Spotlight on Paris: Edouard Louis
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Edouard Louis' work explores the rage felt among the French working class which shows no sign of dimming
Before we all breathe too much of a sigh of relief that Marine Le Pen appears to have been vanquished by Macron for now, it's worth keeping an eye on the author who claims to be able to explain the rise of far right sympathies in France. During the run-up to the French elections, a 24-year-old memoirist from the north of France found himself the international spokesperson for the invisible class who finally felt 'seen' by the Front National. Not because Edouard Louis felt that he was part of that class. But because he had escaped it.
In the weeks following Macron's victory, Edouard Louis' book En Finir Avec Eddy Bellegueule (The End of Eddy) has become a bestseller around the world. It's about a deprived childhood in a family who, over the years, became Le Pen supporters. Louis' writing has since been compared to the work of William Faulkner, Marguerite Duras and Karl Ove Knausgaard. Even more flowery recommendations of his work describe him as a Zola or Proust for a new generation.
In May he wrote a piece entitled 'Why My Father Votes For Le Pen' for the New York Times: 'In the 2000s, when I was growing up, every member of my family voted for Mr. Le Pen. My father went into the polling station with my older brothers to make sure they really were voting for the National Front.' It was a vote, he says, 'tinged with racism and homophobia' and his father looked forward to the time when France could 'throw out the Arabs and the Jews'. But he adds: 'And yet what those elections really meant for my father was a chance to fight his sense of invisibility.'
Edouard Louis' writing has hit a nerve with people desperate to understand the political hopes and dreams of the fellow citizens who baffle them. Last month this French novel with a social conscience was reviewed in almost every possible influential outlet in the English-speaking world, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Denver Post, the Financial Times and the London Review of Books. That's quite a haul for a 24-year-old.
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Louis, born Eddy Bellegueule, was born in Hallencourt, a small commune in the Somme department in the Hauts-de-France in northern France, 41 kilometres from Amiens. (He changed his name legally to Edouard Louis shortly before his first book came out. Eddy Bellegueule, his birth name, 'wasn't me, he was the name of a childhood I hated.') In interviews and reviews, Hallencourt is usually characterised as a place 'where many live below the poverty line'.
His father was unemployed after injuring his back in an accident at the factory where he worked. His mother worked occasionally as a carer for the elderly. They got by mostly on state benefits. With a family of five to feed on very little money, his mother would complain: 'When the left was in power, we had steak on our plates.' As a child, Eddy frequently heard his parents blame politics for their situation: 'I knew the feeling of being hungry before I knew how to read.' By the time he was in his teens, this was a community of 1,300 where more than half of the population voted for the Front National. His mother told him that Marine Le Pen was 'the only one who speaks to us.'
He remembers being 15 years old when he saw his father go to the dentist for the first time because a new state benefit meant it was possible. Still, he realised his own educational ambitions – 'thanks to a series of accidents and failures' – and was able access education beyond the age of 16, unlike anyone else in his family. He went to a lycee and then on to university to study at the Universite de Picardie Jules Verne and, from there, to the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. He began writing 'because I couldn't find the world of my childhood anywhere in books'. As well as being a respected literary writer, he's now a prominent public academic in France.
His work is as much about sexual identity as it is about social commentary. He was the subject of homophobic bullying at school and at home and was repeatedly on the receiving end of name-calling and beatings: 'My father used to say, You are the shame of the family. He would tell me the community mocked our family because I acted like a girl.' Looking back on his childhood, he finds many inconsistencies and injustices: the casual racism in small town France; his mother's desperate, self-contradicting views on politics; the way his father despises the middle classes but somehow hopes his son will ascend into their midst. The daily violence he describes is part of a proscribed, limited idea of masculinity, he says. 'I always hated typical masculine activities,' he says, 'I was incapable of them – the sight of me playing football was hilarious – and so from the beginning I was excluded.'
The End of Eddy came out in France in 2014 when he was 21. The initial print run in France was 2,000 and the publisher thought it would happily last for years without a second print run. It went on to sell over 300,000 copies and has now been translated into more than 20 languages. When it came out in translation in the US, the New Yorker hailed it as having 'devastating emotional force'. It was described elsewhere as 'the Hillbilly Elegy of France', in a reference to J.D. Vance's memoir about white working class America in the rust belt of Ohio, which topped the US bestseller charts in the wake of last year's shock election result. He has since published two non-fiction books on philosophers Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault and a second memoir about a violent rape, Histoire de la Violence.
The fallout from The End of Eddy has been difficult. Several members of his family have disputed aspects of his account. His mother is ashamed that he portrayed the family as 'poor'. ('He presents us as backwards hicks,' she said in one interview.) When he first took the book to publishers, one replied that they couldn't possibly publish this manuscript because 'the poverty I wrote about hadn't existed in more than a century; no-one would believe the story I had to tell'. To those critics who point out that he has painted a uniquely unflattering portrait of a certain class, he replies: 'I don't need to show that working-class values are above reproach in order to write against the social violence that produces them. To me, it's a crucial distinction – we don't have to love a culture to support the people who comprise it.'
He gets frustrated when people look at his life story and see it as inspirational. It should be the opposite, he argues: it's extremely rare for anyone to get out of those circumstances and that's the whole point why people are so angry and desperate for radical answers. 'Now, I'm out, I can see how difficult it is to escape,' he told the Guardian. 'I can see the extraordinary violence of it... and who speaks for these people whose lives are shattered, who are humiliated by the system? These people feel forgotten. So they turn to someone.'
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