For French Author Édouard Louis, His Books Are His Weapon
Posted June 24, 2018 6:23 p.m. EDT
PARIS — Édouard Louis uses literature as a weapon. “I write to shame the dominant class,” said the 25-year-old French writer in a recent interview.
This confrontational approach began with the publication of his first autobiographical novel “The End of Eddy,” which was translated into multiple languages and came out in the United States last year. In it, Louis recounted how he grew up having to conceal his homosexuality in a small town in northern France. He placed much of the blame for the narrow-minded attitudes of his family and friends on their insufficient education, which, he said, had been stymied by the desperate need to make enough money to put food on the table.
Of his impoverished mother, who works as a caregiver, Louis wrote: “She didn’t understand that her trajectory, what she would call her mistakes, fit in perfectly with a whole set of logical mechanisms that were practically laid down in advance and nonnegotiable.” As the first member of his family to attend university, Louis became drawn to writers like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and his compatriot Didier Eribon.
“As someone from the proletariat these weren’t writers who made me feel unwelcome,” he said, sipping a Perrier in a crowded Parisian brasserie. “I don’t find this with many books. When I started to write I didn’t see the world of my childhood depicted anywhere.”
Louis’ second autobiographical novel, “History of Violence,” which is being released in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on Tuesday, goes further in its condemnation of institutional discrimination. It begins not long after Louis’ arrival in Paris in 2012 to study social sciences at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. After a convivial Christmas Eve spent with friends, Louis wandered home to his Paris apartment in the early hours of the morning. On the way back, Louis was sweet-talked by a young man of Algerian descent whom he decided to invite up to his apartment. In the book, Louis describes how for the next few hours he suffered all manner of human violence, including rape, a gun held to his head and near strangulation, before finally managing to flee his assailant.
Louis decided to write “History of Violence” after the experience of lodging a complaint with French police concerning his rape and near murder. “I still have the report that was printed out for me to sign,” he said. “I didn’t recognize anything of what I’d said in it because the police sifts what it thinks is important and what isn’t.” Louis objected to what he called “the obsessive racism of the police,” which, he felt, made his assailant’s ethnic identity a unique focal point of the inquiry. There was also “a clash of sexuality,” he said: “The concept of gay cruising was utterly foreign to the heterosexual policeman who interviewed me. He thought that what had happened to me was partly my fault for inviting a stranger into my apartment at night.”
Despite the trauma Louis suffers from the attack, he does not want his alleged assailant, who is on parole awaiting trial, to go to prison. He would prefer some form of rehabilitation and subsequent reinsertion in society. “I grew up in a milieu where I learned about what prison does,” he said. “My cousin went to prison and my grandfather. I know that prison doesn’t solve any problems. It does the opposite by making people more violent than they already are.” So when police told him that it was likely his assailant would be incarcerated for 10 or 15 years he tried unsuccessfully to withdraw his complaint. “The police told me once a crime has been committed it belongs to the state,” he said. “What’s that mean when your story doesn’t belong to you anymore but belongs to the state?”
In “History of Violence,” Louis noted that it was his close friends, the French writers Geoffroy de Lagasnerie and Eribon, who had persuaded him to lodge a complaint hours after the attack. Eribon, 64, is the author of “Returning to Reims,” a memoir about his own working-class upbringing and coming out as a gay man, which helped lead Louis to become a writer. While sympathizing with Louis about the need for less draconian French prison sentences, Eribon continues to believe that incarceration in a case like this is the only option. “I think there has to be some sort of solidarity with other gays who could otherwise just as easily be targets for the same man,” Eribon said in a recent telephone interview.
He also said that it had been important for Louis’ recovery to “re-appropriate his own story which he felt had been taken away from him by the police, by medical examiners and the penal system.” This idea that Louis’ story was taken away from him provides “History of Violence” with an original narrative viewpoint. Instead of recounting the events himself, Louis positions himself in the novel as an eavesdropper listening in behind a door on a conversation about the attack between his sister and her husband. It is Louis’ sister, Clara, who recounts her own version of what happened, with the author occasionally providing some parenthesis when he disagrees with what she is saying.
“I’d had this idea for a long time of writing an autobiography as though it was written by someone else,” Louis said. The original version of the novel was criticized by some French reviewers for what they felt was a caricatural depiction of Louis’ sister, whose spoken words are often slangy. The translated version by Lorin Stein, who resigned from his position as editor of The Paris Review amid accusations of sexually inappropriate behavior, doesn’t quite capture this distinction. Though on the subject, Louis suggests that it is French critics who have a problem with his sister’s way of talking, not himself.
“My books are often faulted by bourgeois critics for prejudices that are theirs not mine,” he said. “When I write I don’t ask myself whether I’m being kind or cruel but whether what I’m putting down is true or false. I’m not a priest but someone who’s trying to reproduce the complexity of people’s characters.” Louis, who recently returned from a “stimulating” monthlong teaching stint at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, has a new autobiographical novel out in France called “Qui a tué mon père” (“Who Killed My Father”). In it he names and shames French politicians for debasing his father, a former factory worker, and others like him, by forcing them to work menial jobs for little money when they are in no physical condition to do so.
Louis’ desire to write about different forms of social violence is not something that he sees, unlike some of his detractors, as being miserablist. Quite the opposite in fact. “I think that the more you talk and write about violence the more goodness you can create in the world,” he said.