The world of Édouard Louis’ childhood, as rendered in his autobiographical debut novel, The End of Eddy, seems almost primordial. Born Eddy Bellegueule, Louis grew up in a poverty-stricken village in northern France, shaped by oppression and a kind of banal yet prevalent, menacing violence. In the opening pages Eddy is beaten up in the hallway at school for being a ‘faggot,’ his father murders new-born kittens by stuffing them in a bag and swinging them against a wall, and his mother lets her children’s teeth rot because “there’s way more important things in life.”
Sans-dents, the toothless ones, was how French President François Hollande once referred to the milieu Louis portrays in The End of Eddy—the neglected, destitute, poor French white working class. Eddy’s Picardy village is a strictly patriarchal world defined by racism, sexism, and homophobia, unacknowledged poverty and mass ignorance. Its violent, primal nature brings to mind Thomas Hobbes and “the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
“Every day, every minute was full of violence in my childhood,” Louis told me in a recent interview in London, yet he views that violence as an inevitable product of class oppression. “If you are subjected to endless violence, you will end up doing violent things, of course. So my book blames not my parents, not the people of the village, not those who assaulted me everyday in the corridor when I was in middle school, who would spit on me and tell me, ‘You faggot’—the book blames the system.”
For the way in which he candidly yet carefully constructed his brutal childhood within a powerful coming-of-age novel, Louis arrives in the United States (where his novel is published this month in a translation by Michael Lucey) as the bright young thing of the French literary world—an enfant terrible unafraid to discuss the nation’s dark underbelly. When it was first published in France in 2015, The End of Eddy sold 300,000 copies and was subsequently translated into twenty languages. His follow-up, A History of Violence, concerns a rape and attempt on Louis’ life that occurred in 2012 and has been the subject of legal action.
Violence is so often visited upon Louis in his novel because the young Eddy is so manifestly different. If village life is defined by a certain thesis or conception of identity grounded in masculinity, virility, and violence, then Eddy is its antithesis. His voice is higher pitched with feminine inflections. When he speaks, his hands wave frenetically. He loves the theatre, female vocalists, and dolls, and doesn’t care about video games, rap, and football. Eddy was an effeminate boy, and as such it was almost inevitable that the village would violently reject him.
“People were telling me what I was before I even decided anything. They told me, ‘You are the faggot,’ and I was going to be the faggot all my life. I didn’t choose it and that’s violence,” Louis said. In the village, “masculinity shapes everything. Masculinity was the biggest value.” To Louis, this meant everything from eating the sort of greasy food that sticks to your ribs to rejecting the authority of the teacher at school. Even support for political leaders was defined by gender norms. “My mother would vote for Marine Le Pen and say, ‘Oh, Marine Le Pen, she has balls.’”
Indeed, the great political trek of the white working class from the left to the far right is very much present in the novel. Eddy’s family defines itself as much by what it is as what it isn’t, with his mother telling him constantly that in spite of having nothing, their kids are still better than the children of Arabs or blacks. When supporters of Donald Trump today say today no one does anything for them or all politicians are the same, Louis hears what his mother was telling him two decades ago.
“We had Brexit. We had Trump. Now is the time to do something if we don’t want Marine Le Pen,” Louis, who voted for the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, said. “It’s time for left-wing people to talk about these people, to consider these people again. People feel meaningless. They feel as if they don’t count for anything and of course they will have their revenge.” In writing The End of Eddy, Louis told me he “wanted to give a voice to these people. I wanted to give them a context.”
By the end of the novel—having had, among other things, his first same-sex sexual experience at the age of 9—Eddy is on his way out of the village, having won a place at a nearby boarding school. There, he enters into bourgeois society, encountering a world free of violence where boys kiss each other on each cheek when they say bonjour, carry leather satchels, and have gentle manners. But what’s intriguing about The End of Eddy is the way in which it plays with the traditional Bildungsroman form: Instead of an escape, Eddy views his move to the lycée as a failure, a flight.
“I had to leave. I had to escape,” Louis, the man, acknowledges, but “all my childhood I did everything I could to fit in, to be considered as normal. My biggest dream was not to be different.” It’s a trope of novels such as this to have protagonists “born in a very poor milieu and they are cleverer, freer, and they want to escape,” Louis explains. “I wanted to break free from this mythology. I wanted to show that with Eddy, the kid I was, it was the other people saying, ‘You are different.’ I thought I was normal. I did everything not to escape.”
Yet The End of Eddy could not have had any other conclusion. The young Eddy was everything the village was not—and vice-versa. It was not that Eddy failed to assimilate but that he never could have. The village was incapable of integrating him and destined to reject him. Coming to terms with his childhood has resulted in this stark and honest image of French working class society, rendered in an authentic voice. “I learnt this failure [to fit in] saved me,” Louis concluded, “but it took a lot of time.”