Tim Adams on Édouard Louis’s His­tory of Vi­o­lence: A Novel

A story that lays bare en­trenched at­ti­tudes to rape and racism of­fers a tough but com­pelling read, writes Tim Adams

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His­tory of Vi­o­lence: A Novel Édouard Louis (trans­lated by Lorin Stein)

Harvill Secker, £14.99, pp208

Édouard Louis pub­lished his first novel, En finir avec Eddy Bel­leguele (pub­lished in English as The End of Eddy), four years ago, when he was only 21. The book briefly topped best­seller charts in France and opened up a de­bate about both the por­trayal and the be­trayal of the work­ing class. The novel was di­rectly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal – Louis changed his sur­name from Bel­leguele as its fi­nal act – and doc­u­mented the bru­tal re­al­i­ties of his grow­ing up book­ish and gay in a fam­ily sub­sist­ing mainly on wel­fare in small-town north­ern France. Through his own frac­tured and vi­o­lent ado­les­cence, Louis traced, in loop­ing, in­te­ri­orised prose, the ways in which the work­ing poor had been marginalised and aban­doned by suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments, lead­ing to a po­lit­i­cal shift to the pop­ulist right (on the eve of the French elec­tions last year he wrote a New York Times op-ed ti­tled “Why my fa­ther votes for Le Pen”). He ar­gued that poor, white France shared the dis­crim­i­na­tion ex­pe­ri­enced by im­mi­grants and the gay com­mu­nity; “it is ur­gent, it is nec­es­sary,” he has in­sisted, for writ­ers and artists “to build new spa­ces to ad­dress the ques­tion of dom­i­na­tion and ex­clu­sion”.

This sec­ond novel is in some ways a dis­turb­ing drama­ti­sa­tion of that lat­ter in­tent. It is again a pro­foundly per­sonal book, dwelling on the cir­cum­stances of a one-night stand be­tween Louis and a man he met on the street on Christ­mas Eve 2012 in Paris, a night that ended with the au­thor be­ing raped and al­most mur­dered. The man, called Reda in the book, and sub­se­quently pros­e­cuted and im­pris­oned for his crime, was a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion north African im­mi­grant. Louis uses the trauma of the en­counter and its af­ter­math to un­pick in­grained at­ti­tudes to male rape and racism, not only in the re­sponse of his fam­ily and the po­lice to his or­deal, but also within his own head. It is not a com­fort­able read.

To be­gin with, Louis skirts and evades the hor­ri­bly sur­real facts of the night, mak­ing the reader fol­low the ways he tries to get them right in his head. The voice of the book is only obliquely con­fes­sional, the telling of the vi­o­lent events catch­ing the dead ends and tricks of mem­ory and over­whelmed sub­jec­tiv­ity of post-trauma. In the days after the at­tack, the char­ac­ter Édouard stays with his el­der sis­ter and some of the events are told through his eaves­drop­ping on her dis­cussing it with her hus­band, a truck driver.

Much of the rest im­merses the nar­ra­tor in the in­sis­tence of the author­i­ties that he “gets his story straight”. In the po­lice in­ter­view room, as he gets stuck on the de­tail of the noise a woollen scarf made as Reda tried to stran­gle him with it, the way it “squeaked, like nails on a black­board”, the fe­male of­fi­cer in­sists he must start again – “that’s not how you go about it”, she said “in a com­pletely an­ar­chic way” – and he re­mem­bers ex­actly how she winced when she said the word “an­ar­chic”, as if “the harsh glare of the flu­o­res­cent light­ing was driv­ing her crazy”.

Édouard can’t talk about what hap­pened, and can talk about noth­ing else. We are in­vited to lis­ten in as ev­ery fact about his life be­comes foren­sic ev­i­dence – the nooks and crevices of his apart­ment, and then his body. Telling the story as fic­tion makes good sense – his pri­vate nar­ra­tive is co-opted and pro­cessed as it be­comes the prop­erty of the state.

As the voice gets closer to the vi­o­lence it­self, it takes on a hardto-watch, freeze-frame qual­ity – notic­ing ev­ery­thing, but not al­ways in se­quence. Just as read­ily, though, Louis will step back – for ex­am­ple, for a chap­ter on the lit­er­ary in­flu­ence of Wil­liam Faulkner on his ways of telling. The self­con­scious­ness can feel con­trived, or at least French, but the book at heart is both brave and am­bi­tious in its de­ter­mi­na­tion never to let its reader, or its au­thor, es­cape lightly the dam­ag­ing re­al­i­ties it de­scribes.

To or­der His­tory of Vi­o­lence for £10.99 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

Édouard Louis re­vis­its the themes of dom­i­na­tion and ex­clu­sion in his sec­ond book. Ma­gali Del­porte for Ob­server New Re­view

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