Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims is a potent memoir about the cost of changing class

Eribon feels no nostalgia for working-class life and mores.

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We are easily bamboozled by buzzwords designed to buoy us against realities too awful to contemplate, and catch-all phrases that hide more than they reveal. In this self-excoriating memoir by Didier Eribon, it is social mobility that’s under the spotlight. Why do we always picture social mobility as an unambiguous ascent – to acceptability, opportunity, prosperity, to greater voice and agency? What of the alienation it produces? The necessity of the split self, the denial of one’s origins and the scorching misanthropy it leaves in its wake? How do we tally the costs of becoming middle-class?

It has taken Eribon 35 years to emerge from the “class closet” and acknowledge that spring-vaulting himself out of poverty into the starry heights of French intellectual life might have entailed losses. Thirty-five years – over the course of which he fashioned himself into a successful journalist; professor of sociology; friend, confidant and acclaimed biographer of Michel Foucault; and protégé of Pierre Bourdieu, famed theorist of how bound we are to our habitus, that social niche to which multiple signifiers peg us. In 2008, Eribon was awarded Yale University’s prestigious Brudner Prize for his work on “intellectual history, on homosexuality, on minoritarian subjectivities”.

Yet it was not aspiration that drove Eribon outwards and upwards so much as “the energy of despair”, an early intuitive knowing that he would never find his place in the working-class milieu into which he was born – and to which he was repeatedly pulled back by something very much like destiny. “Our sentences are burned into the skin of our shoulder with a red-hot iron at the moment of our birth, and the places allocated to us have been defined and delimited by what has come before us: the past of the family and the surrounds into which we are born.” He writes as someone who has scrubbed hard at those markings of destiny, so he knows what he’s talking about.

I know what he’s talking about, too. As the daughter of immigrants who wanted me to do better than them but who’d be damned if I got a sense of being above myself (that is, better than them!), I know just how much escape velocity is required to shoot oneself anywhere near the orbit of self-invention. Eribon comes from a family of coalmen, window washers, cabinet makers, factory workers and domestic cleaners. Most left school at 14. The men were hard-working, hard-drinking and hot-headed. At weekends they went fishing. The women were brood mares: ten or 12 children was the norm. The culture was deeply racist, not because its doyens thought they were superior: who can the downtrodden be superior to? But, to them, immigrants were simply not-French. It was also homophobic: “fairies” and “faggots” like Eribon were regularly beaten to pulp in the streets of his town.

Eribon, born in 1953, has no nostalgia for working-class life and mores. Repeatedly he refers to the habits and values that shaped his childhood as “revolting”, “disgusting”, “embarrassing” – harsh words from someone whose elevated and fluent prose is that of an academician. As a sociologist, Eribon earned his stripes studying shame, particularly the stigma of being gay, the way being marked as belonging to a disdained minority means you are continually processing insult. Yet in this book, he seems finally to have recognised that the greater shame he has carried through adult life is the shame of being working class. More, that scorning where he came from entails holding himself in contempt as well. He is, as he freely admits, a “class traitor”. “Politically I was on the side of the workers, yet I detested being tied to their world.”

Returning to Reims became a sensation after it was published in France in 2009. Subsequently it has enjoyed life as a piece of political theatre, in Germany and New York. But its translation into English has had to wait until Brexit to find a new audience eager to pick at its own painful scabs and hungry to understand why solid working-class socialists have swung so decisively to the hard right.

Eribon’s family were Communists and he is fascinated by the way discussions around “the problems of how to get along with your neighbours” get transformed into “a system of political thought”, and how malleable these systems can become. The free spirits behind the protests of 1968 are now fat cats sitting at the top of the societal tree, no longer radical but complacent. Meanwhile the Communists Eribon grew up with have migrated to Le Pen’s National Front.

At the heart of his book is a scathing assessment of the left. Gone, says Eribon, is any mention of “exploitation and resistance”, replaced by talk of “necessary modernisation” and of “radical social reform”. Gone is the language of “unequal opportunities”. Instead we talk about “individual responsibility”. These neoconservative impulses towards meritocracy have effectively un-voiced the working classes, whose subjectivities are now hidden beneath a language of bland progressivism.

Eribon concludes that his own social mobility was ultimately engineered via the byways of gay culture – its outsider sensibilities, its informal routes of patronage and preferment. This is at once uplifting and depressing. For while it proves that unlikely escape hatches do exist, his larger argument is that social mobility is for the most part a comforting middle-class illusion. 

Marina Benjamin’s new book, “Insomnia”, is published by Scribe in November

Returning to Reims
Didier Eribon
Allen Lane, 256pp, £17.99

This article appears in the 08 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State