APRIL 9, 2019
IN THOMAS MANN’S 1924 book The Magic Mountain, there’s a scene in which the protagonist and the loquacious Italian humanist Lodovico Settembrini are discussing the freemasons. During their conversation, Settembrini asserts that the “apolitical does not exist — everything is politics.” Furthermore, Settembrini says:
The social problem, the problem of human coexistence is politics, politics through and through, nothing but politics. And the man who consecrates himself to it — and he who withdraws from that sacred task does not deserve the name of man — belongs to politics, foreign and domestic.
As much as one is tempted to reject the idea that everything — daily labor, personal relations, nice dogs, James Salter discussing martinis with the Paris Review — is politics, one must concede that Mann has a point. What is politics, after all, but the framework that underpins our lives and gives them the force of argument? What is politics, per The Magic Mountain, but the means by which we aim for a “well-crafted social edifice, the perfection of humanity?”
After all, politics has been generous (if not discerning). Politics has brought us roads and the genocide of Native peoples. Politics, via war, gave us mustard gas and from mustard gas the first chemotherapy treatment. It has given us Lincoln’s grim resolve, Paul Ryan’s cheap bonhomie, Donald Trump as a historical figure, and Gandhi’s destruction of the British empire. And it has, in a roundabout way, brought us Édouard Louis’s new book, Who Killed My Father.
Released by New Directions, Louis’s slim work of nonfiction about his troubled relationship with his father reasserts Settembrini’s maxim about politics. Specifically, the volume is bookended by politics. It opens with an address to the reader that situates the memoir within a political and social context that exceeds the boundaries of its subject’s individual experience and closes on a striking series of accusations, holding French politicians responsible for the ruins of Louis’s father’s life.
Here’s the opening address:
When asked to define what “racism” means to her, the American scholar Ruth Gilmore has said that racism is the exposure of certain populations to premature death.
The same definition holds with regards to male privilege, to hatred of homosexuality or trans people, to domination by class — to social and political oppression of all kinds. If we look at politics as the government of some living people by other living people, as well as the existence of individuals within communities not of their choosing, then politics is what separates some populations, whose lives are supported, nurtured, protected, from other populations, who are exposed to death, to persecution, to murder.
Rather than beginning with a conventional, arresting personal anecdote that sets the stage for the book’s larger narrative, Louis’s statement opens Who Killed My Father in an academic and impersonal pose. By doing so, Louis lets his readers know that the text that follows this preamble will serve to illustrate it; the opening statement is akin to a hypothesis.
Add then some slight 60 pages afterward, the book’s final section confrontationally invokes the likes of François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy as the shoulders who bear the burden of his father’s problems. Here’s a sample:
June 29, 2017 Emmanuel Macron declared, at the inauguration of a new building that for many years had been a train station: In a train station one sees those who have succeeded and those who are nothing. When he says “those who are nothing,” he means you and people like you. This kind of humiliation by the ruling class brings you even lower than before.
In between these two modes of political address, Who Killed My Father is a continuation of the conversational, confessional style (and life story) established in Louis’s previous books, the romans à clef En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule and Histoire de la violence, published in English as The End of Eddy and History of Violence, respectively. The main difference is that The End of Eddy and History of Violence are positioned as fiction, while Who Killed My Father is positioned as nonfiction.
But Who Killed My Father isn’t really a memoir. Rather, it is a political document that uses the force of memoir — incisive, confessional personal details — to bolster its argument that Louis’s father’s life (and by extension, Louis’s family) was ruined by politics. Political decisions removed social safety nets like unemployment benefits and contributed to Louis’s father’s physical decline by forcing him to return to work after being injured. To be certain, Who Killed My Father is as concerned with language and sensitivity to personal history as “conventional” memoirs are. It’s just that those elements, which drive many memoirs on their own, are not the book’s raison d’être. Instead, they are tools appropriated to further Louis’s contention that Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande, and Emmanuel Macron, among others, “killed” Louis’s father.
Who Killed My Father is therefore an extremely personal j’accuse. It is an Il accuse (he accuses).
The book centers on Louis’s relationship with his ailing, flawed father, whose name Louis never reveals. Though “barely fifty years old,” Louis’s father seems to be in the last stage of his life. Despite the book’s title, Louis’s father does not die in the course of the memoir but, rather, is exposed “to premature death” after being injured in an accident at the factory where he works.
Told in nonsequential episodes, Louis’s often miserable childhood in “ugly and gray” Hallencourt, a “world of red and gray brick and the smell of dung and fog,” may be only 100 miles from Paris but, it feels light-years away. Louis — who is openly gay — grew up very poor and surrounded by abjection: his father is a drunken, abusive, irresponsible, often broke factory worker prone to “masculine insanity”; his brother is a delinquent; the family’s home is described as “saturated” with “thick cloudy smoke” from the constant cigarettes his family smokes; and his mother waffles between bearing the brunt of the father’s abuse and fighting back against him.
In somewhat elliptical fashion, Louis mixes this personal story with French political history, suggesting a connection that is never made really explicit, as in this excerpt:
You understood that, for you, politics was a question of life or death.
One day, in the fall, the back-to-school subsidy granted each year to the poorest families — for school supplies, notebooks, backpacks — was increased by nearly one hundred euros. You were overjoyed, you called out in the living room: “We’re going to the beach!” and the six of us piled into our little car. (I was put into the trunk, like a hostage in a spy film, which was how I liked it.)
The whole day was a celebration.
Among those who have everything, I have never seen a family go to the seashore just to celebrate a political decision, because for them politics changes almost nothing. This is something I realized when I went to live in Paris, far away from you: the ruling class may complain about a left-wing government, they may complain about a right-wing government, but no government ever ruins their digestion, no government ever breaks their backs, no government ever inspires a trip to the beach.
As it reads here, the book suggests a connection between the personal and the political but never in a way that would render that connection concrete. There is no moment in Who Killed My Father where Louis suggests that a given policy had a direct effect on his family.
Further, because Who Killed My Father is an act of an author baring himself before his audience, these political bits are simply less compelling than the personal writing. It’s simply strange to go from reading nakedly memoiristic passages to others that are stridently political; the shift in tone and content (from revealing scenes, to lecturing and drawing conclusions) isn’t always as smooth as one might like.
Ultimately, Who Killed My Father could be construed as a book-length exercise in inherent bias. Was Louis’s father’s life a mess because he was a poorly educated, abusive drunk? Or was his life a mess because he was the victim of societal forces arrayed against him — which had the effect of turning him into a poorly educated, abusive drunk? Louis would have us believe the latter, even if doing so requires accepting anecdotal evidence as proof of broad social ills.
Accepting Louis’s argument also requires accepting that all of the difficult things Louis has revealed in such detail about his father — his rage, his tendency to irrationally “spend our monthly budget in four days” on games and slots, in sum his responsibility for the family’s misery — over the course of Who Killed My Father are not in fact evidence of his father being a deeply flawed person, but instead are evidence of how much society failed him. This can be difficult to swallow.
To be clear, Louis treats his father sympathetically — with pity even — throughout the book. The first time the reader is introduced to Louis’s father, he has aged badly, can hardly walk, and must use a breathing machine while sleeping “or else your heart will stop.” I did wonder, however, if Louis’s rapprochement with his father (the product of distance, time, and Louis’s growth into a refined, educated belletrist) led him to view his father’s behavior as broadly evidentiary.
After noting how his father was “hired at the village factory” upon dropping out of secondary school, instead of starting work immediately his father moved to the south of France, where he “fought for youth” for five years:
You stole mopeds, you stayed out all night, you drank all you could. You lived as intensely and aggressively as possible, because you felt these experiences were stolen — and this, this is my point: there are those to whom youth is given and those who can only try desperately to steal it.
Is stealing mopeds and staying out all night drinking evidence of fighting for youth, or of being a misanthrope? And did Louis’s father really feel these experiences were stolen from him (the reader is never given a scene of him saying so explicitly), or is this Louis imposing his own frame on his father’s story? The tension between the personal and the political and which is driving Who Killed My Father is sustained for the book’s length.
Though it may present an argument, one does not necessarily read a literary work like Who Killed My Father looking for a strongly supported thesis — one reads it for insight into human nature and excellent writing, which Louis’s book contains in spades. It is an irony specific to the book that it is those very memoiristic elements, which the author may well consider secondary to his overall thesis, that make it so compelling.