The 24-year-old gay French writer Édouard Louis describes most French literary novelists as "people from the bourgeoisie that write about the bourgeoisie and don't really question the world." Louis is not that kind of artist. His debut autobiographical novel The End of Eddy, published in France in 2014, depicts his childhood as a gay boy growing up in an impoverished, Fascist-ridden small town of Hallencourt. (The book calls it "the village," echoing both European fairy tales and William Faulkner's southern gothic literature.) In a prescient, serendipitous manner, an English translation is now hitting the states five days before a French election that could end with former National Front leader Marine Le Pen winning the presidency.
Louis's revelations about Le Pen's fan base provoked a national debate about the working class in France.The global literati compared him to it boy Karl Ove Knausgaard, while journalists pondered if he exaggerated the lives of France's working class. French readers devoured the book, buying more than 300,000 copies.
"People are tired of a certain kind of literature addressing the same kind of subject with the same kind of privileged people," Louis explains. He is discussing his novel at a long black coffee table inside the roughly $450 a night Andaz Fifth Avenue Hotel across from the New York Public Library. Louis lives on the road, but spent many years in Paris. ("Wine is my favorite [part of Paris], and my least favorite is racist people," he remarks.) He has used New York as his home base and lived uptown as of late. This week, he's in town for The End of Eddy's American release. (Tomorrow night, he speaks at PEN America's World Voices Festival.)
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The End of Eddy is divided into two sections. Louis goes through the past in the first, figuring out why his mother and father live in a tiny house with holes in the roof, and analyzing everything from local teachers' life choices to why his father gave him the macho name Eddy Bellegueule. "Eddy was the symbol of the dream of my father, of what my father wanted me to be—this tough guy from the working class," Louis notes.
The first half of his book is more sociological study than narrative. The second-half, though, is a gripping, compact story about what happens after a nine-year-old Eddy bottoms for his 15-year-old cousin. The scene could have been salacious, but Louis renders it as tastefully as a painting at the Louvre: "I was breathing in the smell of naked bodies and wishing I could turn the smell into a substance so that I could eat it, and make it more real," he writes. Louis says some French heterosexuals apparently missed the poignancy, recalling journalists misrepresenting the sequence as rape. "That's the problem with straight people," he notes. "They think that if you take a dick, you are raped." After Eddy's mother catches them in the act, his cousin defames him. (As every bottom knows, it's always the bottom, never the top, who gets the brunt of homophobia in working class towns.) He attempts to date a girl before vowing to flee the town and change his name.
Louis maintains that every word is true, and today there are few inklings of his working class upbringing—that Édouard Louis was once Eddy Bellegueule. He can no longer remember the names of the pop stars whose posters adorned his childhood walls. (He does love Lana Del Rey's music and Instagram, though.) At Andaz Fifth Avenue, he drinks sparkling water from a blue glass bottle and wears New Balance sneakers and a blue sweater over a white-collar shirt. It's an outfit similar to the ensemble he dons in his author photo, where he raises his arm, flashing the waistband of his purple and blue underwear. It's reminiscent of Louis's past and similar to Truman Capote's controversial 1948 author photo for Other Voices, Other Rooms, which simultaneously flaunted the author's southern background and twinky gayness.
Of his own feminine appearance, Louis remarks, "I never succeeded to achieve the dreams of my family in the name of my father."
Instead, he accomplished his own literary dreams, which he developed as a teenager. Like his parents, Louis grew up hating books; French literature rarely reflected their class. As a teen, he discovered America's rich history of southern and western literature about the poor. Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Toni Morrison's stories seemed more like Louis's childhood than the novels of Gustave Flaubert. In New York, Louis has since dined with Morrison. (See: his black and white selfie with the Nobel winner.) When asked whom else he hangs out with in New York, Louis mentions British author Zadie Smith, not the literary denizens of downtown and Brooklyn.
Louis recognizes the contradiction in being the anti-bourgeois poster boy while reaping the benefits of being a bestselling author and socializing with the literary elite. "It would be naive to say I'm still working class," he admits. "As soon as you write books and as you read books and write them and your books are translated, you are not part of the working class anymore. You are in a way part of the bourgeoisie. It's not your choice. It's not your decision. But the question is what do you do with it?"
Lately, Louis has been using his fame in France to build a new left. He published a manifesto, co-written by sociologist and philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, about how to combat the right. Unlike most liberals in America, Louis understands that outraged op-eds primarily benefit right wingers and give them the attention they so desperately crave. He argues to ignore the right, using the headlines they would occupy for leftist creations instead. (Hence his refusal to debate racists on Fox News-style French television shows.) "If you want to fight them, forget them, and create something new," Louis advises. "That's why I wanted to create books." At the same time, Louis shows a nuanced understanding of why his parents voted for Le Pen and other National Front candidates. He recalls them teaching him that "The left doesn't care about us anymore. They betrayed us."
Shockingly, Louis's father has found pride in what he has accomplished. After The End of Eddy was published in France, he called Louis, praising him and bragging that he bought 20 copies of the book. Louis's mother, though, was pissed off. "He presents us like backward hicks," she told a reporter according to Garth Greenwell's rave review in the New Yorker. The French magazine Nouvel Observateur published an account of Louis's mom barraging a bookshop to tell her side of the story. (The magazine's story was later discredited according to the London Review of Books.)
It's unclear if Louis's mother or any of these critics read The End of Eddy. Without ever praising the poor like a young liberal arts student who idolizes working on a blueberry farm and living off the land, Louis presents a nuanced version of their lives. As Greenwell notes in his review, Louis breaks down how patterns repeat themselves in the village like a French theorist. The systems are the subjects, while the townspeople are the objects. When plot takes hold in the second half, Louis unearths his characters' shadows and contradictions. His dad, for instance, may denounce gay sex in his house, but when he spots men beating a local gay man, he attacks the homophobes. "Leave him the fuck alone, you shitheads, you think you're funny calling him names, so he's a fag, why the fuck should you care?" he yells.
Controversy may have put The End of Eddy in headlines, but it's the nuanced characters and story that make it the rare literary novel that is a modern coming-of-age classic.