Excerpt

History of Violence

Édouard Louis, Trans. by Michael Lucey

June 19, 2018 
The following is from Édouard Louis's novel, History of Violence. In the style of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, this nonfiction novel recounts the night that Édouard Louis was raped and almost murdered by a stranger. Louis is a French novelist and editor. His previous novel is The End of Eddy, which was translated into over 20 languages.

On days when I felt calmer I would imagine myself picking out someone I didn’t know in some public place, on the sidewalk or in the aisle of a supermarket, and telling them my whole story, everything that had happened. In these visions, I would walk up to this unknown person, who would shrink back, and I would just start talking, as casually and routinely as if we had known each other forever, without telling them my name, and what I would say to this person was so horrible that there was nothing they could do but stand there and listen until I was done; they’d listen and I would watch their face. I’d spend my time fantasizing about scenes in which I’d do this. I didn’t tell Clara, but this fantasy of shamelessness and self-display kept me going for weeks.

The fact is that I was unable to stop talking about it. I had told what had happened to most of my friends during the week after Christmas, but not only to them; I had also told people to whom I was much less close, acquaintances, or people I had only ever spoken to once or twice, sometimes only on Facebook. I would become annoyed when people tried to respond, when they would show too much empathy or offer some kind of analysis of what had happened, as when Didier and Geoffroy speculated that Reda wasn’t really his name. I wanted everyone to know but I wanted to be the only one among them who could see the truth of it, and the more times I spoke about it, the more I said, the stronger my feeling was that I was the only one who really knew, I was unique, in stark contrast to what I considered to be the laughable naïveté of everyone else. It didn’t matter what the conversation was about, I would find a way to bring Reda into it, to have him appear, to bring it all back to him, as if any topic of conversation had logically to lead back to my memory of him.

The first week of February—barely a month after Christmas—I went out to meet an author who had written to me and proposed that we have lunch together. I didn’t know him, but I said yes, and I knew why I had done that. He wanted me to write a piece for a special issue of a literary journal he was editing (a few days later, I sent him a really poorly written text, for obvious reasons), and I behaved in exactly the same way with him. This was a period in which I really wasn’t in touch with the words I spoke. The author arrived at the restaurant where I was waiting for him, where I was already quivering in my seat obsessively playing with the eraser on the pencil that happened to be in my pocket; he sat down, he took off his flannel jacket, he shook my hand and was barely settling into his seat, yet already my lips were burning to speak to him about Christmas. I thought to myself: No, you can’t speak about that right now. Wait a bit. Not right away. Be polite. Wait a bit. At least pretend to talk about something else. The reflection of the gray-blue sky outside could be seen on the walls of the buildings, something I remember not because the sky interests me, but because I wasn’t listening and instead gazed out the window, distracted and uninterested, whenever I wasn’t the one who was talking.

“This was something else I went on apologizing for, why I had told him everything, why him, someone I barely knew, how could I have behaved so inappropriately, as I knew I had, how could I have been so rude.” 

Article continues after advertisement

We had exchanged a few sentences and for about ten minutes I held my breath, barely able to contain myself; I could feel Reda’s name on my lips. I held back, pretended to engage in the usual kind of conversation for a meeting like this, I played my role, got him to talk about his work, his books, his projects, but I didn’t listen to anything he said. I replied to his questions on the same topics but I no more listened to my answers than to his; making myself stay calm was all the more difficult in that everything he said and everything he got me to say with his questions, any observations he made, felt like an indirect invitation to speak about Christmas. What I mean is that I found connections everywhere, that everything I perceived and therefore my entire view of reality was conditioned by Reda. So I spoke fearing that the words Reda or Christmas might slip out, too early, against my will.

Then I did speak. It felt to me that the time had come, and I thought Now I’ve held back for long enough, now you’ve earned the right to speak and I did what I’d been waiting to do since he arrived at the restaurant: I monopolized the conversation, only I spoke for the rest of our lunch, and he barely got in a few brief comments between two mouthfuls of food: “That’s terrible, how horrible, oh my God, etc.,” which only added to my exultation. At the end of the meal I begged him not to repeat anything I’d said; on top of all that I couldn’t figure out why, and I said I was sorry for this too, this was something else I went on apologizing for, why I had told him everything, why him, someone I barely knew, how could I have behaved so inappropriately, as I knew I had, how could I have been so rude. It’s along those lines that I existed, that I spoke, that I acted during the weeks that followed the assault.

*

This mad flood of speech had begun at the hospital. It was only an hour or two after Reda had left, and I had run to the emergency room close to where I live to get a postexposure prophylaxis against HIV. The hospital was nearly empty on Christmas morning; a homeless man was walking up and down in the waiting room. He wasn’t waiting but simply wanted to be inside out of the cold. He said, “A very Merry Christmas to you” when I sat down a few feet away. That A very Merry Christmas to you, so odd, so improbable in these surroundings and after what had just happened, made me laugh. An uncontrollable burst of laughter took hold of me, a laugh that was loud and full and that resonated in the empty waiting room, as I remember it, a horrible laugh that bounced off the walls, as I bent forward, holding my stomach with both hands, unable to breathe, and replied between two bursts of laughing, all out of breath, “Thanks very much, thanks, and a very Merry Christmas to you too.”

I waited. No one appeared. I went on sitting there. I had the feeling I was playing a role in a story that wasn’t my own. I applied myself relentlessly to remembering in order to stop myself from thinking, not that nothing had happened—how could I have thought that?—but that it had happened to someone else, to a different person, and that I had watched it all from the outside; I thought to myself: That’s where your obsession comes from. That’s why you are always obsessively asking yourself what the child you used to be would have thought of the adult that you’ve become. I thought: Because you’ve always felt like this, that your life is taking place outside yourself, in spite of yourself, that you’ve watched from the sidelines as it’s been constructed and that it’s not at all suited to you. Today’s not the first time. When you were little and your parents took you to the supermarket you would watch the people go by with their shopping carts. You’d stare at them, a strange habit you’d acquired from who knows where. You’d take in their clothes, their way of walking, and you’d say to yourself: I hope I end up like that, I hope I don’t end up like that. And you’d never have imagined becoming what you are today. Never. You’d never even have thought of not wanting to turn out this way.

Article continues after advertisement

If you don’t cry he won’t believe you, I thought to myself, you need to cry.

I craned my neck to try to see through the little windows all around the waiting room; it was a way of passing the time. Time slowed to a snail’s pace. I was waiting for one of the security doors to open, I was waiting for a doctor to appear, I coughed, sniffed, I pressed the red button of a little buzzer that was on the reception desk, and a nurse arrived, twenty or thirty minutes later. That’s when the torrent of words began. Its first manifestation, let’s say. I had already had to restrain myself from talking to the homeless man, who was obviously drunk, once he had said Merry Christmas, from replying to him that what he had said to me seemed a bit ironic given that here it was December 25, and I was at the hospital, which is to say at a moment when I should have been somewhere else, just like him, I had to restrain myself from beginning to tell him everything that had led up to my being there, in the emergency room. But this time I didn’t hold back, and so I told everything to the nurse, who only wanted to know which department to send me to—although thinking about it, he probably wasn’t a nurse, but maybe an attendant, or a receptionist, or a switchboard operator. I didn’t hold back my tears. I didn’t even try to hold them back, since I was convinced that if I didn’t cry he wouldn’t believe me. My tears weren’t fake; the pain was real. But I knew that I had to play the role well if I wanted anyone to believe me.

Obviously, all this anxiety only went on getting worse in the days that followed. Later, in a different hospital, despite my determination to move the doctor so that he would understand and believe me, my voice remained stuck in a metallic monotone, I spoke coldly and with distance, my eyes stayed dry. I had cried too much already, I had no tears left to offer. If you don’t cry he won’t believe you, I thought to myself, you need to cry. But my eyes seemed now to belong to a stranger. I made a huge effort. I tried to force the tears to come, concentrating on images of Reda, his face, the gun, so that the tears would flow, but there was nothing to be done, the tears wouldn’t come, my efforts were all to no avail, no tears welled up at the corners of my eyes, my eyes stayed resolutely dry, I was still as calm as I had been when I first arrived and the doctor nodded his head behind his glasses, which were slipping down his nose.

I turned to other scenes from my life for help. I brought back to mind other painful memories, the saddest and most painful I had, in order to produce some tears. I thought back to hearing the news of Dimitri’s death.

Didier had phoned me in the middle of the night to tell me Dimitri had died, on a night when I was out walking, alone in the dark night when the telephone first buzzed and vibrated in my pocket. It was Didier sending me a text asking: “Can I call you?”; and I feared the worst since normally he didn’t ask if he could call before calling, I was afraid something serious might have happened to Geoffroy, I was imagining an accident of some kind. I forbade myself to think of his body lying on a stretcher, but the image still appeared, and I wrote back: “Of course,” already trembling, my fingers unsteady on the screen.

My cell phone rang for a second time, and I hesitated, and then Didier announced, in a voice that was both controlled and shaking, shaking precisely with a calmness that was too overdone, too artificial, that Dimitri, who had been traveling for an important meeting far from Paris, and to whom I had spoken a few hours earlier on the phone, was dead.

I was doing my best to provoke a bout of crying so I could convince the doctor of what I was saying, but it was too far in the past, it didn’t affect me any longer. I was compelling myself to cry and he, on his side of things, was holding on to his skepticism, and I felt that these two opposing forces meeting in the same moment could allow us to establish or rather to reestablish the truth of the matter, that the truth was to be found in this meeting, and that it would be born out of this tension. I did everything I could to cry but I didn’t succeed.

So there I was standing in front of the nurse in the first hospital, and on that night I was crying with no problem at all. He was trying to reassure me: “Someone will come take care of you, there’s not much I can do personally,” and it was all I could do not to scream: “I don’t think you understand.” In the end a nurse arrived. When she came up to me and asked me why I was here, I spoke, and went on speaking and speaking.

__________________________________

From History of Violence. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Édouard Louis.




More Story
Lit Hub Daily: June 18, 2018 Is this the biggest book cover trend of the year? | Lit Hub Camille Perri on subverting genre and queering romantic...