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The Talented Mr. Louis

Édouard Louis can’t escape his past

Change: A Novel by Édouard Louis, translated from the French by John Lambert. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages. 2024.

“I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone,” writes Édouard Louis in his new autobiographical novel Change, “but for me when the process of my transformation began it was more than just a conscious effort, it became a permanent obsession.” No kidding: the upshot of the author’s personal reinvention comprises not only the plot of this book, Louis’s fifth, but that of The End of Eddy, his first, and several more thereafter.

If you weren’t already familiar, the story goes something like this: Édouard Louis, né Eddy Bellegueule, was born in Hallencourt, a postindustrial working-class village in northern France where the author was subjected to the relentless indignities of poverty and homophobia. At school, he was beaten by his classmates and called any number of slurs: “faggot, fag, fairy, cocksucker, punk, pansy, sissy, wimp, girly boy, pussy, bitch, homo, fruit, poof, queer or homosexual gayboy,” reads one unyielding account in the author’s debut, published in France when he was just twenty-one.

Things are not any better at home. In Change, he recalls being sent to the neighbors’ house to beg for food (“A child would be more easily pitied than an adult,” he explains). His mother is abused and ridiculed by the author’s hard-drinking father, whose boorish hatred of gays and people of color Louis reassess more forgivingly as a function of poverty in his third book, Who Killed My Father. (Louis completists, however, will not soon forget that same man, in a nauseating early scene in The End of Eddy, bashing a sack of kittens against a cement wall “until the bag was filled with blood and the meowing had ceased.”) After his father’s spine is shattered in an accident at the factory where he works, the Bellegueule family descends further into desolation, forcing his mother to work as a home aid to elderly townsfolk. It is only by the sheer dint of will—not to mention the benevolence of several well-heeled friends—that Louis defies the savage circumstances of his upbringing to become, almost overnight, an avatar of upward mobility and an international twink-darling of the literary scene.

Though these books fall under the banner of autofiction—or, more opaquely, “autobiographical novels”—Louis, who I’ll reference interchangeably with his narrator, has leveraged the far-reaching fascination with his personal history to political ends. In France, where something like literary celebrity still exists, he is one of the reigning voices of the country’s beleaguered working class, having vocally supported the “Yellow Vest” movement that emerged in protest of the government’s proposed tax hikes on fuel in 2018. He starred, as himself, in a stage production of Who Killed My Father (and also in a documentary about his life called The Many Lives of Édouard Louis). More recently, Louis has appeared in the Guardian and the French paper Solidaire to condemn the policies of the Sarkozy and Macron governments in relation to his own family’s hardship. “Many writers come from the dominant classes and have never had this experience of politics, as an intimate experience, as an experience of life or death,” he told Solidaire. “They talk about lives without politics because they have lives without politics, whereas my father’s life was a political life.”

Throughout Change, Louis flaunts honesty as the pinnacle of writerly expression but appears unwilling to hold his own feet to the fire.

In the Édouard Louis canon, though, all lives are rendered politically, which is why the characters who come and go in Change appear flat, reduced to their function in the author’s rags-to-riches arc. And they really do come and go: once Louis is done with them, they’re invoked only to assure us that he does indeed miss them and feels very bad they had to be dispensed with so callously. The first of these figures is Elena, an affluent classmate at the theater conservatory he attends and in whom the author sees “the possibility of total and absolute escape.” She introduces our hero to classical music, shows him how to properly hold a fork and knife. The book is strongest in these scenes, where Louis lowers the volume on his loudly expository prose and demonstrates a sharp understanding of the social codes that separate the haves from the have-nots. “The strangest thing was no one laid down these rules, they were just there ” he explains of the posh dinners at Elena’s house, where the television stays off and lofty conversation is encouraged.

But Louis is a quick study. He memorizes his friend’s pamphlet of twentieth-century painters, binges the works of Gus Van Sant and Orson Welles. At one point, he spends an entire night on the dormitory computers transcribing whatever information he can dig up on Richard Wagner, whose work he invokes in conversation with a classmate the next day. A more interesting book might tell us what’s so exciting about a creative consciousness in bloom, or how it must have felt for a boy once deprived of art to see Citizen Kane for the first time. But books and music and theater, Louis confesses, exist almost exclusively as line items in the syllabus of his intellectual makeover, accouterments not unlike the bronze statues that adorn the dining room table at Elena’s house. “I had the feeling that I was accelerating time,” he writes, “that I was learning in a few minutes what her body had assimilated in fifteen years.” But he seems to be cramming for a test of which he is both student and administrator.

Eventually, Elena ceases to be useful to our narrator, the first casualty of his evolution, though not the last. His sights, anyway, are set on Paris and the impressive École Normale Supérieure, a university so distinguished that even Elena doesn’t bother aspiring to it. But her “aesthetic of existence,” as Louis calls it, endures as his own. As we read on, Louis begins to seem less like Pip of Great Expectations than like Tom Ripley, a pragmatic striver possessed of charm but not exactly virtue.

Louis, however, does not lack self-awareness; he is his own favorite subject, after all. So he makes sure to communicate his sense of guilt in a number of unsubtle ways. After a crucial early scene in which he mocks his parents, telling Elena’s mother that he comes from a family of “alcoholics and prisoners,” he devotes an entire page to the words “I’m sorry,” which appear capitalized, italicized, and surrounded by white space—a marquee for his honorable contrition. His parents, to whom interminably long sections of the book are addressed in a remorseful second person, deflect from humiliation with humor. “He’s playing Monsieur La-di-da,” jokes the author’s mother when Louis returns home brandishing the verbal and aesthetic signifiers of his new life like a weapon. But sometimes things get violent, as in one especially punishing scene where Louis chastises his mother for smoking cigarettes in the house. “I was crying, my arms in front of my face to ward off her blows,” he writes. “She was crying too. She looked at me like a monster.” The moment calls to mind a scene from 2022’s A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, a slim but difficult reappraisal of his mother’s life, in which Louis elegantly remarks that, though he and his mother were once jointly ashamed of the abasement of poverty, now their “shame had parted ways.”

In Change, though, Louis sometimes abandons the theatricality of his first-person narration for a distant and more controlled third, recognizing, perhaps, that his own recollections have rendered his character cold and unsympathetic. As justification for his flight—a “class defector,” he calls himself in a previous book—Louis offers the following: “He thinks that continuing to see his family will prevent him from going through with his transformation.” Elsewhere, Louis inserts a series of micro-chapters called “Imaginary Conversation in Front of a Mirror,” in which he takes the opportunity to preempt the reader’s questions by posing them to himself (he encounters himself in mirrors often, sometimes to rehearse laughter or take in the miracle of his recreation).  He even imagines a poem written to him by Elena as he leaves for Paris, in which she accuses him of “egotism.” These sorts of narrative interjections can be found throughout Change, a book so eager to rationalize its author’s decisions that it begins to read as a mea culpa. Apologia, perhaps, might have been a more suitable title.

But what, exactly, is Louis sorry for? Surely not the exploitation in literature of his family and their experiences, which are his to tell as much as anyone else’s. Nor is it the fact of his “transformation,” an undertaking for which he grants himself absolution. “It was to experience scenes like these that I left you, but I had the right,” he declares, addressing Elena from Paris, where he’s enrolled at the École and struck up a romance with a magnanimous aristocrat named Phillipe, who Louis imagines “asking me to live with him and forever putting myself and my past far behind me.” Phillipe, as you might have imagined, is summarily dismissed a few pages later, though not before we get a peek at the menu—featuring aquitaine caviar and sea urchin choral butter—from one of the many expensive dinners to which he treats our wunderkind.

Earlier in the book, after Louis makes the acquaintance of the renowned French sociologist Didier Eribon, who has since become a close friend and collaborator, he speculates on the hostility shown by his classmates in Amiens, some of whom accuse Louis of sleeping with Eribon to get ahead. Louis writes, “In wanting to change had I reminded them of exactly what they were not doing? Is it arrogant of me even to ask the question?” He doesn’t want us to think too hard about it, so he answers preemptively: “No it’s not, because I don’t believe that those who change are superior to those who don’t, at the time I did, okay, but not anymore.” It calls to mind a similar self-exoneration a few pages earlier, when Louis looks back on his relationship with a professor named Ludovic, who houses him in Paris. “Today I have to ask myself: was I using Ludovic? Did I get close to him because I understood that he could help me in my projected arrival in Paris?” The author’s conclusion? “I don’t think so.” That these relationships are principally ones of convenience seems obvious to the reader, and the author’s reluctance to call them so is especially striking when considered alongside the book’s otherwise unflattering confessions.

Throughout Change, Louis flaunts honesty as the pinnacle of writerly expression but appears unwilling to hold his own feet to the fire. In previous books, like A Woman’s Battles and Transformations or A History of Violence, he has been more forthcoming with his reservations about his maneuvers or his treatment of his family or, as in the latter, the thought of pressing charges against an Algerian man who raped and assaulted him. He struggles with the notion that his story might be used to imprison someone already disenfranchised by the mechanisms of the state. But he seems equally incapable of conceiving that his story might cause others pain, even as the book pulses with the prospect of an eventual reckoning. We are left to conclude that it is Louis himself who’s been imprisoned, sentenced to retread his miraculous story over and over again by a literary establishment whose eager embrace belies its own obsession with specious notions of meritocracy. Perhaps I am being ungenerous, having heard the tale of The Talented Mr. Louis a few too many times, in both his own words and the exalting ones of his many admirers. Though, to parrot the author himself, I do not think so.