At age twenty-five, French writer, Edouard Louis is something of a literary sensation on a global scale. His is in many ways a Cinderella, rags to riches story. Growing up in a small, working class town in Northern France, his father and grandfather left school at fifteen and went to work in a factory. His father would later lose his job at age 35 due to an accident at work that destroyed his back and thereafter struggled to support five children on the welfare payments that diminished each year. Edouard was the first in his family to attend university, the first to read books and ultimately to write them.
Speaking to a crowded room here in the Hague yesterday evening, one is struck by the youthful sincerity of this young writer. In spite of a childhood in which reading and homosexuality were viewed with suspicion and disgust, Edouard Louis is open and hopeful. Indeed his sincerity and sensitivity when talking of his past immediately draws people to him. He is immensely popular with a wide spectrum of readers. Why? He writes of poverty, violence and disillusionment. All of his books focus on the author’s personal experiences – The End of Eddy (2014) , A History of Violence (2016) and Who killed my father (2019). He explains that he has never believed in a narrator as such, he writes in the first person, as himself: ‘I’ve never wanted to write something that I didn’t experience with my own body.’ It is perhaps the deep sincerity of his narratives to which readers respond with such intensity.
‘Macron is the most violent president we have had in fifty years’
For Louis then, the personal is always political. The young author recounts the story of his first attempt at getting published – the big Paris publisher responded that he could not accept his manuscript as poverty of the kind described in The End of Eddy hadn’t existed in more than a century and no one would believe the story. As Louis said to us in person, ‘politics is not the same for the bourgeoisie as for the working class’. A political decision seldom affects the bourgeoisie in the way that it affects a working class family. Conversely, he never recalls seeing people from the bourgeoisie celebrating in the same way as they did. He remembers day trips to the beach because welfare payments were raised from one month to the next. However he also recalls how his father’s stomach was gradually destroyed by the poor medicine he was forced to take when he could no longer afford the correct medication.
‘Masculinity is always an issue of silence’
His most recent book explores the role of politics and society more generally in the destruction of an uneducated, working class man such as his father. He specifically mentions the names of politicians who made the decisions that directly affected men like his father. Describing Macron as ‘the most violent president we have had in fifty years’, he ultimately views his father as both perpetrator and victim of the greater violence that is done on the poor and the ignorant in society. His father’s support of Le Pen’s far right party may be understood, he explains, as a desire to be heard, to be represented in a political system that gradually ignored men such as his father, even the political left. Louis’s grandfather was a union man, yet both the author’s father and mother were Le Pen supporters. ‘In the absence of any attempt by the left to discuss his suffering, my father took hold of the false explanations offered by the far-right.’
Who killed my father opens with a scene in which father and son stand opposite one another in an imagined arena. Although they are standing in close proximity to each other, they are unable to communicate. Edouard explains how he spent fifteen years in the same house as his father, sharing the same space and yet knew hardly anything about the man. ‘The only things I know about my father came from my mother and my aunt’. ‘Masculinity is always an issue of silence’ he says and silence is a type of violence too. As a homosexual, Louis was ‘the shame of the family’ in his father’s eyes. Yet in this book, the author attempts to tell the story of a man who could not tell it himself. He sees his role as a writer as one who must ‘fight for the powerless, for a language that gives a place to the most invisible people – people like my father.’ Who could ask for a better son?
Souwie Buis 5th October 2018
Photo by and © Arnaud-Delrue