Édouard Louis on Class, Violence, and Literature as a Space of Resistance
"When violence is part of your daily rhythm, you end up believing it’s normal"
Édouard Louis’s debut, The End of Eddy, is a novel from life. Eddy Bellegueule was Louis’s legal name for the first two decades of his life. Growing up in a poor factory town in the north of France, he was ridiculed and abused for his sexuality, for his looks and speech, and for his inability to conform to the brutish standards set for men—a life of factory work, alcoholism, and gendered and racist violence. The End of Eddy, which was originally published in France and has now been translated into over 20 languages, is a visceral portrait of the lives of people who have been left behind by culture and politics. While Louis managed to leave his hometown, finish university in Paris, and go on to write two novels and edit sociological and political works, he has not forgotten the village he left behind. In fact, he writes in order to bridge the distance between those who make culture and policy, and the powerless prosper or suffer as a result. Louis and I met at a hotel bar across from The New York Public Library on a clear spring day. We spoke for almost two hours about the importance—and potential violence—of language, and what literature and politics must strive toward.
Monika Zaleska: How did you come to the spare style you use throughout The End of Eddy? It’s reminiscent of another French writer I admire, Annie Ernaux, who also writes about her working class family from a sociological standpoint—and without sentimentality.
Édouard Louis: I always have this impression that the world we live in is a world full of fictions. So I thought to make literature a space of resistance, and thus, a space of truth. I’m not making a statement against fiction; most of the writers I appreciate the most, like Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Teju Cole write fiction. But me—with my story—in front of the computer, I felt ashamed of writing fiction. For the people of my childhood, of this lower working class that I describe, we had this very strong feeling of being invisible. My mother would always say No one talks about us. No one cares about us. We would open the newspapers, turn on the TV, listen to the radio, but we would never hear about our lives, our suffering, exclusion, and poverty. That’s a reason I started to write.
The writer Pierre Bergounioux says that one of the biggest differences between powerful and powerless people is that powerful people exist twice over. They have the life of the body, when they eat, when they walk down the street, when they make love—and then they have another life in the world of representation. They see their life on TV, in The New York Times or Le Monde, or in literature. But everyone deserves this second life, you know? That’s why I wanted to write about the people of my childhood. I wanted to write a book that is angry about violence, domination, and exclusion. Sociology was the thing that helped me really understand my childhood, and above all not to be judgmental of the people I grew up with, or toward my family.
MZ: When I saw you speak at Albertine Bookstore with John Freeman and Valeria Luiselli, you spoke of books as a sort of violence for your family. Could you explain what you mean by that?
EL: My mother and father felt humiliated because they had this impression that a book was a representation of the life they would never have—the life of people who study, people who have the skill and time it takes to read a difficult book. So literature reminded my parents of their place in the world. When I was a teenager and had just escaped my social class, I would go back to see my parents in the village on the weekends, sit on the sofa, and open a book in front of them. I knew that a book, more than expensive clothes, was the most aggressive way of saying I’m not like you anymore. Today, I’m so ashamed of that time. When I wrote The End of Eddy and The History of Violence, I wanted to keep this suspicion of literature, because it pushed me to ask myself: is it possible to write a book that doesn’t reproduce the border between the powerful and the powerless, between the people who have access to literature and the people who don’t?
MZ: You write about being complicit in the violence of your childhood, about waiting for the two boys that would come beat you up in the hallway at school everyday, getting to know them intimately as they abused you—even worrying about them if they didn’t show up.
EL: When the violence is part of your daily rhythm, you end up believing it’s normal. Your body just incorporates it. And the problem of Eddy—the problem of the kid I was—was that I was ashamed of being mistreated. I was ashamed of being insulted and being called a faggot. So I was protecting the two guys, because I was so afraid that an adult at school or my parents would figure it out. You are scared of being considered a victim, you know? My mother—even as we are talking—she is still so poor. Yet she always says in the end, I can’t complain, it’s okay. Because like Eddy in the hallway, she doesn’t want to say she is suffering because she’s ashamed. When I was writing, I thought, I will complain for her.
But when my mother saw the book, she said, why do you say we were poor? She was so angry. We live in a society where people who are struck by violence and poverty think it’s their fault, and so they can’t talk about it. This is connected to the question of language. The book is constructed in two languages, the language of the narrator and the working class vernacular. I wanted to put this second language in the book because this language is also a source of violence. When my father first heard talk of Arabs as a kid, they were called sand niggers. So as soon as he learned to name Arabs, he learned an insult—before he had any personal hate or heard the stupid things they say against Arabs on conservative TV.
MZ: Could you talk about your father’s preoccupation with masculinity and his disappointment in you? His attitude seemed to be a reflection of the larger norms of village life.
EL: My father would say to me, you’re effeminate or you’re bringing shame on our family. And at the time, I thought, he’s a bastard. I hate him. And then when I learned about sociology, I saw that everything is taken from the working class—money, culture, diplomas—the only thing society leaves them is the body. It’s no surprise that they build an ideology of the body, of masculinity and strength, of violence towards gay people and women. That doesn’t mean that violence is bearable—on the contrary. But if you want the violence to stop, you have to find the real causes of it. People who suffer, they want to understand—they need to understand where it comes from.
MZ: Yet despite what he says, your father is often crying in The End of Eddy.
EL: When you look at the chapters of Eddy, my father and brother are saying boys shouldn’t cry or men don’t cry. Yet men are crying all the time, and my mother and grandmother rarely cry. The violence of the norms we uphold is not just that they impose a behavior or a certain way of acting on us—it’s that we always fail. We can never be what they ask. We can never achieve them. There is a gap between these norms and what we are, these norms and our bodies. This gap brings us shame, and that’s why shame is so central in our lives, and in The End of Eddy. Eddy is representative of this shame because I was the biggest failure, the biggest loser of my family.
MZ: Before you published the novel, you officially change your name from Eddy Bellegueule to Édouard Louis. Could you talk about the significance of names in The End of Eddy and why you had to “finish off” Eddy Bellegueule?
EL: My father called me Eddy because he wanted to reinforce his masculinity through my body. In the lower working class milieu of my childhood, people gave masculine, American names to their kids. I was Eddy and my cousins were Brandon, Brian and Kevin. My father would always say that America saved us from the Germans. That it was the country waging war against the Arabs—the country of power. My last name Bellegueule, means pretty face, but in a very strong slang. The gueule is the face of an animal.
One of the first interviews I did in the U.S. was with The Paris Review, and they asked, who was Eddy Bellegueule? At the time I said Eddy was the kid I was before I killed him. But now I would say, Eddy is the kid I never succeeded in becoming. It was the name that represented this dream of masculinity for my father. I tried to be him, but I never succeeded. As soon as I left the village I understood that a name is not only a name but also a history—my father went to jail, my cousin died in jail at the age of thirty. Each time someone called me Bellegueule, I heard faggot. I heard poor. I heard you have a past that you couldn’t choose. So I went to court and change my name to two first names—without a family name.
When I arrived in Paris for school, all these bourgeois kids would say Eddy Bellegueule, what a funny name. But I didn’t want to be funny in spite of myself. I came to understand that very often when people say they like something, in fact, they like the social distance they have from it.
MZ: They were being ironic—
EL: Exactly. They know there’s a hierarchy. So when I was in school in Paris, and at the same time writing about my family and my childhood, I kept thinking, don’t forget. If you want to write about these people, your mom and dad, you have to really write about them. Don’t write from a distance. Don’t write to enjoy the fact that you don’t have that life anymore.
MZ: There are places in the book where you refer to the act of writing. Why was it important to you to be self-referential in this way?
EL: I wanted to insist on the difficult of coming back to my childhood to write about it. This is one of the difficult paradoxes you have to keep in mind when writing about poor or working class people or Le Pen voters: if you are writing about them, it means that you are not one of them anymore. And I always understood that the return was not possible anymore, precisely because of the two languages you see in the book.
When I was writing, there was a kind of objective violence between my mother and I.
Everything that I said—everything that I had become—my way of breathing, my way of talking, my rhythm, was something bourgeois, something aggressive. Even if I wanted to see her, even if she wanted to see me, there was this war between us, something bigger than us.
MZ: Despite the darkest moments you describe in the book, there are also moments of tenderness and pride. Your parents are proud of Eddy for being polite and well brought-up even as he is not the son they want him to be.
EL: There is a kind of sociological schizophrenia. Like my father, he loves me, he loves his son as most people do in different manners, but at the same time he hated what I was. He hated the failure of masculinity that I represented, he hated my manners, my desires, my body language, my way of talking. And there were these two men within him, fighting against each other. It is because we have so many people within ourselves that it’s important to fight to make the better of these aspects prevail. That’s why people in the media and politics have such a responsibility as to what language to they use. It influences what aspects in people prevail.
“If you don’t fight against masculine domination, then you can’t fight against social inequalities.”
When people want to explain the current political situations and why people voted for a populist candidate, some of them, liberals, say it’s because we talked more and more about identity politics, about gay people, women, migrants, and we talk less and less about working class. Yet in The End of Eddy, you can see that gender struggle, the struggle against masculine domination, is a class struggle. When my father quit school at 14 years old, it was a way of building his masculine identity. I am not like these pussies that submit to the professor. I am strong. I am not a friend of the bourgeois. And in doing that, he eliminated himself from a different future, from a different life, from an easier social class. Through the homosexuality of Eddy, through the homosexuality of the kid I was, I wanted to reinterpret every issue of class as an issue of masculinity and sexuality. If you don’t fight against masculine domination, then you can’t fight against social inequalities.
MZ: I wanted to ask you about the scene where you have sex with your cousin and male friends in the woodshed behind the house. As a reader, how I am supposed to understand that scene? I hesitate to label it, and yet I wonder about consent.
EL: Ever since I’ve arrived in the U.S., every few days someone tells me, this scene when you have sex in the wood shelter with your cousin, is a scene of rape. But for me, it was one of the most beautiful memories of my childhood. People say that my book is about sexuality, but mostly it’s about the sexualities that we can’t have. It’s about a gay kid that can never express his desires, that can never put his desires into practice, that can never achieve what his body asks, what his body is craving, what his body desperately wants. But there is this one little tiny scene in the book when I am ten years old, and I have sex with my cousin, and it’s like a game between kids. For me, it was not rape at all. I think 100 years after Freud people have to understand that kids have sexual desires. Most of the time, I was very homophobic, because I was terrified that my sexuality would bring anger and trouble. For that one day, there was a sense of compatibility between what I was and what I did. All the other parts of the book are trauma, except this one. As a kid I wanted sex, and I don’t want people to tell me, you didn’t want it. I wanted it.
MZ: In your Paris Review interview, you say, “Politics isn’t a question of words, it’s a question of meat. I try never to forget that.” Meaning, I think, that to people in power policy decisions are often a question of ideology, an abstraction, but to the people you describe in your book—these decisions affect their daily lives. Is there a parallel to be found in literary representation?
EL: There is an idea in the literary field that the less you write about the world we live in, the more most chic or literary or prestigious the work. But I think that all literature is political. There is politically committed literature, and then there are liars. I don’t feel the need to say I’m politically committed, just as I don’t feel the need to say I have lungs. It’s obvious. One of the things that struck me when I arrived in Paris and started to see the literary milieu was that the more socially dominant people are, the further they are from politics, and the further they are from life. My father went to the dentist for the first time when I was 14 years old, because there was a new government program for working class people. Before that, he never went. When you are bourgeois, a right wing government or a left wing government will never prevent you from going to the dentist. You won’t have tooth pain because of the government, but my father will.
In the dominant spheres, there is a kind of amnesia about what politics really is—and it’s the same with literature. They don’t remember that for a lot of people every single public statement, like political speech, like literature, will have life and death effects. So it’s very important to recall this paradox: that the people who have political power are by definition not struck by what politics does. But I’m quite optimistic, because I see that people want a transformation now, they’re tired of this state of literature.
This interview has been edited and condensed.