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Édouard Louis: “I dream of a world without politics”

The French literary celebrity on shame, autobiography and why his family abandoned the far right.

By Lola Seaton

In a 2017 interview with the French writer Édouard Louis, marking the translation into English of his explosive first “novel”, The End of Eddy (2014), the interviewer, treading with caution, notes that “you have said that some of the vignettes are based on fact”. Given the book’s “blurring of fact and fiction”, how should we classify it? Every word is true, Louis insists, “every scene of this book I have experienced”.

The interviewer wasn’t the first to make the mistake. Louis’ manuscript – a searing autobiographical account of growing up in a stricken, isolated, deindustrialising village and being shunned for his queerness by his working-class family – was initially rejected because the publisher didn’t believe its setting was real. They apparently couldn’t countenance that their advanced, prosperous country could harbour such an immiserated, self-enclosed world of alcoholism, pain, premature death, of virulent machismo, homophobia and racism.

After the book was published in France in 2014, when Louis was just 21, the press descended on his hometown – Hallencourt – to maliciously fact-check his depiction of it. Such incredulity attests to the cultural invisibility of the politically neglected milieu the book evokes, one that burst into public view again in 2018 with the gilets jaunes movement, of which Louis was a prominent supporter.

Most people write one autobiography, if that, near the end of their lives. But for Louis, 29 and already having enjoyed – or endured – nearly a decade of global and sometimes stormy literary celebrity, autobiography is a métier. When we met on a muggy day in early July he told me that memoir is his “revolutionary weapon” of choice, which he uses to relentlessly “confront the dominant class” with a reality they’d prefer to ignore. In a talk in 2018, Louis, who studied sociology at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, said he “can’t” write fiction because he wanted his “real father to exist in a book”. His trenchant, unadorned style spurns any embellishment, of either reality or prose. “I want to write only the same story again and again,” Louis writes in his latest book, A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, about his mother’s escape from her dismal marriage to Louis’ domineering father and from their village (where the book’s translator, the novelist Tash Aw, happened to live for years). Louis has made it his mission to render with almost masochistic candour the suffering and humiliations engulfing his lonely childhood.

[See also: Francis Fukuyama: We could be facing the end of “the end of history”]

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Yet, his unsparing, often unflattering family portraits are also designed to be impersonal, to show how the violence circulating between individuals originates in the class system. The title of his second book History of Violence (2016) – which is about being raped by a man he met on a street in Paris – could serve as a description of his oeuvre. “I don’t believe in individual responsibility. I believe in society,” Louis said recently, addressing an audience at a London bookshop that had gathered to mark the publication of his new book. “It’s not about me or about my mother. It’s about the world we live in.”

Louis and I met in London the day after his talk, on the terrace of a decidedly un-Parisian – half-heartedly Italian, touristy – café in Russell Square. Given it’s all true, I asked Louis, why does he call his books “novels”? “Truth,” he replied, is not “immediately visible”: “You have to build it to find it.” Although he has renounced invention, his purpose-built books are highly wrought, stylised and, above all, selective depending on his polemical intention. In The End of Eddy, for example, Eddy’s father is a monstrous figure, but in the curated vignettes of his last novel, Who Killed My Father, he is sympathetic, a victim.

Louis’ slender books are not subtle psychological studies but lurid sociological parables about the transformations wrought on individuals by social circumstances, whether for good – as with his mother’s metamorphosis after escaping from her oppressive life in the village – or for ill. Who Killed My Father details his father’s decline after a series of insidious welfare policies forced him to sweep streets, despite his back having been mangled by machinery at the brass foundry where he had worked.

Nearly everyone in Louis’ village worked in the factory, and nearly everyone – including all of his family – voted for the far right, in what Louis diagnoses as a “desperate attempt to exist”. The family of Louis’ close friend, the sociologist Didier Eribon – a generation older and author of his own memoir about being the queer son of a conservative, working-class family, Returning to Reims (2009) – were staunch communists. By the time Louis was born in 1992, rust-belt families like his had long abandoned the left, which, neoliberalised in the 1980s, had abandoned them. In a 2017 essay for the New York Times, titled “Why My Father Votes for Le Pen”, Louis explained that “modernised” left-wing parties had ceased to discuss “social class”, “suffering, pain and exhaustion”.

Louis’ work takes up these themes. When he was growing up, he tells me, his parents were always complaining that the political class had forgotten them. He is amusingly critical of the faddish, “bourgeois” notion that people must – that only they can – speak for themselves: “The bourgeoisie is a talkative class. They go to psychoanalysis, they go to couples’ therapy, they even talk with their children. They create art, they create literature, so they end up believing that everybody wants to talk, and so they frame all political conversation as about: how do you let people speak and how do you not take people’s speech? But it’s so class-centric. My mother would never say, ‘I want to talk.’ She was saying: Nobody talks about us.”

Louis’ project, at once aesthetic and political, is to rectify this silence – “to create a new language for the left”, as he put it to me, capable of articulating contemporary working-class experience.

I observed that the bookshop audience the previous evening had seemed a little star-struck. Louis’ dress was immaculately, almost impersonally, normal – skinny jeans, maroon New Balance trainers, blue hoody – with the impish exception of his subtly shimmering nails, painted with gold glitter. His otherwise unflashy demeanour couldn’t quite neutralise his striking looks – his white-blond hair, blue eyes, youthful, clear features. Reflexively self-effacing, Louis responded that memoir creates a strong “connection” with people. Autobiography – “the most collective form” – is “about dissolving yourself”, which “makes people able to recognise their own flesh, their own bodies, their own sufferings”. It’s fiction, Louis tells me, that is “narcissistic”, with its hubristic presumption that a made-up character “will interest the whole world”.

Except for his acute isolation, there are few indications in The End of Eddy that Louis would grow up to be the writer he has since become. There are no books in Eddy’s dilapidated, poorly lit house – only the unrelenting television. (Louis’ family hated books “because we had the feeling that books hated us”: “nothing was as assaulting”, as humiliating, as the sight of one.) Eddy exhibits no literary ambition or gifts, with the exception of his aptitude for theatre. This is his improbable portal to the cultivated, metropolitan world of the bourgeoisie: late on, he wins a scholarship to a performing arts school in the nearest big town, Amiens, barely a 40-minute drive away but in effect another universe. But Eddy only finds acting easy because he has spent his youth trying to eradicate his effeminate mannerisms and behave like a “tough guy” to fit in. His escape, we are to understand, is not down to personal brilliance but to luck and the desperation born of ardently sought but failed assimilation.

[See also: China Miéville: “If you don’t feel despair, you’re not opening your eyes”]

This determinism is essential to the remarkable equanimity with which Louis records the violence that enveloped his youth. A disciple of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Louis often speaks about the body. This is partly an effect of his experience of politics, he told me, to which his family were intimately exposed: a €10 welfare cut might mean they went without eating for two days. “I always write with a sense of shame,” Louis said in a 2020 profile in the New York Times, and his preternatural stamina for harrowing self-exposure strikes me as a feat of near-physical endurance. At one point during his talk in the bookshop, retelling an instance of his own cruelty to his mother, Louis said he had “goosebumps of shame”.

Louis is also drawn to the body because it is irrefutable: “The body is the material expression of the violence of the social world,” he said, sounding as though quoting someone. (“A worker’s body,” I read later in Didier Eribon’s memoir, reveals “the truth about the existence of classes.”) Louis told me he is like “a surgeon” doing a “sociological autopsy”: “For me, bodies express what the world is, what society is. If you expose bodies properly, you expose the world properly.”

Yet however rigorously executed Louis’ autopsies, one has the sense that the emphasis on the body may be a means of managing unease about subjecting his upbringing to such gruelling scrutiny. It is also perhaps a way of banishing the spectre of responsibility – whether for his own class defection or for his parents’ treatment of him as a queer child. He doesn’t think about his family’s feelings, he told the bookshop audience: “I think politically, in terms of homophobia, in terms of class domination, in terms of racism. And for me bodies are a means to talk about those issues.” If Louis’ determinism can seem too ironclad, his sense of his task can seem too honed, precociously well-defined in a melancholy way. “Politics,” Louis told me, “is not a pleasure. My dream is a world without politics, a world that would be so perfect that we wouldn’t need politics” – nor, perhaps, strenuously political literature like his.

In the first round of the recent French presidential election, all of Louis’ family voted for the left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Although he did not make it to the final two, Mélenchon went on to assemble a progressive alliance that won an impressive 131 seats in the legislative elections, denying Emmanuel Macron, who was grudgingly re-elected over Marine Le Pen, his parliamentary majority.

[See also: How Raymond Williams redefined culture]

Despite the advance of the right – Le Pen’s National Rally increased its seats eleven-fold, to 89 – Louis is optimistic. “The political question is which way do you provide to people in order to say, ‘I exist’, ‘I suffer’?” Do they say “I suffer because of migrants” – scapegoating that the extremist candidate Éric Zemmour helped to entrench – or because of “capitalism, or class domination”? Louis is confident that if “we build a strong left again, so many people will switch”. His father used to man the voting booths to make sure everyone in the family ticked the right box – the far-right box. But at the end of Who Killed My Father, his body ravaged by factory work and the callous policies of the French state, he agrees with his son: “You’re right – what we need is a revolution.”

“A Woman’s Battles and Transformations” is published by Harvill Secker

[See also: Sarah Langford Q&A: “Pay something attention and it rewards you a hundredfold”]

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special