Colm Tóibín

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Colm Tóibín

The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis, trans­lated from the French by Michael Lucey. Far­rar, Straus and Giroux,

192 pp., $23.00

Those of us who move from the prov­inces pay a toll at the city’s gate, a toll that is dou­bled in the years that fol­low as we try to find a bal­ance be­tween what was so briskly dis­carded and what was so care­fully, hes­i­tantly, slyly put in its place. More than thirty years ago, when I was in Egypt, I met a cul­ti­vated English cou­ple who in­vited me to stay in their house in Lon­don on my way back to Ire­land. They could not have been more charm­ing.

The only prob­lem was that they had an Ir­ish maid who, as soon as I ar­rived as their guest, be­gan to talk to me in the un­var­nished ac­cent of home, as though she had known me all of her life. Since she was from a town near mine, we spoke of peo­ple we knew in com­mon or knew by name or rep­u­ta­tion. It was all very re­laxed and friendly.

Later, af­ter sup­per, my two English friends asked me if I minded them rais­ing a sub­ject that trou­bled them. Did I know, they asked, that my ac­cent and tone, in­deed my en­tire body lan­guage, had changed when I met their maid? I was al­most a dif­fer­ent per­son. Was I aware that I had, in turn, changed back to the per­son they had met in Egypt once I was alone with them again? I asked them, did they not also speak in dif­fer­ent ways to dif­fer­ent peo­ple? No, they in­sisted, they did not. Never! They seemed hor­ri­fied at the thought. They looked at me as if I was the soul of in­au­then­tic­ity. And then I re­al­ized that those of us who move from the pe­riph­ery to the cen­ter turn our dial to dif­fer­ent wave­lengths de­pend­ing on where we are and who else is in the room. In this world, mem­ory be­comes a form of repa­ra­tion, a way of re­con­nect­ing the self to a more sim­ple time, a way of hear­ing an old tune be­fore it be­came tex­tured with or­ches­tra­tion.

Ray­mond Wil­liams, who taught at Cam­bridge, was one of the lead­ing English thinkers of his gen­er­a­tion. In 1960, two years af­ter he pub­lished his best-known book, Cul­ture and So­ci­ety, 1780–1950, he pub­lished a novel, Bor­der Coun­try, in which he at­tempted to deal with the dis­tance he had trav­eled from his up­bring­ing in Wales as the son of a rail­way sig­nal­man. The book is filled with an am­bigu­ous long­ing for a home that has been lost, as the son Will, who is known in the out­side world as Matthew, re­turns to the small house where his fa­ther’s health is fail­ing. Ev­ery en­counter is fraught with strain and dif­fi­culty. Matthew is study­ing things as cul­ture that oth­ers view as na­ture. He has gained a place in the world that matters un­til the very no­tion of what matters can be eas­ily, or un­easily, un­der­mined by his re­hear­ing the ac­cent of his na­tive place. “I hardly know my­self here,” he says to his wife when he calls her in Lon­don. His wife notes that his voice, even af­ter a few days at home, has “changed back.” How­ever, be­ing with him, a neigh­bor says, is “like guid­ing a stranger round.” Matthew’s meet­ing the peo­ple with whom he was brought up, in­clud­ing his own par­ents, and see­ing them with the eyes of an out­sider em­pha­size the fact that he is some­one who has con­structed an iden­tity, an iden­tity that Bor­der Coun­try it­self, a book of great ten­der­ness, sets out to make frag­ile.

To­ward the end of his book about self-in­ven­tion and be­long­ing, Re­turn­ing to Reims (2009), Di­dier Eri­bon, the French so­ci­ol­o­gist, bi­og­ra­pher of Fou­cault, and author of In­sult and the Mak­ing of the Gay Self (1999)—to whom the young French writer Édouard Louis ded­i­cates his novel, The End of Eddy—in­vokes Wil­liams’s Bor­der Coun­try. “When I got to the end of the novel,” he wrote,

to the mo­ment when the son learns that his fa­ther has died, . . . I felt tears well up in my eyes. Was I about to cry? If so, over what? Over whom? The char­ac­ters in the novel? My own fa­ther? I thought of him with a sense of heartache, and re­gret­ted that I hadn’t gone to see him, that I hadn’t tried to un­der­stand him. . . . I re­gret­ted the fact that I had al­lowed the vi­o­lence of the so­cial world to tri­umph over me, as it had tri­umphed over him.

Ear­lier, Eri­bon de­scribes hear­ing the news of his fa­ther’s death: The gap that had be­gun to sep­a­rate us when I was a teenager had only grown wider with the pas­sage of time.... There was noth­ing be­tween us, noth­ing that held us to­gether. At least that is what I be­lieved, or strug­gled to be­lieve; it had been my idea that one could live one’s life sep­a­rate from one’s fam­ily, rein­vent­ing one­self and turn­ing one’s back on the past and the peo­ple in it.

He then, look­ing at some pho­to­graphs with his mother, de­scribes the French “work­ing-class en­vi­ron­ment I had grown up in, the in­cred­i­ble poverty that is pal­pa­ble in the ap­pear­ance of all the houses in the back­ground, in the in­te­ri­ors, in the clothes ev­ery­one is wear­ing, in the very bod­ies them­selves.” Soon he be­gins to ques­tion him­self about the dis­tance be­tween the world he now in­hab­its—that of a French in­tel­lec­tual—and the world from which he comes, won­der­ing why, since he had writ­ten about shame, he had “writ­ten so lit­tle about forms of shame hav­ing to do with class.” The ques­tion he poses is:

Why, when I have had such an in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence of forms of shame re­lated to class, shame in re­la­tion to the mi­lieu in which I grew up, why, when once I had ar­rived in Paris and started meet­ing peo­ple from such dif­fer­ent class back­grounds I would of­ten find my­self ly­ing to them about my class ori­gins, or feeling em­bar­rassed when ad­mit­ting my back­ground in front of them, why it had never oc­curred to me to take up this prob­lem in a book or an ar­ti­cle?

He teases out the con­nec­tions and the distinc­tions be­tween mov­ing away from home and com­ing out of the closet as a gay man “while shut­ting my­self up inside what I might call a class closet.” As he con­tem­plates the lives of his par­ents in the north­east of France, his fa­ther work­ing in a fac­tory, his mother clean­ing houses and then also work­ing in a fac­tory, he has to al­low him­self to see that their drudgery paid for his priv­i­lege. While his mother “was sleep­ing at night in order to get up at 4 AM, I was stay­ing up till dawn read­ing Marx and Trot­sky, then Beau­voir and Genet.” He sees, as he at­tempts to evoke the unglam­orous past from which he was desperate to emerge, that his very in­ter­est “in Marx or Sartre was my way of get­ting out of this world, out of my par­ents’ world, all the while of course imag­in­ing that I was more clear sighted than they were about their own lives.”

He has to face the idea that his not keep­ing in touch with his own broth­ers, who had not fol­lowed his tra­jec­tory, had not much to do with his sex­ual iden­tity, but was “due to my so­cial iden­tity, my class iden­tity.” In order to ad­vance in the world, he “had to nul­lify cer­tain re­la­tion­ships.” In ef­fect, this in­volved “cut­ting my own broth­ers out of my life” un­til he is ac­cused by his sis­ter-in­law of be­ing “a fag­got who aban­doned his fam­ily.”

This also in­volved, of course, chang­ing how he spoke once he left the prov­inces for Paris. “For a num­ber of years I had to shut­tle back and forth be­tween two reg­is­ters, be­tween two uni­verses.” Later, he com­pares this to the idea that many gay peo­ple learn to move “reg­u­larly back and forth be­tween spa­ces and be­tween tem­po­ral­i­ties (from nor­mal to ab­nor­mal and back again).”

As his book pro­ceeds, Eri­bon’s tone be­comes more cer­tain, the writ­ing more stark, more mem­o­rable, his knowl­edge of his plight sim­pler and more dis­turb­ing:

Ba­si­cally, I had been con­victed twice, so­cially speak­ing: one con­vic­tion was based on class, the other on sex­u­al­ity. There is no es­cap­ing from sen­tences such as th­ese. I bear the mark of both of them. Yet be­cause they came into con­flict with each other at a cer­tain mo­ment in my life, I was obliged to shape my­self by play­ing one off against the other.

In his book, Eri­bon also in­vokes the French writer An­nie Er­naux, who de­scribed her own hum­ble ori­gins:

She pro­vides an amaz­ing de­scrip­tion of the un­easi­ness or distress a per­son feels upon re­turn­ing to her or his par­ents’ house af­ter not only mov­ing out, but also af­ter

leav­ing be­hind both the fam­ily and the world to which she or he nonethe­less con­tin­ues to be­long.

He quotes Er­naux on her mother, who ran a small gro­cery store: “I was both cer­tain of her love for me and aware of one bla­tant in­jus­tice: she spent all day sell­ing milk and pota­toes so that I could sit in a lec­ture hall and learn about Plato.”

Er­naux’s two short books, A Man’s Place (1983) and A Woman’s Story (1988), vividly cap­ture her par­ents’ lives and deal un­spar­ingly with her own mix­ture of close­ness and dis­tance from them as she in­vented her­self as a writer. She de­scribes her own and her par­ents’ un­ease with the lan­guage that was nat­u­ral to them, and the tone she felt she should use when she spoke: “As a child, when I tried to ex­press my­self cor­rectly, it was like walk­ing down a dark tun­nel.”

In an in­ter­view in 2014, Édouard Louis said:

Re­turn to Reims played a cap­i­tal role in my life.... I was over­whelmed by this book. I felt I was read­ing the story of my life. I went to a read­ing by Di­dier Eri­bon. At the end, I went to see him, and told him my story. At the time, I was still a stu­dent in Amiens; I used to go out a lot, and didn’t read much. . . . He was the one who en­cour­aged me to try to get into the École Nor­male. When I wanted to write my novel, I thought about the sin­gu­lar­ity of my own path in re­gards to those of An­nie Er­naux or Di­dier Eri­bon. I re­al­ized that I didn’t be­long to their world ei­ther. I come from a world that I feel has re­mained ab­sent from so­ci­ol­ogy or lit­er­a­ture. It’s a world that we can’t see and whom no one speaks about be­cause it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to leave and be­cause it’s dif­fi­cult to talk about with­out be­ing la­beled a class racist if ever you men­tion its misog­yny or its ho­mo­pho­bia.

Louis’s book is de­scribed as a novel but its young narrator, Eddy, is clearly mod­eled closely on Louis him­self. Al­though it ex­plores a child­hood in a north­ern France blighted by poverty, mis­ery, and prej­u­dice, The End of Eddy dif­fers from the work of Er­naux and Eri­bon be­cause it is not a re­turn home dur­ing a mid­dle age tem­pered by lit­er­ary suc­cess; it is not re­plete with emo­tion rec­ol­lected in tran­quil­ity. It is writ­ten in the white heat of re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence. (Louis was born in 1992.) But it con­nects with the other two writ­ers in the ur­gency and hon­esty in its tone as it at­tempts to shat­ter the im­age of French re­fined man­ners and so­cial equi­lib­rium. It con­nects with Eri­bon also be­cause it links the po­lit­i­cal and the per­sonal, show­ing how a work­ing-class fam­ily in France can so eas­ily shift its al­le­giance to the Na­tional Front. (Eri­bon’s fa­ther had once been a Com­mu­nist.)

Like Eri­bon, Louis makes clear that once he had ar­rived in the realms of priv­i­lege in France, he had to dis­guise his ori­gins. When asked why his teeth were so bad, for ex­am­ple, Eddy re­lates, “I would lie. I’d say my par­ents, in­tel­lec­tu­als, slightly too bo­hemian in their out­look, had spent so much time wor­ry­ing about my lit­er­ary ed­u­ca­tion that they some­times ne­glected my health.” Since Eddy was iden­ti­fied as gay from an early age, he was reg­u­larly bul­lied and beaten by school­mates. In his vil­lage, mas­culin­ity was im­por­tant. Thus, as the first­born son of his fa­ther, his ar­rival was a mat­ter of pride:

All too soon I shat­tered the hopes and dreams of my fa­ther. . . . When I be­gan to ex­press my­self, when I learned to speak, spon­ta­neously my voice took on fem­i­nine in­flec­tions. . . . As I grew up, I could feel my fa­ther’s gaze, when it fell on me, grow heav­ier and heav­ier, I could feel the ter­ror mount­ing in him, his pow­er­less­ness in the face of the mon­ster he had cre­ated and whose odd­ity be­came clearer with each pass­ing day.

Eddy’s fa­ther, who had worked in the same vil­lage fac­tory as his own fa­ther, grand­fa­ther, and great-grand­fa­ther, re­tired early due to a painful in­jury caused by heavy lift­ing. The fam­ily lived in poverty in a small damp house. His fa­ther was given to drunken rages. The bed­room Eddy shared with his brother or his sis­ter was tiny, with a ce­ment floor, mold on the walls, and a bro­ken win­dow. The up­per part of the bunk bed of­ten col­lapsed, in­jur­ing the one sleep­ing be­neath. Since his brother watched TV through the night, he could not sleep. Food was of­ten scarce, or bought on credit. But some of the neigh­bors lived in even worse poverty:

Dirty laun­dry was all over their house; dogs uri­nated in all the rooms, soiled the beds; the fur­ni­ture was cov­ered in dust, and not just dust, re­ally, more a kind of filth that no word quite cap­tures: a mix­ture of dirt, dust, food scraps, spilled drinks, wine or Coke that had dried up, dead flies or mosquitoes.

No one in that vil­lage es­capes the mis­ery. Even young women who went to work as cashiers “got used to stiff­en­ing hands and wrists, to joints worn out by the age when oth­ers are just be­gin­ning their stud­ies.”

Eddy’s fam­ily suf­fers from many types of ill­nesses and dis­abil­i­ties, while a neigh­bor dies in his own ex­cre­ment. And then “there’s the aunt who pulls her own teeth with a pair of pli­ers when she is drunk, for no rea­son, just for the fun of it—a pair of pli­ers like a me­chanic would have. She is drunk of­ten enough that, in­evitably, she runs out of teeth to pull.” Part of his own prob­lem at school was caused by “the lan­guage my fam­ily spoke at home, which was there­fore my lan­guage, marked by fre­quent er­rors and the use of the Pi­cardy di­alect that we some­times spoke better than stan­dard French.” In this world, prej­u­dice against Arabs and out­siders is per­va­sive, just as ram­pant ho­mo­pho­bia is. Louis paints his narrator not only as a fear­ful vic­tim of vi­o­lence and poverty, but also, in his dreams, as a “class rene­gade,” as he set about adopt­ing val­ues “pre­cisely in order to con­struct a self in op­po­si­tion to my par­ents, in op­po­si­tion to my fam­ily.” His par­ents thus were rais­ing not only a ho­mo­sex­ual, but also a class traitor.

Louis de­scribes with hon­esty and clear-sighted sharp­ness Eddy’s ef­forts, as he grows into his teens, to pass as a het­ero­sex­ual, or to make him­self into one. He prom­ises him­self, “To­day I’m gonna be a tough guy.” And then he adds in parenthesis:

And now I’m cry­ing as I write th­ese lines; I’m cry­ing be­cause I find that sen­tence hideous and ridicu­lous, this sen­tence that went ev­ery­where with me for sev­eral years and was, I don’t think I’m ex­ag­ger­at­ing, at the cen­ter of my be­ing.

But what is also at the cen­ter of Eddy’s be­ing emerges in one sin­gle-sen­tence para­graph: “I had to get away.” When he tries to run away, how­ever, his fa­ther be­comes up­set and starts to cry. “You can’t do shit like that, you know we love you, you can’t just run away.”

Like An­nie Er­naux and Di­dier Eri­bon, the war Édouard Louis is wag­ing is not against his own back­ground, but against an im­age of France as com­fort­able, set­tled, at ease with it­self, an im­age that has fully ex­cluded him and made him feel shame. When he fi­nally gets away, into a world that he has dreamed of, he no­tices in his board­ing school, to which he has won a theater schol­ar­ship, the gen­tle man­ners of the other boys and says to him­self, as though he is still the son of his fa­ther: “What a bunch of fuck­ing fag­gots,” and then muses: “Maybe I’m not gay, maybe things aren’t the way I thought they were, maybe I’ve just al­ways had a bour­geois body that was trapped in the world of my child­hood.” But his own ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and his own class ori­gins be­long to him as a gift that he can be­stow with a mix­ture of rel­ish and cold rage on his fel­low cit­i­zens. In The End of Eddy, which has been a best seller in France, Louis en­acts a sort of home­com­ing as he of­fers his com­pa­tri­ots a new ver­sion of their coun­try, a ver­sion that he has chis­eled with con­sid­er­able skill, thus re­mak­ing France in his own im­age, with his own unspar­ing gaze.

Édouard Louis, New York City, May 2017; pho­to­graph by Do­minique Nabokov

Di­dier Eri­bon, Paris, March 2017

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