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The Uses of Édouard Louis

A young writer fights back against his own cooptation

In The End of Eddy, Édouard Louis’s first autobiographical novel about his childhood in a working-class family in northern France, every action is qualified by the temporal absolutes of always or never. His mother always serves fries, potatoes, frozen ground beef, or ham sold at a hard discount past its expiration date, its fuchsia surface sweaty with old fat. His father’s visits to the local bar finish every time with homophobic tirades against les pédés (slang for “pederast”Louis is gay, and he knew then). The factory outside where his father works, and his grandfather worked before him, never shuts off.

In Louis’s third and latest book, Who Killed My Father, the unchangeable has changed. The man he once knew seems to have disappeared, replaced by someone who apologizes and asks for help. Seventeen years ago, an accident at the factory broke his father’s back. Now he can’t drive and can hardly walk. Cheap food and alcohol have left him diabetic and obese, and he’s hooked up to breathing machine at night to keep his heart beating because alone, “it doesn’t want to.” In this short work—at under ninety pages, it’s more of a political tract qua love letter than a memoir—the battered body of Louis’s father is the central protagonist, testifying to what he’s suffered at the hands of a series of neoliberal reforms enacted by the governments of Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande, and Emmanuel Macron.

Among members of the global ruling class, Louis argues, politics remains a “question of aesthetics: a way of seeing themselves, of seeing the world, of constructing a personality.” This applies to many of Louis’s readers, since in certain circles his romans à succès now count as the right kind of thing to have lying around your apartment. For his father, on the other hand, the political permeates the most intimate details of his life. A five-euro reduction in aid means he skips meals. Longer shifts as a street sweeper damage his back further. At just over fifty, he’s on his deathbed: silent, ashamed, and afraid.

The only witnesses to his murder-by-degrees are his failing heart and weak lungs, although this is not by choice. Louis’s father has likewise been deprived of the language needed to speak his own pain. Louis recounts learning about the Berlin Wall at school and racing home to ask his father about it. “If you loved someone who lived on the other side of the wall,” Louis asks, “could you never see them again, ever?” His father doesn’t respond, then snaps, upset that he can’t understand the words used by his twelve-year-old son. He knows politics not as the stuff of polite conversation, but as a hell to be endured.

The French literary tradition tends to favor complexity and sophistication. Its unyielding syntactical structures make those of American English look as soft as Jell-O, and they’ve been designed that way over time, to keep the upper-crust in and the riffraff out. Slang, in French literature, doesn’t usually connote street smarts, but a lack of education, reinforced by the marked difference between the written and the spoken language. That doesn’t necessarily restrict writers’ subject matter to the posh. Think of Baudelaire’s prostitutes. Think of the bedraggled Baudelaire himself. But depictions of the French working class have historically been used to classify, diagnose, and control its members, deployed by an elite to claim authority over a world they know little, if anything, about. The free and supposedly meritocratic French school system has in turn done astoundingly little to shake up the status quo. “How do you use the tools of the dominant class to say something about those who they oppress?” Louis asked on a literary TV program (they’re a thing here), shortly after Who Killed My Father was first published in France last May.

The question isn’t new, and Louis isn’t the only one asking it. Despite—or perhaps because of—the force of French literature’s cultural capital, at the grandes écoles (or French equivalents of the Ivy League), favorite gossip items often concern the professions of fellow students’ parents. When I moved from New York to Paris in 2015 to pursue a degree at one of these institutions, the freedom to talk about writing in relation to money came as a release from an unspoken censure: the idea that hard work—American exceptionalism—neutralizes class differences, in art and in life. This seemed to be unquestioned by many on the left and the right, both sides eager to accept their successes as a fact of their own excellence. My French peers, on the other hand, openly acknowledged that the pressures of survival placed a heavy yoke on literature’s possibilities, having read Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction as schoolchildren. (Louis cites Bourdieu as a key influence, and edited an academic anthology devoted to his work in 2016.) I felt like I had died and gone to radical heaven. But even then, I knew my zeal was a function of my transplant status. I was like a hoarder watching other hoarders on TV, faraway problems easier to deal with than the shit in my own living room.

Depictions of the French working class have historically been used to classify, diagnose, and control its members.

Louis’s dazzling reception in the States demonstrates this dichotomy. While some French critics applauded his work when it first appeared in 2014, making the easy comparison to Annie Ernaux, others balked at his lack of literariness. He was accused of betraying his own family for profit, his first two novels (History of Violence was published in France in 2016) deemed “caricatural” and “prolophobic.” The reasoning behind this criticism might be difficult to detect in Michael Lucey’s and Lorin Stein’s English translations of Louis’s novels, which flatten out lower-class idioms so they sound as sweet as Bambi. In the original French, they sear through Louis’s even-handed prose as if they didn’t belong there. Many thought they didn’t. The upstart (in French, transfuge, which also means “defector”) had been so eager to distance himself from his origins that he internalized an upper-class hatred of them.

More recently, there was a Charlie Hebdo satire that joked Louis had secretly co-written Who Killed My Father with the president. It circulated as fact on social media, even though the young writer publicly denounces Macron at every chance he gets. Presidential advisor Bruno Roger-Petit took this misreading a step further, claiming that the young author actually gives a very “Macronian diagnostic,” in that his subjects are “subjugated to their working-class condition, disenfranchised”—even though Louis was criticizing the regime’s liberal economic policies. His name was used as further proof of his transgression. Born “Eddy Bellegueule,” he made the legal change just before The End of Eddy’s publication—to really finish Eddy off—a choice that’s since been criticized because of his new name’s association with kings.

When Louis is not indicted for betraying his background, he is often charged with lying. His previous two books are clearly marked as fiction—autobiographically inspired, yes, but subtitled roman: “a novel.” (The classification is considered decidedly more upmarket in France than that of mémoire, which is for people who can’t write.) Yet journalist David Caviglioli—who followed in his acclaimed father’s professional footsteps at Le Nouvel Observateur, though he’s diversified the family portfolio by focusing on books instead of politics and crime—didn’t get the memo. He went around asking the residents of Louis’s hometown of Hallencourt if Louis had lied about them, apparently trying to stand up for their rights after the “violence of their unauthorized publicity.” The concept of autofiction has existed since at least Proust, and no one asked his real-life duchesses what they thought about Swann’s Way. In response, Louis rightfully evoked the “class racism” which still haunts France—the idea that class is like pedigree, something bred into you. Because he was once poor, he could not be trusted to get his own story right.

The cooptation of Louis’s writing by opposing political and intellectual agendas might be attributable to his bare-boned écriture plate, or “flat,” unadorned prose. In The End of Eddy, his narrator prioritizes his feelings as a child, resisting the urge to make sense of them as an adult. This gives the novel a tremendous power. Eddy’s voice comes from his former body and does not intellectualize the violence inflicted on it, throwing the recounted brutality into relief. But while this stylistic ambivalence might have made Louis’s writing easier to appropriate by enemy camps, I don’t think he could have done anything to anticipate the blows. A particular understanding of la France profonde, the authentic heartland, is necessary for the nation’s image of itself, but its rural working classes are supposed to remain just that—unspeaking images, seen and not heard. The Yellow Vest movement, which can be loosely defined as this population’s attempt to escape its post-industrial fate, has hit a nerve for precisely this reason.

In Who Killed My Father, Louis seems to have learned, launching a counter-attack in the attempt to make the book bourgeois-proof. Its short length forces the reader to get through it in one sitting, no tea breaks or lounging on the chaise. “Some writers want the reader to be free,” he told Le Monde. “I don’t want that at all. I want him to be confronted with what I say.” Many of the scenes in Who Killed My Father revisit his previous books, and purposefully so. “I am not afraid of repeating myself because what I am writing, what I am saying, does not answer to the standards of literature,” he challenges in the book’s initial pages, expecting the reader’s protest, “but to those of necessity and desperation, to standards of fire.”

Louis knows his father’s despair is not chosen, but inflicted.

The End of Eddy delimited the barrier between family members, preventing the most casual exchange between them. Now, Louis has crossed to the other side, addressing an entire book to his father. In the attempt to forgive, he doesn’t try to forget; he begins recounting his past by telling his father, “I spent my childhood longing for your absence.” But in rifling through old memories, he rediscovers his father’s wink and smile, his explosive laughter when Louis plays alien, the time he gave his son a Titanic VHS despite his homophobic anxieties.

Louis has objected to the confusion between feelings and politics in the past. “Defending the dominated class is not a condition of whether or not its members are loveable,” he insisted in one interview. Love, or its approximation, can be used to get otherwise disengaged people off the couch. But it can also reduce political activism to a sentimental feedback loop, rather than something owed on its own premises. When Jean-Paul Sartre visited Andreas Baader in prison in 1974, he allegedly called Baader a “twat”—but Sartre still protested the conditions of his cell. The central thrust of Who Killed My Father nevertheless follows Louis as he gathers the courage to say “I love you” to his dad. It takes him sixty-eight pages to do so, and still, he can only whisper the words through the wall of silence between them. He knows his father’s despair is not chosen, but inflicted. He knows that he has survived it, and can write about surviving it, only because he ran away.

The homecoming recounted in this book, linking the intimate with the political, does not blunt Louis’s message, but sharpens it to a fine point. Between his virtuously bourgeois-bohème reader and his father, he chooses his father. Louis sees in the Yellow Vests—now under fresh attack after setting fire to the Champs Élysée on March 16—not a faceless mob groveling for attention on the airwaves, but, as he wrote in a tirade of twenty-five tweets last December, “bodies that never appear in the media, bodies that suffer.” And he doesn’t have to rely on a discourse he learned in school to defend them. If he supports their cause because of his “hatred of societal violence and inequalities,” it is “also, and perhaps more importantly, because the bodies I see in these pictures resemble the bodies of my father, my brother, my aunt.” This is not politics as love, but love as politics. A declaration to his father becomes a manifesto.