Edouard Louis' first book, The End of Eddy (En Finir Avec Eddy Bellegueule), was a sensation and fired him to the forefront of French literary society. Published in French in 2014, when Louis was just 21 years old, it was ostensibly a memoir about the brutalities of growing up gay in one of northern France's many neglected, impoverished villages. The book's directness about violence, sex, his family, and those in his neighbourhood is stunning. But it is also far more than a just memoir, it is a scathing condemnation of the cycle of poverty and violence inflicted upon those he grew up with, those same people who tormented him for much of his early life. VICE published the first chapter of The End of Eddy in the 2016 Fiction Issue. With the book now released in the UK, we caught up with Louis to discuss the pervasiveness of violence, the book's relevance in light of the growing influence of the far-right Front National and its leader Marine Le Pen, and the difficulties of being a working class touchstone for the world's liberal, literary elites.
VICE: The End of Eddy works on two levels. There's the personal side which examines your early life and the violence you endured, then there's the wider implication of that life: the condemnation of poverty and violence in certain sections of French society. Was it your intention from the outset to tackle such broad political and social issues?
Edouard Louis: What I wanted to do, firstly and above everything else, was to talk about these dominated, excluded people whom I describe in the book. It is about this village in the North of France, far from any city, any station, where 20 years ago everyone would work at a factory – which has now closed – where people are now jobless and hopeless. And about how this violence which people suffer from ends up creating more violence. If you suffer from violence all your life, in the end you inflict it upon others, for example upon gays, upon what people call "strangers", or women.
"Violence is the invisible foundation of our lives"
So from the outset that is what I wanted to talk about – these people who we never hear about and never talk about. I didn't know that the book would be translated into 20 or 25 languages, I thought I would sell maybe 800 copies – so I didn't think about "will it be about the north of France, or something more?" At the same time you could say that William Faulkner wrote about a tiny region in the American South, but all the issues he discussed were universal. And precisely because he focused on a microcosm it exposed all the characteristics of this world we live in, the racism and the violence.
Another thing that's remarkable about the book is that your tone is rarely accusatory. Many people may find that surprising given the litany of abuses you suffered growing up. But the feeling in the book is that it is not the fault of those who persecuted you.
I think violence is at the heart of the book. The fact is that violence is the invisible foundation of our lives. You are born and suddenly people tell you, "you are a nigger", "you are a faggot", "you are just a woman" – you don't even understand language, but you realise that there is already something that labels you, and this label will define your life, your future. And that sort of thing is much more present in the region I grew up in, precisely because of the violence people suffered from, that they then perpetuated. People there are excluded, so they exclude. I could just as well have called the book something like "Sociological Excuses".
When I was a kid I hated my mother, and hated my father. My father would say "we need to put gays and Jews in concentration camps" almost every day and I thought he was talking about me, that I was included in this category of people who were to be killed.
And then in leaving the village and starting to write the book, I realised that the causes of this violence and hate are not in my father, they are much bigger. The book is not saying "my father is poor", but that the system made my father poor. Not that "my father is violent", but the system makes my father violent. There is a chronology to this in the book, and chronology is important. When I first introduce my father I describe his life first, that his father would beat his mother, and then I say my father was violent.
Your decision to use your own life, to name and describe your parents, cousins, grandparents, the people you went to school with and knew from birth to the time you left the village, as all being complicit in this situation must have upset a lot of people? Yet it is the personal aspect that acts as a vehicle for the wider sociological issues. That must have been a hard call to make?
It was sometimes very difficult to write such personal things. Even to expose myself like I have in the book. In the first scene of the book two guys come up to me at middle school and spit in my face. I was scared because I didn't want to be seen as a victim, or only as a victim. Of course I was a victim at one point, like most people are at some point of their life. Who can say, "I was never a victim in my life"? Nobody, except liars. But my revealing these intimate things I would imagine is precisely the interesting thing about the book. The border between what is private and what is public is a historical border and we put in the shadows of privacy what we don't want to address. When Simone de Beauvoir talked about the woman, people (including Camus) would say, "Oh it's not our business to know about women's lives." You have to expose these things.
On top of that I didn't really think about these revelations as a risk because I didn't think I would sell many copies. There were no books in my village, no books in my house. I simply never thought it would reach those people, that it would reach my family.
People tell me, "You didn't think enough about your family", but for me when I write a book I think more about queer people, or people of colour, or women than I think about my family! What is this rebirth of the family values? Be kind to your parents? When I talk about women being beaten, gays being assaulted, or these people voting for Marine Le Pen – more than half my village have voted for her – that is far more important to me than my Mama or my Papa.
As I said, the book's tone is not accusatory, in the wider context it is not these people you are attacking.
Some people have told me that the book is "contemptful". I asked them which part they found to be so, and they said, "For example you say in the book that your father didn't wash every day", to which I said, "I don't despise that. It's your problem if you think it's disgusting. I don't." I am just describing the situation and plus, I explain why this situation takes place.
You mention Marine Le Pen, and clearly the book's vivid depiction of an under-exposed section of French society – the section from which a part of her voter base is likely to come – is very timely, given her growing power.
Of course the way people read or interpret books is always different, but in one way of course the book is about the rise of all this populism, all around the world. When I was reading articles about Brexit for example, those voting for it who were quoted in the media were saying the exact same things that my mother would say when voting for Le Pen: "Nobody listens to us, nobody cares about us, we are worthless…" Those responsible for what is happening are those often left-wing people who have never listened to these sections of society who feel ignored.
The End of Eddy was written out of anger. I had moved to Paris and I would hear these Parisians talking about the working class, well they thought they were talking about the working class, but they were actually talking about the distance between them and the working class. Everything they said just illustrated that gap instead of the subject they meant to discus.
This must have left you in an odd and, at times, uncomfortable situation? You are feted by the left wing, literary crowds around the world – seen as a contact point for that elite with the working classes. Yet you are part of that working class, and are left somewhere between those two worlds?
It was complicated. Part of these elites attacked me when I published The End of Eddy. Some of the liberal left, when they talk about the working class, they like to create a mythology about "the good people", the simple and honest people, who are not "pretending all the time" like the bourgeoisie. Who are these people? Who are they talking about? About white, straight, men? They aren't talking about the poorest, about queers, women, Arabs. They are talking about a minority, the brave white straight working class man, and because of that the others, the majority, suffer.
Lately, some so-called intellectuals have tended to see the class war in opposition with what they call "identity politics". They suggest that, since the end of the 20th century, political movements for emancipation have focused more and more on gender, race, sexuality, and less and less on social class war. But this opposition between class and identity is wrong. I try to point out that every single class issue is an issue of gender and sexuality, as the philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie pointed out.
For example, in the book, to be a working class man means to reject what was perceived as the "feminity" of the bourgeoisie: the men who cross their legs when they sit, the bourgeois who eats small plates in place of the big meals of real men.
Even more, constructing your masculinity in this village means refusing to play by the rules of the education system, to challenge the teachers, and to auto-exclude your self from the possibility of further study and therefore, to be condemned to stay in the same social class as your parents. To read was considered as something effeminate, sexually suspicious, something for "faggots". So, we will never achieve a class revolution without achieving a sexual and gender revolution.
In the same way that the intelligencia, if you want to call them that, have maybe reacted badly to your book, presumably there's also been a reaction from those depicted in The End of Eddy?
Obviously the big problem here is that when you talk about the reaction of poor people – most of the time they will not be reading the book. Mostly they were excluded from school young, they were excluded from legitimate culture… some people want to say that everybody can read.
But it's actually so much more radical to acknowledge that these people are so harassed by their work, and had such violent experiences at school that most of the time they do not read a lot. Of course there are exceptions, but mostly they don't. My father never read a book in his life, my mother neither. So it's hard to address the question of how the book affected those depicted.
I do however think that a book can play a role beyond it's readers, for example the life of black people was changed by the work of James Baldwin or Toni Morrison even for those who didn't read the work. It entered the minds of people who read and made the issues discussed present in the political arena.
And what of those critics from that section of society, those who said it the book isn't a true depiction of that life?
This is the very key to book! I wrote it to find the violence that I didn't feel when I was a kid. If violence is always with you, you just call it life. You think it's normal. When I was a kid, sometimes we ran out of food. My mother would say "just drink some milk for your meal", I was hungry, so I wasn't happy, but I didn't find that to be "violent". I needed to leave the village to understand that that is indeed a sort of violence – for a 10-year-old kid to not have food to eat. So that's another issue, that those from that world who do read the book may just see these things as normal. As a queer person of course I had a different point of view from many of those around me. In the end the book was not so much about homosexuality because I don't have much to say about it. For me being queer was a tool for investigating this milieu. To see things differently. I was excluded for it and that meant I could see that world differently.
Finally, how did the book's success effect your relations with your family, who are so thoroughly examined within it?
There were two very different reactions. With my father I talked to him again after five years of silence. I was 21 when the book was first published so it had been a quarter of my life not speaking to him. He called me and said, "Edouard, I am so proud of you". He stopped saying racist and homophobic things. My mother was angry and went on a campaign against me, saying I had betrayed her. But then again she was manipulated by the media. A very stupid French paper went to the village and took my mother to a house that wasn't hers, and shot her in a more bourgeoisie environment, asked her to dress differently and so on. There was something disgusting about that, these journalists going to see the poor, like on a safari of some sort. And what did they think? Did they think they would go to the village and see crucified gays in the street? Violence is something so much more subtle.
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