French Author Edouard Louis: 'Violence Is My Birth Certificate'

In an autobiographical novel, French author Edouard Louis returns to a brutal and almost fatal one-night stand. He tells Haaretz why he understands his assailant's behavior – and how literature can influence reality

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Édouard Louis.
Édouard Louis.Credit: Jan Haas / Picture-Alliance/AFP
Gaby Levin
Gaby Levin

Overnight in 2014, Édouard Louis became a dazzling literary phenomenon in France: The previously unknown 21-year-old had burst onto the scene with a lean autobiographical novel, “En finir avec Eddy Belleguele” (“The End of Eddy”). Within days, the book sold more than 300,000 copies and was subsequently translated into many languages, including English. Not long before it came out, its author, Eddy Belleguelle (the surname means “pretty face” in French), decided to adopt the elegant pen name “Édouard Louis.”

“In the poor, bad-off towns like the one where I grew up in Picardy, it was fashionable to give children bombastic ‘American’ names, like Brian, Kevin or Eddy, with no connection to the wretched surroundings in which we were living,” he tells Haaretz in an interview in Paris. His second book, “History of Violence,” also an autobiographical novel, and published two years after “Eddy,” has just come out in Hebrew (Am Oved; translation by Rama Ayalon).

In the first novel, Louis gave an account of his childhood and adolescence – a period of violence, insults and humiliation endured by a gay person in a homophobic society that expected a man to be rough and tough, to drown himself every evening in cheap wine in the local bistro and smash the face of anyone who dared to look him in the eye. “That society disgorged me, so I left,” Louis relates now.

In the meantime, after three books (the third, “Who Killed My Father,” was published in 2018), he has become the toast of literary France, a spokesman for young gay men who have suffered physical and verbal  abuse in their society – “for those who are dominated by the dominant,” as he calls himself.

His books have been adapted into plays and are being staged by the world’s greatest directors. A year ago, a stage version of “History of Violence” was mounted in Berlin by the German director Thomas Ostermeier, and posters in Paris Métro stations are currently advertising theatrical versions of “History of Violence” and “Who Killed My Father,” both also directed by Ostermeier, at the prestigious Théâtre de la Ville. Moreover, Ostermeier also directed “History of Violence” in New York late last year, and the acclaimed Belgian director Ivo van Hove will be presenting “Who Killed My Father” in Antwerp and Amsterdam this spring.

Getting an interview with Louis these days is not easy: He’s busy working with Ostermeier at the Théâtre de la Ville (“I have admired him from a young age and I can hardly believe this is happening to me,” he says of the German director). In the end, Louis’ friend, the French sociologist and writer Didier Eribon, persuaded him to accede to my request; our conversation took place during a break between rehearsals.

“Didier is the person closest to me,” Louis says. “His book ‘Returning to Reims,’ is a landmark for me, and in its wake I wrote ‘The End of Eddy.’ He became my closest friend. We exchange messages dozens maybe hundreds of times a day; we have mobilized together on behalf of social causes that are close to our hearts, and we consult over every move.”

'I was the only one in my family to go to high school, because in the society in which I grew up, studying, even just reading a book, was considered a ‘feminine’ act.'

Narrated in the first person, “History of Violence” recounts the real events of Christmas Eve 2012, a truly hellish night for Louis. On his way home after celebrating with a friend, he met a good-looking young man of Algerian descent whom he calls “Reda,” in the Place de la République. Louis invited him home – he lived nearby – for what was supposed to be a night of love but descended into a nightmare of violence and theft. Brutalized and bleeding, Louis managed to escape and get to a hospital, where he received medical care and preventive treatment against HIV infection. Against his will, at the vigorous insistence of two close friends, he also went to the police and filed a complaint against Reda for rape and attempted murder.

The book’s title, Louis explains, is an homage to Michel Foucault and his work “Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason,” which shows how social pressures lead to insanity and, consequently, to violence. “Violence actually accuses us, those who have created it,” he says. “Violence built up inside me because, after all, I grew up with it; it was around me and aimed at me. It filled me, suffocated me, and I wanted to turn it into something creative, more profound.”

Edouard Louis talks to Tash Aw about 'The End of Eddy'Credit: London Review Bookshop

Louis employs a highly effective literary trick in his novel, telling the story simultaneously in two parallel voices, each of which offers its own interpretation of the incident: There is Édouard’s version, in the first person, and that of his sister, Clara, as she recounts it to her husband, in her language and with a critical eye with regard to both her brother and his way of life, and to the “Arab” rapist.

“The literary tactic I employed shows that the violence that was perpetrated on me that night came from three directions: from Reda himself, from the racist, homophobic police officers who questioned me in two different police stations when I filed the complaint, and in the way Clara recounts her version to her husband. In fact, she blames me for leading the life I lead and for ‘crimes’ I committed in my childhood when, together with other children, I stole spare auto parts from a junkyard. In other words: I got what I deserved!” the author explains. “At the same time, by the very fact that Clara recalls my thievery as a child, she distances the racist discourse: ‘It’s not because he is an Arab that Reda stole [from you]; there are French thieves, too.’ It reminded me of the philosopher Louis Althusser, who maintained that literary tools can become political tools.”

Pushing boundaries

How do you explain the fact that your three personal books, written as first-person monologues, have become theater productions?

Louis: “I think they succeed in proving, by means of the theater, that the boundary between ‘intimate and political’ can change. Writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, André Gide or James Baldwin wrote about personal subjects which in their time were not perceived as political, but they pushed the boundaries of society. You know, de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ was not considered a political work at first, but it became just that. The LGBT movement has also pushed boundaries, and my books, all three of which are political, also address social violence and explore its roots, causes and results. I therefore conclude that what is spoken in the social domain, including on the theater stage, can push and advance society. Ostermeier and van Hove grasped that my personal experience is political and that audiences will understand that experiences they underwent or are undergoing also have political significance.”

Foucault. Credit: Alexis Duclos / AP

Violence, then, is effectively the center of your life.

“I can say that violence is my birth certificate. I grew up in a class that’s lower than the working class. My father was a street sweeper; my mother did not have a job, not to mention an education. Later, when she became the sole provider, she washed old people. That was a milieu in which experiences of affront and violence accumulated. I grew up gay in a homophobic society and made ridiculous efforts to be part of the norm, to the point of caricature. I wanted to talk like those people – to dress like them, play soccer, drink. I didn’t succeed, and then I fled, and the flight saved me. High school in Amiens was my refuge. I was the only one in my family to go to high school, because in the society in which I grew up, studying, even just reading a book, was considered a ‘feminine’ act. Their heroes were those who didn’t heed the rules, the discipline. People who dropped out of school in lower grades were also considered ‘men.’

“I stayed in school in order to extricate myself from that; I studied like crazy,” he continues. “So I was also accepted to university and then to the sociology department of the École Normale Supérieure [one of France’s most prestigious institutions of higher education]. But even then, when I arrived in Paris, I didn’t know the rules. As I wrote in ‘History of Violence,’ I dressed the way I imagined a ‘bourgeois’ dresses – I bought a three-piece suit and a knit ascot tie. I was ridiculous. But when Reda encountered me on that Christmas Eve, he perceived me as a bourgeois, someone from a class higher than his. In my village, when we saw someone dressed comme il faut, we shrank with shame, we felt wretched. Reda felt the same thing toward me, even though to real Parisian students, I was laughable.”

'I am angry at him, he ruined several years of my life. But Reda also told me his story; I understood where the hatred and the anger were coming from.'

How do you understand Reda’s sudden fit of violence and madness?

“After hours of lovemaking, I realized he had stolen my phone and my tablet. I tried to ask him gently, trying not to insult him, to give them back. Apparently, the fact that I took him for a thief made him violent. Earlier in the evening he told me his family history: his father’s tormented migration to France, in a miserable shelter for migrants where four people shared a room of six square meters in stench, filth and indigence. Reda grew up with humiliation and was perceived by society solely as an ‘Arab’ – meaning, inferior – and so his anger and violence accumulated. The fact that a ‘bourgeois’ like me sees him as a thief bursts the dams, renders him violent. He also directed the violence at himself: After the rape and the attempt to strangle me he called me a ‘dirty faggot,’ showing that he hated himself for his homosexual inclinations. The totality of the types of rage and pressures drive him crazy: He becomes ‘insane,’ as Foucault defines it, becomes violent.”

French sociologist and writer Didier Eribon.Credit: Oliver Berg / dpa / AFP

‘Hypocritical politicians’

Louis initially refused to go to the police after the events of that night, but later yielded to the importuning of his friends Eribon and Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, also a sociologist. They persuaded Louis that it was his duty to file a complaint, to prevent additional rapes. Reda was only arrested two years later, during a robbery and was brought to trial. (He does not discuss the results of the trial in the book.)

Why did you refuse to file a complaint against Reda? Aren’t you angry at him?

Édouard Louis.Credit: JOEL SAGET / AFP

“I am angry at him, he ruined several years of my life – Didier can attest that I didn’t stop crying for months. But Reda also told me his story; I understood where the hatred and the anger were coming from. I didn’t want to put him in the hands of a racist, homophobic, prejudiced police force. In society, there are those who are dominant and those who are dominated, and I didn’t want to become one of the dominant. After all, to understand acts of violence, it is necessary to explore the roots, and I think I understood what brought him to that state. I couldn’t go to the courtroom, I couldn’t look him in the eyes and I didn’t want him to be jailed.”

You are politically active, along with your friends de Lagasnerie and Eribon.

“My last book, ‘Who Killed my Father,’ is about the severe physical damage wrought on the sick, shattered body of my father – damage resulting from France’s neoliberal politics of the past 30 years. You know, when the governments of Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande and Macron reduced salaries, government allowances and permits for medication even by 5 euros – those were reductions that kept people like my father from eating, from buying medicine, seemingly small things but so basic for them.

Author Annie Ernaux.Credit: Ulf Andersen / Aurimages / AFP

“When I first took the manuscript of ‘Eddy’ to the publishers, the editors turned it down, with the claim that ‘Such things don’t exist in France!’ The social reforms [that is, the budget cuts] relate to those whom the politicians refer to as ‘the workers’ – a kind of homogeneous mass. My father was not even a worker, after a storage container fell on his back in the factory he worked in and crushed it. He then worked as a street cleaner and today, at 53, he can no longer stand up. Those hypocritical politicians murdered my father.”

Do you think your books and those of authors Eribon and Annie Ernaux have changed anything in the society?

“I think that a certain dynamic has been created, something is going to change. Together with Didier and Ernaux, who is a close friend, we are trying to define a new agenda. We need to redefine the social classes. Instead of saying ‘the workers and also the migrants, the women, the blacks…’ – we think new classes should be defined, in part according to gender [the class of women, the LGBT class, etc.], to change people’s viewpoints.”

You end ‘History of Violence” with a quotation from the Hungarian Jewish writer Imre Kertész: “It turned out that by writing I am seeking pain, the most acute possible, well-nigh intolerable pain.” Is that Eddy’s world?

“I only want to write about the truth. There is not one line of fiction in my books. I wanted to give expression to the voice of those who belong to the world I came from and to the violence in which they are caught up.”