Afew months ago, I found myself in a taxi from the airport in Paris, having returned from Japan, where I had been to promote my first novel, The End of Eddy. We had driven a few kilometres when the driver, a tall man from Ivory Coast, asked me what I did. I can never bring myself to answer that I’m a writer; I’m too afraid of seeming arrogant or of giving the impression that I’m trying to hawk my books. Most of the time, I’ll say I’m a literature student, and that’s how I answered on this occasion. “Oh,” he said, “so that’s the kind of thing that interests you, books?” I said yes. He went on, “You know, myself, I don’t read books. But I can tell you one thing, I’ve noticed that in France, when they give out literary prizes, the Goncourt and all the others, they pretty much only give them to white people who write about white people. Have you noticed? Everything is for white people.”
I nodded in agreement. I learned a long time ago to keep my face expressionless, and I’m sure that the driver could not see the effect that his remark had produced in me. He had stated something so obvious, and yet something I had never been able to articulate quite so clearly: even without reading, even without any contact with books, this man understood that literature and its institutions, the system it was part of, didn’t only know nothing about lives like his, it actively excluded them. His words had taken me abruptly back in time 15 years, to my childhood.
I was born in a small village in the north of France, where up until the beginning of the 1980s a local factory employed almost all the inhabitants. By the time I was born, in the 1990s, after several waves of layoffs, many inhabitants were out of work and doing their best to survive on welfare. My father and mother quit school at the ages of 15 and 16, as had my grandparents before them and as would my younger brother and sister. My father worked at the factory for 10 years, until a weight fell on him and destroyed his back. My mother didn’t work; my father insisted a woman’s place was at home taking care of the children.
Literature was not something we paid any attention to – quite the opposite. On television we would see that literary prizes went mostly to books that did not speak of us, and in any case, just like the taxi driver, we were aware that, prize or no prize, books in general took no interest in our lives. My mother would say it over and over: us, the little folks, no one is interested in us. It was the feeling of being invisible in the eyes of other people that drove her to vote for Marine Le Pen, as did most of my family. My mother would say: she’s the only one who talks about us. The Front National got more than 50% of the vote in the village where I was born, and that vote was above all, beyond racism, beyond anything else, a desperate attempt to exist, to be noticed by others.
As for school itself, that experience had driven my parents out of the education system and denied them access to culture at the age when middle-class children were just beginning their studies. Culture, the education system, books had all given us a feeling of rejection: in return, we rejected them. If culture paid us no attention, we would have our revenge. We despised it. It should never be said that the working classes reject culture, but rather that culture rejects the working classes, who reject it in turn. It should never be said that the working classes are violent, but rather that the working classes suffer from violence on a daily basis, and because of that they reproduce this violence by, for example, voting for the Front National. The domination comes first; those in positions of dominance are always responsible.
I am more aware than some of the violence that literature can represent, because at a certain point in my life, I made use of that violence to hurt the people around me. Thanks to a series of accidents and failures, I made it into a lycée and then to university. I was the first person in my family to do this. During the week I would board at school or stay with friends, so I would only spend weekends with my parents. As soon as I walked into the house, I would sit on the sofa with a book, one that, most of the time, I would only be pretending to read. I wanted to let my family know that I wasn’t like them, that I no longer belonged to the same world as them, and I knew that a book would be the most violent instrument I could use to do that.
Today, all I feel is shame when I think back: shame in the face of my brutality and arrogance. But at the time I didn’t think, I was just trying to get away. I was too proud to have escaped from my family’s social circumstances; I was an obnoxious fool. In the evenings, our meals would nearly always end in arguments. I would be speaking and my mother would interrupt: stop talking like a damn book, you’ve got nothing to teach me. She would say this with a mixture of anger, sadness and disgust. I, on the other hand, would hear her remarks as compliments: finally I belonged to the world where people read books.
Rather than saving us, books were what kept us down. A book by Hemingway was much more violent, from our point of view, than a photo of Trump in his enormous gold-covered living room. The photo would have left us dreaming of gold and riches: my mother spent hours looking at pictures of huge houses on the glossy pages of magazines. The Hemingway, by contrast, gave us nothing to dream of: it would have left us feeling defeated.
Are books doomed to reproduce such social barriers? There is one counterexample among my memories. A little while after my trip to Japan, I was invited to give a talk in Oslo about an author I loved. I chose Toni Morrison. When I walked into the room I was struck by the large proportion of black women in the audience. I spoke with many of them after the event: some had read Morrison, others hadn’t – but all of them felt welcomed by her books. They knew that novels such as Jazz or Home were addressed to them – not to them only, but above all to them. Today, authors such as Zadie Smith, Ta‑Nehisi Coates and a few others work obstinately to invent a more welcoming and more inclusive literature. I don’t mean to suggest that Morrison publishing a book is sufficient to interrupt the reproduction of the social order or social inequality. But at least literature will have done its job; it remains for the politicians to do theirs.
My books are born out of an absence: I began writing because I could not find the world of my childhood anywhere in books. We had not had the good fortune to find our Morrison. This is the literary revolution that is necessary today. As long as a large proportion of books are addressed only to the privileged elite, as long as literature continues to assault people like my mother or the taxi driver, literature can die. I will watch its death with indifference.
I will be discussing my book The End of Eddy at the wonderful bookshop Shakespeare and Company, Tuesday 21st of February, at 19:00.
Je parlerai de la traduction anglaise de mon premier roman, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule ( traduit par Michael Lucey ), à la magnifique librairie Shakespeare and Company, le mardi 21 février a 19h.
Adresse / The address is : 37 rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris. Everyone is welcome. L’entree est libre.
Voici la présentation donnée par le site de la librairie
Join us as we welcome back Edouard Louis to discuss his exhiliarting début The End of Eddy.
Édouard Louis grew up in Hallencourt, a village in northern France where many live below the poverty line. His bestselling debut novel about life there, The End of Eddy, has sparked debate on social inequality, sexuality and violence.
It is an extraordinary portrait of escaping from an unbearable childhood, inspired by the author’s own. Written with an openness and compassionate intelligence, ultimately, it asks, how can we create our own freedom?
Interview with Vice
VICE: The End of Eddy works on two levels. There’s the personal side which examines your early life and the violence you endured, then there’s the wider implication of that life: the condemnation of poverty and violence in certain sections of French society. Was it your intention from the outset to tackle such broad political and social issues?
Edouard Louis: What I wanted to do, firstly and above everything else, was to talk about these dominated, excluded people whom I describe in the book. It is about this village in the North of France, far from any city, any station, where 20 years ago everyone would work at a factory – which has now closed – where people are now jobless and hopeless. And about how this violence which people suffer from ends up creating more violence. If you suffer from violence all your life, in the end you inflict it upon others, for example upon gays, upon what people call « strangers », or women.So from the outset that is what I wanted to talk about – these people who we never hear about and never talk about. I didn’t know that the book would be translated into 20 or 25 languages, I thought I would sell maybe 800 copies – so I didn’t think about « will it be about the north of France, or something more? » At the same time you could say that William Faulkner wrote about a tiny region in the American South, but all the issues he discussed were universal. And precisely because he focused on a microcosm it exposed all the characteristics of this world we live in, the racism and the violence.
Another thing that’s remarkable about the book is that your tone is rarely accusatory. Many people may find that surprising given the litany of abuses you suffered growing up. But the feeling in the book is that it is not the fault of those who persecuted you.
I think violence is at the heart of the book. The fact is that violence is the invisible foundation of our lives. You are born and suddenly people tell you, « you are a nigger », « you are a faggot », « you are just a woman » – you don’t even understand language, but you realise that there is already something that labels you, and this label will define your life, your future. And that sort of thing is much more present in the region I grew up in, precisely because of the violence people suffered from, that they then perpetuated. People there are excluded, so they exclude. I could just as well have called the book something like « Sociological Excuses ».When I was a kid I hated my mother, and hated my father. My father would say « we need to put gays and Jews in concentration camps » almost every day and I thought he was talking about me, that I was included in this category of people who were to be killed.
And then in leaving the village and starting to write the book, I realised that the causes of this violence and hate are not in my father, they are much bigger. The book is not saying « my father is poor », but that the system made my father poor. Not that « my father is violent », but the system makes my father violent. There is a chronology to this in the book, and chronology is important. When I first introduce my father I describe his life first, that his father would beat his mother, and then I say my father was violent.
Your decision to use your own life, to name and describe your parents, cousins, grandparents, the people you went to school with and knew from birth to the time you left the village, as all being complicit in this situation must have upset a lot of people? Yet it is the personal aspect that acts as a vehicle for the wider sociological issues. That must have been a hard call to make?
It was sometimes very difficult to write such personal things. Even to expose myself like I have in the book. In the first scene of the book two guys come up to me at middle school and spit in my face. I was scared because I didn’t want to be seen as a victim, or only as a victim. Of course I was a victim at one point, like most people are at some point of their life. Who can say, « I was never a victim in my life »? Nobody, except liars. But my revealing these intimate things I would imagine is precisely the interesting thing about the book. The border between what is private and what is public is a historical border and we put in the shadows of privacy what we don’t want to address. When Simone de Beauvoir talked about the woman, people (including Camus) would say, « Oh it’s not our business to know about women’s lives. » You have to expose these things.
On top of that I didn’t really think about these revelations as a risk because I didn’t think I would sell many copies. There were no books in my village, no books in my house. I simply never thought it would reach those people, that it would reach my family.
People tell me, « You didn’t think enough about your family », but for me when I write a book I think more about queer people, or people of colour, or women than I think about my family! What is this rebirth of the family values? Be kind to your parents? When I talk about women being beaten, gays being assaulted, or these people voting for Marine Le Pen – more than half my village have voted for her – that is far more important to me than my Mama or my Papa.
As I said, the book’s tone is not accusatory, in the wider context it is not these people you are attacking.
Some people have told me that the book is « contemptful ». I asked them which part they found to be so, and they said, « For example you say in the book that your father didn’t wash every day », to which I said, « I don’t despise that. It’s your problem if you think it’s disgusting. I don’t. » I am just describing the situation and plus, I explain why this situation takes place.
You mention Marine Le Pen, and clearly the book’s vivid depiction of an under-exposed section of French society – the section from which a part of her voter base is likely to come – is very timely, given her growing power.
Of course the way people read or interpret books is always different, but in one way of course the book is about the rise of all this populism, all around the world. When I was reading articles about Brexit for example, those voting for it who were quoted in the media were saying the exact same things that my mother would say when voting for Le Pen: « Nobody listens to us, nobody cares about us, we are worthless… » Those responsible for what is happening are those often left-wing people who have never listened to these sections of society who feel ignored.
The End of Eddy was written out of anger. I had moved to Paris and I would hear these Parisians talking about the working class, well they thought they were talking about the working class, but they were actually talking about the distance between them and the working class. Everything they said just illustrated that gap instead of the subject they meant to discus.
This must have left you in an odd and, at times, uncomfortable situation? You are feted by the left wing, literary crowds around the world – seen as a contact point for that elite with the working classes. Yet you are part of that working class, and are left somewhere between those two worlds?
It was complicated. Part of these elites attacked me when I published The End of Eddy. Some of the liberal left, when they talk about the working class, they like to create a mythology about « the good people », the simple and honest people, who are not « pretending all the time » like the bourgeoisie. Who are these people? Who are they talking about? About white, straight, men? They aren’t talking about the poorest, about queers, women, Arabs. They are talking about a minority, the brave white straight working class man, and because of that the others, the majority, suffer.
Lately, some so-called intellectuals have tended to see the class war in opposition with what they call « identity politics ». They suggest that, since the end of the 20th century, political movements for emancipation have focused more and more on gender, race, sexuality, and less and less on social class war. But this opposition between class and identity is wrong. I try to point out that every single class issue is an issue of gender and sexuality, as the philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie pointed out.
For example, in the book, to be a working class man means to reject what was perceived as the « feminity » of the bourgeoisie: the men who cross their legs when they sit, the bourgeois who eats small plates in place of the big meals of real men.
Even more, constructing your masculinity in this village means refusing to play by the rules of the education system, to challenge the teachers, and to auto-exclude your self from the possibility of further study and therefore, to be condemned to stay in the same social class as your parents. To read was considered as something effeminate, sexually suspicious, something for « faggots ». So, we will never achieve a class revolution without achieving a sexual and gender revolution.
In the same way that the intelligencia, if you want to call them that, have maybe reacted badly to your book, presumably there’s also been a reaction from those depicted in The End of Eddy?
Obviously the big problem here is that when you talk about the reaction of poor people – most of the time they will not be reading the book. Mostly they were excluded from school young, they were excluded from legitimate culture… some people want to say that everybody can read.
But it’s actually so much more radical to acknowledge that these people are so harassed by their work, and had such violent experiences at school that most of the time they do not read a lot. Of course there are exceptions, but mostly they don’t. My father never read a book in his life, my mother neither. So it’s hard to address the question of how the book affected those depicted.
I do however think that a book can play a role beyond it’s readers, for example the life of black people was changed by the work of James Baldwin or Toni Morrison even for those who didn’t read the work. It entered the minds of people who read and made the issues discussed present in the political arena.
And what of those critics from that section of society, those who said it the book isn’t a true depiction of that life?
This is the very key to book! I wrote it to find the violence that I didn’t feel when I was a kid. If violence is always with you, you just call it life. You think it’s normal. When I was a kid, sometimes we ran out of food. My mother would say « just drink some milk for your meal », I was hungry, so I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t find that to be « violent ». I needed to leave the village to understand that that is indeed a sort of violence – for a 10-year-old kid to not have food to eat. So that’s another issue, that those from that world who do read the book may just see these things as normal. As a queer person of course I had a different point of view from many of those around me. In the end the book was not so much about homosexuality because I don’t have much to say about it. For me being queer was a tool for investigating this milieu. To see things differently. I was excluded for it and that meant I could see that world differently.
Finally, how did the book’s success effect your relations with your family, who are so thoroughly examined within it?
There were two very different reactions. With my father I talked to him again after five years of silence. I was 21 when the book was first published so it had been a quarter of my life not speaking to him. He called me and said, « Edouard, I am so proud of you ». He stopped saying racist and homophobic things. My mother was angry and went on a campaign against me, saying I had betrayed her. But then again she was manipulated by the media. A very stupid French paper went to the village and took my mother to a house that wasn’t hers, and shot her in a more bourgeoisie environment, asked her to dress differently and so on. There was something disgusting about that, these journalists going to see the poor, like on a safari of some sort. And what did they think? Did they think they would go to the village and see crucified gays in the street? Violence is something so much more subtle.
Very moved by the article about The end of Eddy and Histoire de la violence in the London Review of books
Thursday, 9th of February in Bristol : Public discussion at the Waterstones bookshop.
Informations and reservations are on the links attached to each event.