by Michel Abescat for Telerama / translation by Sophie Brunau-Zaragoza
Your book touched a large variety of readers. How do you explain that?
By telling Eddy Bellegueule’s childhood and pulling together an image of his village and the people around him, I first and foremost tried to show what the experience of social domination is. The violence and humiliation that penetrate our lives and constitute ourselves are the more or less invisible foundations of our existence. Who has never experienced that? I don’t really like the idea of universalism, but if there is anything like it, it is domination. Whether you are a woman, whether you are gay, Jewish, or an immigrant, whether you come from the working classes, or whether you come to Paris from the Province… everyone or so, at one point in their path, has experienced -and been marked by- insult and subordination. Successfully illustrating this violence required two things. The first one was to write against Jean Genet who, in a scene of Miracle of the Rose, when spit on for being gay, turns this spit into flowers: as if literature entailed aestheticism, as if one had to make things lyrical in order to re-appropriate them; to make them beautiful, and metaphorical. The second one was to write against Pasolini, against the mythologizing and the idealization of the working classes. His whole work revolves around a vision of the working classes as humbler, more authentic, truer, the bons vivants. Contrary to Pasolini, I do not write because I love dominated people more than the others, I write because I hate domination, more than anything. It is this double refusal, this choice to unveil violence in its crudeness that might have sparked this dialogue with the readers.
You also talk of a world that is invisible today…
Discourses on working classes have disappeared from the political, as well as from the literary, spheres. I wrote my book also against this as I wanted to explore what Marxism calls “lumpenproletariat”: those who are not even workers, those we never talk about. Or only in mystifying terms, praising the simplicity and authenticity of modest people in this pasolinian vision of the working classes. That is indeed what I have mainly been accused of: “How could you speak like this? It’s contemptuous, it’s class racism.” The idea I am supporting in Finishing off Eddy Bellegueule is however rather simple. It is an idea found in Marcuse, in Freud or in Bruno Dumont’s cinema: violence produces violence, it as an effect of domination, individuals from working classes end up reproducing what they have experienced themselves. What do you take away from these accusations? Would being virtuous be a prerequisite for the working classes in order to be defended and fought for? As if the horrors of exclusion and misery weren’t enough. It is a bizarre idea, one that pertains to a meritocratic ideology, as if the working classes had to deserve one’s support of their fight.
You put yourself on the line when you decided to make yourself an object of sociological study…
I objectified myself and the world that shaped me, and tried as much as possible to reach a sort of reconciliation between truth and literature. And that sparked resistance. I was told I was writing autofiction, while I think I did the exact opposite. Built upon a personal story, autofiction is about blurring the line between truth and literature; I, on the other hand, try to clarify it. Instead of blurring the line, I tried to touch on the truth through literature and literary construction. My story is true, even if the front page displays the word ‘novel’. Why do we automatically associate the word ‘novel’ with fiction? There are no historical or semiological requirement that would relate novel to fiction. Indeed, a novel is a work of literary construction that can help to uncover the truth. Maybe I should have written a ‘non fictional novel’ or ‘scientific novel’ as Zola did.
What do you mean exactly?
Like French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who drew a picture of the social world by removing himself from spontaneous perception, I try to create something more than a simple account. Through a careful selection of words, punctuation, language, and division of chapters, I reached for a literary construction that would allow for a displacement of the gaze and propose another perception of the world I describe. Another vision of the working classes. It is a writing effort to unveil what spontaneous language cannot say.
A writing style?
I don’t talk about style, which I think nowadays is mistaken for rhetoric. It is like there is an injunction to write with style, and therefore, we are shaped by a preconceived idea of what style is: either a kind of affected phrasing à la Proust, or an avant-garde image. One day I was presenting my book at a college conference, and a student told me, “I’d like to write but first I need to find a style.” We end up thinking that style comes first. However, style in itself is nothing. Great writers never concerned themselves with style. Faulkner’s style gives voice to the working classes of the South in a way never heard of before. Faulkner doesn’t write for style. He finds a different writing to unveil a previously unseen side of reality. Even Marguerite Duras used to say, “I don’t concern myself with style.” Maybe style should be replaced by the word ‘difference’. And what’s more, since I openly don’t write for style as it is usually understood, I have been asked if I was a follower of Annie Ernaux and her ‘blank writing’, which is a construction-less writing, or as she puts it, a writing “beneath literature.” It seems to me that we all subscribe to this concept of blank writing without questioning it. Yet, one could think that the idea of a blank writing only exist in relation to an old vision of what literature is, of what literary construction is, and that to use this term of ‘blank writing’ is to ratify this old definition. Deep down, it is a subjection to dominant classification. In this sense, Annie Ernaux should not say that her writing is blank, but rather that it is the others’ writing that is blank, that of those who simply reproduce a model and write for style’s sake. She, on the contrary, invents a way of writing that proposes something new and revolutionary. Her books are so powerful because she offers a new image of what it means to construct a book. When writing, I tried to use this questioning as a starting point. To say that Annie Ernaux’s books are not constructed, they are ‘blank’, is to say that Mark Rothko’s painting is less elaborate than Manet’s, a discourse that is usually held against contemporary art.
Some journalists went back to your village to meet your family and friends…
As if the truth was there, immediately perceptible. As if the person you ask “Are you racist or homophobic?’ was going to answer ‘yes’ with a grin. When Simone de Beauvoir writes The Second Sex, women are subalterns. They are dominated, but the majority of them are not aware of it, or only vaguely. Beauvoir unveils a reality that spontaneous perception cannot attain. To this day, if you ask Eddy Bellegueule’s mother if she feels treated as a subaltern or dominated, she will say “Absolutely not.” It is a major political problem: dominated people are not always aware of their own subjection. Concerning the journalists you mentioned, their process raises questions about the state of a part of the journalistic world which exists only through lie and manipulation, as Bourdieu had shown. I am thinking for example of how my mother was photographed, without specifying it, in a house in which I did not grow up; or how she was asked to take such and such pose, or wear such and such clothes…
You took a risk publishing this book. A few months later, how do you evaluate it?
I was, more than I expected, taken aback by the hatred towards class defectors as Eribon or Nizan had described it; but I did think it would be that strong. I just finished reading The Ladies’ Delight by Emile Zola, which I had never read before. It tells the story of Denise, a class defector who comes to Paris and socially rises by working in a department store. Everyone hates her and takes it out on her, and multiple stories spread about her. She is thought to have secrets and suspected to be the director’s, Mr Mouret, mistress. For everyone around her, her career-path is nothing but suspicious. The assumption is that the class defector would always have a dark side to be uncovered. Beyond the simple story, it is made visible that social reproduction is not just a fact of the State, school, and the institutions. It is also found in everyday discourses, uttered by anyone and everyone, which consist of putting people back in their place: “Who do you think you are?”, “What are you doing here?”, “You abandon your peers, you betray them.” I heard all of this, yet I never felt like I was betraying anyone. Why should we stay forever what we once were?
Violence is at the heart of what you have been through, of what you are living, of your work too…
Social relationships are framed by violence. Violence is everywhere, all the time, in discourses that assign each one of us a position. You are a defector, stay in your place, you are a woman, stay in your woman place, you are Jewish, Arabic, Black, homosexual, every single category assigns us to a place. As soon as we are born, we are gripped in others’ discourses. Naming is a good example of this: it is an identity imposed on you by someone else, in the 70s some psychoanalysts campaigned for the right to choose one’s name. Those are the exact questions I want to raise in literature by making violence a literary space, the fuel for my writing.
Now you are a student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. How do you feel about it?
Awkward. Since my arrival, I have felt like I did not belong. This unease towards anything related to school never really left me. Its as if all the efforts I made, or those really important that were made on my account by many teachers who believed in me, were not enough. Every time I arrive at a school, any kind of school, I feel anxious. But maybe I could not have written a novel without this anxiety. It was like running away from this feeling: since I did not feel like I belonged, I needed to justify my existence in another way. Obviously, at the ENS no one ever told me “You’re a peon, go back home.” But when you bring your identity papers for an administrative procedure and your birth certificate states ‘born of a father worker and a jobless mother’, then you understand that you are different.
In your novel, two languages coexist. A classic one, yours today, and your childhood one. The shift between the two is smooth.
This work on popular language, the language of those dominated, was one of the issues at stake for this book: to create literature with this non-literary material. It was really important to me, and I made it through trial and error. I tried to record my mother and to transcribe her speech. However, I realized it was not working, it was not understandable at all, and the text turned out to be dislocated. That is when I understood it was through construction -hence the word novel- I would be able to reach a form of truth. A construction that comes closer, not one that alienates. I did not want a language as Celine’s, which is a bourgeois point-of-view upon popular languages. Celine writes about how far away he is from this world. The result is of course wonderful, but I wanted to do the opposite, to reduce the distance and come as close as possible to the reality of this language. And I wanted the reading to flow, hence the idea of the italics incorporated to the text, so no one knows who speaks anymore. Eddy? His parents? Because Eddy has the same language as the others at this point. Eddy is not different from the other kids, but he is assigned to difference by his family because he is gay. He fights so hard to be like the others, but they don’t accept him. Writing was not easy. I had to retrieve this popular language, transform it, incorporate it into the other language, and show how the two languages confront and collapse into one another. I had to show how the language of the dominants excludes that of the dominated. It was a long task. I wrote fifteen or sixteen different versions of the novel before I was satisfied.
Does this fluidity match what you are experiencing?
I carry two languages in me: that of my childhood and the other one, the language of culture, of school, of literature. Genet asked, how to write with the enemy’s language? What does it mean to write in the dominant language, the bourgeois one, about the dominated that, precisely, literature and culture ignore? I don’t have this problem because the language of my childhood was as much my enemy as was the language of the bourgeoisie. It was the language that abused women, that said “fagots”, and that brutalized immigrants from North Africa. I don’t write with the enemy’s language. In the end I write in-between two languages that are enemies, and this is what is reflected in the book. The class defector is often subject to a kind of schizophrenia, as he is torn between different discourses, different ways of thinking, different ways of being in the world… but this awkward location can be the starting point of creation.
And what are your projects now?
I am writing a second novel, which I started as soon as I had turned in Finishing off Eddy Bellegueule, more than a year ago. I am also writing my PhD dissertation. Writing, any kind of writing, is my priority. I have also created a collection of theoretical essays “Des mots” published by the Presses Universitaires de France, of which the first volume has just been released. The goal is to publish other people’s texts, to sustain an intellectual dynamic. Periods like those of the Nouveau Roman, or of Sartre, Beauvoir, Genet, Giacometti, Picasso, and Violette Leduc were rich because they implemented a sense of collectivity. There is no thought but the collective one. Those are people who constantly talked to each other, met with each other, and confronted their opinions. With this collection, and in general, I am trying to implement collectives gathering people such as philosophers and sociologists Geoffroy de Lagasnerie and Didier Eribon, the historian Arlette Farge, and the filmmaker Xavier Dolan. To discuss, to create, to write, to think with others seems essential to me.