translation (by Michael Lucey, a French professor at Berkeley) has, if anything, made The End of Eddy more politically timely for English-language audiences in the United Kingdom (where the book landed in February) and the United States. And in the three years since the novel’s initial publication, Louis has become something of a celebrity — appearing on TV and radio, publishing political essays (including a controversial piece that made its first English-language appearance here at LARB), and bringing out another novel, Histoire de la Violence. Adding to the luster and intrigue are his youth — he is only 24 years old — and his pale handsome features, his shy smile the result of dental surgery that repaired years of neglect.
The End of Eddy follows Eddy Bellegueule from age 10 to his escape to boarding school five or six years later. Louis organizes the book into brief chapters with such titles as “A Man’s Role” and “A Good Education.” But this is no disquisition on disenfranchisement. The violence the novel examines — though also structural and symbolic — is above all bodily. We learn what kind of novel this is on the second page, when we watch Eddy’s father slip a litter of newborn kittens into a plastic grocery bag and beat the squirming mass against a cement edge until the bag pools with blood. Strict codes of masculine domination govern Eddy’s village. In a community that offers its men scarce prospects beyond alcoholism, body-destroying labor, and shame-laced trips to the food bank, being a tough guy, a real man, is a way of holding onto a shred of self-worth.
Eddy Bellegueule (translating, roughly, to Eddy “Prettymug”) has a tough guy’s name. That makes his effeminate mannerisms all the more glaring. As soon as he learns to speak, his voice takes on feminine inflections. His girlish bearing is involuntary: “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.” As a teenager, he yearns to be straight. He orders himself to have orgasms to photographs of naked women, rubbing himself until he is raw and blistered. Each morning in the bathroom he chants: “Today I’m gonna be a tough guy.” (Bellegueule, Louis’s birth name, caused the author such shame that he once forwent a holiday trip with a boyfriend rather than show his ID.)
The “characteristic form” of modern gay male fiction, Edmund White has argued, is autofiction, a mode of autobiographical writing that joins realist precision to confessional disclosure. White, who lived in France for 15 years, claims Proust and Genet as gay autofiction’s forefathers. Autofiction as practiced by White is unrepentantly frank, especially about sex and desire. It achieves deep psychological interiority and conceives of queer people as an oppressed class rather than individual sufferers of a pathology.
Louis, too, offers a candid psychological portrait that shines with exact, if at times excessive, detail. Reflecting on how two boys would beat him each day in a school hallway, he is unsparing about his masochistic complicity. Ten-year-old Eddy submits to the bullying in hopes of keeping it secret: “Every day I came back, as if we had an appointment, an unspoken contract.” He describes the gobs of spit the bullies routinely hawk in his face not once but twice — first as a thick yellow ooze, later as a stomach-turning green. Sexual desire and sexual acts do not enter the novel until more than halfway through, but no detail is then deemed too private. Eddy’s initiation, we learn, took place face-down in sawdust on the floor of a shed.
Where The End of Eddy departs from the tradition of gay autofiction is in how far it focuses not on Eddy and his interior life but on the people around him, few if any of whom are queer, and their material conditions. In several chapters, Eddy appears only obliquely. The novel forgets about its protagonist for pages at a time, alighting on other characters — such as Eddy’s tough-guy cousin Sylvain — to show us the life courses the village offers its inhabitants. Instead of a novel concentrated exclusively on problems of the self, we receive a portrait of community life.
“Going out always involved the bus stop,” Louis writes, remembering how boys as young as eight would cluster there with cases of beer and drink themselves comatose. He recalls how women who worked as cashiers would soak their hands in hot water to soothe worn-out joints. Louis has a gift for perceptive description, as when he notices his grandmother rinse out an empty detergent bottle to use as a water pitcher, leaving flakes of detergent floating in his glass. Only rarely does his documentation of village suffering veer into the sensational or gratuitous. A single observation of a belatedly discovered corpse crawling with worms might be permissible. That Louis includes two such extended descriptions suggests a macabre indulgence that this novel, already full of everyday hardship, doesn’t need, even if it is the case, as he claims, that “every word of this book is true.”
The novel’s sociological thrust guards against the self-absorption that mars some autofiction. In its attention to the village and its inhabitants, the novel traces how we exist, and are produced, socially. Louis, who studied at Paris’s École normale supérieure, has professed interests in Bourdieu and Foucault. His greatest debt here, however, is to the French sociologist Didier Eribon, to whom this novel is dedicated. Eribon’s 2009 book Returning to Reims (also translated by Michael Lucey) is very likely the single text that makes Louis’s novel possible. In that book, Eribon, lauded in academic circles for his writing on Foucault and gay male identity, revisits the working-class town of his childhood — a provincial world that he, like Louis, escaped in order to claim a place among the French intelligentsia. Eribon presses upon the ways in which sexual identity and class are strangely interwoven, musing in a more theoretical register than what Louis employs here.
For the most part The End of Eddy wears its sociology lightly. The novel shows how class frustrations manifest themselves as pathologies of gender and sexuality. In the hyper-masculine setting of the village, Eddy’s parents call his feminine mannerisms his “fancy ways.” When Eddy escapes to boarding school, he notices how gently his male classmates comport themselves. “Maybe I’m not gay,” he thinks; “maybe I’ve just always had a bourgeois body.” The occasional intrusion of a bloodless academic phrase, such as Louis’s discussion of the “logic that lies behind any given discourse or practice” and the “different modes of discourse” that intersect in his mother, is forgivable, not least because of how elegantly the novel weaves together different ways of speaking. Throughout the book, bursts of italicized language convey the argot of the village (“You gotta take a belt to him, that’s what he needs, give him a whipping he won’t forget […] it’s the only way you’ll ever make someone a man”) in gruff contrast to Louis’s Paris-educated speech.
More astonishing than Louis’s sociological revision of autofiction is the fact that he wrote the book at all. In the village, books represented a privileged life; book-reading was a bourgeois and suspiciously feminine habit. Louis didn’t read a book until he was 17 years old. And to publish The End of Eddy was not just an intellectual leap but a personal risk. After the novel appeared, Louis’s brother stalked his street in Paris waving a baseball bat, sending the author fleeing to a hotel. The book tipped off a storm of controversy in the French press, with some critics accusing Louis of vilifying a town and fabricating elements of his account. In response, he published photographs on his blog documenting his decrepit house and his childhood weight gain — a riposte in line with his original concept for the book, which was to include images alongside the text in the manner of Sebald.
Looking at Louis today, with his remarkable self-possession in interviews and his stinging challenges to French leftists who have abandoned people like his mother, it is clear that his escape from the village is complete. The novel, however, ends irresolutely. At boarding school, filled with shame, Eddy throws a track jacket his parents pinched pennies for into the trash. And in the story’s final moment, we see, once again, a group of boys laughing at Eddy in a school hallway. The brutalities of the village are behind him. But the bourgeoisie are just sharpening their teeth.