Édouard Louis on Fictionalizing His Violent Assault
The author of ‘History of Violence’ on trauma and punishment in the age of #MeToo
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A t the age of 22, the French writer and intellectual Édouard Louis upended the idealism French readers were used to encountering in bourgeois narratives about the lower class with The End of Eddy, a brutal, unsentimental, and hope-poor autobiographical novel written by a member of the lower class.
Haunting in its clear-sightedness, effective in its leanness, The End of Eddy tells Louis’ story of growing up queer and poor in a working-class village in northern France where an ingrained sense of powerlessness seeds bigotry and violence. An international runaway of a bestseller, The End of Eddy was translated into over twenty languages, was adapted into a play, and is soon to be a feature film with Isabelle Huppert.
Operating at a frequency of the hyper inspired, Louis published his second autobiographical novel, History of Violence, two years later. By turns unceremonious in its candor, then curiously tender, this book takes us through the giddy meeting of Édouard and a potential suitor at a public square near Édouard’s apartment late one Christmas Eve in Paris. Édouard’s reaction to this aborted love affair — which transitions without warning from sensual complicity to a night of rape and violence — is as surprising in this second book as his lack of sentimentality towards his childhood and caretakers was in his first, and it is this surprise, this veering off of the redemption course that many traditional memoirists have followed, that makes Édouard Louis such a thrilling voice to read.
We chatted by telephone about his terrific second novel. Our conversation was in French; the translations here are mine.
Courtney Maum: In History of Violence, the narrative device of our protagonist hearing his story related by his sister, through a door, to her husband, was genius. Did you come up with this idea immediately, or did you try other narrative structures for the book?
Édouard Louis: Thank you. It was something that took time. I started writing the book with the urgency to tell the factual story: I met a guy on Christmas Eve, our connection was beautiful and strong. We made love frequently; we really liked each other. And then he raped me and tried to kill me. My first urgency was to tell this violence, the violence of this story. To talk of anything else would be indecent!
In the beginning, there wasn’t this literary structure where my sister tells the story — an autobiography told by someone else — no, I talked about what happened, this guy, his childhood, what he told me about his father. But it was like I was talking about him as a subject, and that I had just fallen into the story with a clear conscience. I wanted to be closer to the reality. I wanted to show that we were two determined subjects with a past that we didn’t control, and that this meeting is the story of two stories who meet each other, two fragments of shame that slam together. I was this young guy from the countryside ashamed of my family. I hid my social origins, and he was an Algerian carrying his own story, ashamed of his sexual desires. His desire was mixed with the hatred of his desire. I needed to find a way to show that I also had a body that was bringing a story to this story. A way to put both these pasts in front of the mirror. The idea of an autobiography written by someone else, this pleased me a lot.
CM: I’m interested in hearing more about your decision to publish your books as fiction. If I’m not mistaken, regarding History of Violence, you have said that in fictionalizing your work, you can create a story about how one man can attack another, make it easier to accept. Can we talk more about this?
ÉL: For a long time, you have had “novels” on one side and “memoirs” on the other. There are precursors, of course, such as Marguerite Duras, but today there is something changing, a revolution in literature that allows the combination of these two forms. For me, the novel is an ambitious literary endeavor with a formal construction. Much like the sociologists I admire who are interested in the art of making — making diagrams, making concepts, the art of pure construction — the novel is a way to do this. What interested me with autobiographical fiction was the ability to really squeeze reality without running away from it.
Something I talk a lot about because it really touched me is that when I was a child in the little village where I grew up, the writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize. At my house, no one read, but because it was the Nobel Prize everyone was talking about it. I remember an interview of his on the television. He was talking about how he went about making up his characters. I was there with my father, his back totally shot from working in the factory, and my mother, so poor, and I thought, why doesn’t Le Clézio speak of us? We are suffering, and he’s inventing people. Now I realize that this was the question of a child. But this scene was something inaugural to me, an original trauma. I could never get away from it.
Every society, every country, is formed around the question of inclusion/exclusion. To be an insider, an outsider, it’s all rooted in violence.
CM: In many of your interviews, you’ve expressed your desire to “be a writer of violence.” You’ve also cited the French director Mathieu Kassovitz — and specifically his film “Hate” — as an example of a creative work made by a “good artist of violence”. Who are the other artists you consider to be getting violence right?
ÉL: A lot of the people I admire, I admire because they are working on this essential question. Personally, I can’t write without admiration. For me, it’s a burst of energy, admiration. When I see something, read something, when I watch a film, I have this powerful feeling that I must hold myself to this level; I must try to create this much beauty and emotion even if it is violent in its beauty. I think Claudia Rankine is working in this register, and Svetlana Alexievich, and Ocean Vuong. These people are really digging into the material — into this question of violence — and they inspire me very much. Roxane Gay’s Hunger or the film Twelve Years a Slave.
I think at the heart of violence, there is a strong relationship between violence and the reality of our bodies, and what our bodies are. Every society, every country, every place in the world is formed around the question of inclusion/exclusion. There is always a line between inferior, superior. Accepted, not accepted. Loved, hated. If we want to understand the reality of a world, we must look at this pact of violence. It’s like with North America, the violence of slavery, violence against blacks, or in France, with immigrations, what occurs if you don’t have the right papers. To be an insider, an outsider, it’s all rooted in violence.
CM: I’m curious about your opinion on the current political state of France, and specifically the French president, Emmanuel Macron. My husband is French, and we watched the French presidential election from here, in the United States. We were traumatized by Trump’s election, so we were very happy to see someone elected who was young, who seemed sane. I’m generalizing, but I think the common perception of Macron here in America — at least in his first months in office — was that he’s cool, he’s intelligent, he’s a little provocative with his older wife. From what I’ve read, you really dislike Macron — can you tell us why?
ÉL: When I hear that Americans like Macron, I think it’s because Americans are racist. Today, France has a political stance against immigration that is the strongest it has ever been in the Fifth Republic. The boats that are refused entry, the immigrants who are dying in the Mediterranean, or what happened in Calais. There are laws being passed, and passed with force, such as the law that allows immigrant minors to be locked up. Before, this was illegal. People who were escaping misery, great difficulties, war, especially people under eighteen years old, you couldn’t lock them up. Now, laws like these are being enforced by Macron and his ministers with an unheard of force.
You know, Macron is part of a political mood. Trump, Macron, these are extremely violent people, and a lot of their reforms are similar. For example, Macron wants to lower taxes for the very rich and cut welfare for the poor. He made a move to cut back housing benefits for the poor by 5 euros a month, and there was a polemic around it. His ministers responded by saying that 5 euros was nothing. When I was growing up, though, 5 euros was two days of food. But this seems impossible to them. This is a violence against the poor; it’s also the end of shame. These people aren’t ashamed any more to make fun of poor people or of black people. In his team of ministers, Macron took three people who are opposed to gay marriage. One of them said that if he were mayor, he wouldn’t personally preside over a marriage between two women or two men. I think after Reagan and Thatcher there was a little bit of a cooling, of violence I mean, but now we are seeing a return to violence.
When I hear that Americans like Macron, I think it’s because Americans are racist.
CM: You know, I must say, this is really shocking to me. I’ll admit I don’t consume as much media as I used to because it’s…it’s hard to operate as a human being if you read all the news — but I must say, I’m not sure that all this information is getting to us. You know, Americans aren’t great with nuances. We like to structure things along “Good Guy”/”Bad Guy” terms. I personally think that in the French presidential election, Marine Le Pen was portrayed as The Bad Guy, and so for many Americans — or at least those who followed the French presidential election — computed that The Good Guy had won and they assumed France was in good hands. Also, Macron is held up almost as a figure from a glossy fashion magazine, in a lifestyle way. He is “younger” than Trump, less “stupid”, he is “thinner”, he dresses well…
ÉL: You are giving words to something important. In fact, many people have an ingrained bourgeois culture, a class racism, that leads them to believe that if Trump is a misogynist and racist and hates poor people but he does so with a language of the popular classes, than Macron isn’t a problem, because he presents as a member of the bourgeoisie. That if you are racist, but if you use the language of the bourgeois to express your racism, than it’s less of a problem.
You know, I travel to America, I teach sometimes at universities and conferences, and I see Macron appreciated and I think, why isn’t this information getting through?
CM: I’ve read that for your first book, The End of Eddy, one of the publishers you sent the book to said that no reader would ever believe that poverty like that existed in France today. This fascinates and disgusts me: first of all, the novel was submitted as fiction, no? So it’s your right to write about whatever you desire. But more importantly, that poverty does exist. What is going on behind a comment like this? Is this denial? What is this denial about?
ÉL: You can imagine the violence that this represented, someone saying, “What you say about your mother can’t be true.” This is a way to put her back into invisibility and silence, in the shadows. This editor was white, a Parisian bourgeois, and so far removed from the type of life that I describe that he couldn’t believe it could be true.
You know, there has been this trend in French literature for the last ten years or so. Literature recounting the life of the middle class that doesn’t know what to do with itself, computer scientists who are lost, people who convert to Catholicism to give sense to their lives. People are obsessively turned towards these questions. But when you get to the questions of the lower classes, these questions disappear. If people continue saying that the poor don’t exist, there will be a return of the fire. You know, it’s already happening, with Trump, with Brexit, or in Scandinavia where there is this postmodern ideology that classes don’t exist. But there are people who feel in their skin that this isn’t true.
CM: The language in your book is specific, it’s important. What “gueule” means to a French speaker, or the charged power of “cul”…to me this is a very French book, it’s specific to the experience of living in — or being raised in — a certain part of France. Your books are widely translated — to what extent, if any, do you concern yourself with how your work is being translated?
ÉL: The more local something is the more it speaks to the entire world. It’s like William Faulkner, it’s so powerful, it can be read everywhere even though he’s writing about this micro-community of a tiny piece of earth in Mississippi. But he has such an exacting knowledge of this small piece of the world. The truths, the emotions are so precise that they end up touching universal things like racism, the invention of self, fear, hate, violence. If he tried to do something general it wouldn’t have touched any one.
For the trips I’ve done for my books, when someone says in Japan or in Columbia, “I saw my life in your book”, that is living proof that what I believe is true, that it is locality that can make something universal.
CM: I’d like to talk about a phrase you’ve used about yourself: “transfuge de class” (a class defector). It can’t escape anyone’s notice that with your enormous — if deserved — success, you have entered a class that you yourself have said you have no interest in depicting as a writer. Is it challenging, this dichotomy? Is The End Of Édouard possible?
ÉL: The minute we start to write, we are part of the bourgeoisie, even if we don’t have money. Class isn’t just about money, it’s access to culture and to competencies that have to do with culture. Sartre brought this up in the 1950s when he talked about the contradicting heart of the author who both wants to belong to the bourgeoisie and to fight against their incarnate power. The difference between me and Sartre is that Sartre came from the bourgeoisie, and I don’t. I didn’t have — and I don’t have — a love for the class of my youth, not the way that so many of these intellectuals had an interest in the lower classes that they didn’t come from.
In my childhood, people voted for the Front National, my mother couldn’t work because women didn’t work outside the home, and I was spit on because I was “a faggot.” So I didn’t have a fascination for the lower classes. But we can be political without love. I can wish for my brother to have a better life even if I don’t love my brother.
We will have to see: my hate for the bourgeoisie increases day by day. I never troubled myself with this question before: if I hadn’t left my surroundings as a gay child, I would have died. But then I got to an upper class school, and I was treated as a “faggot”, too. My life is a fight to find people to welcome me better, or to welcome me at all. I didn’t find it in the countryside, and in the cultural and literary world, I am welcomed but there is an ugliness. In fact, it is doubly violent — I saw this a lot in New York — people think that because they are on the side of “culture” that they are good people. Editors, writers, journalists, they think that because they wrote a book, they are fighting Trump. But no. I went to so many receptions and people had so much faith in themselves.
CM: I’d love to talk about the object of a book as an instrument of violence. You have written about how when you returned home to Northern France on visits, you used to use a book or a leftist newspaper as a weapon, you’d sit there among your family with this polemic symbol of how different you were from them, how little you shared their values. Now you are an esteemed author of these violent objects. What is that like?
ÉL: I think there is an extreme violence for many of the people in the class I’m writing about. If my mom saw a book, it was a reminder of the life she never had, the possibilities she didn’t have, it was a way of saying “You are not that”, and she was humiliated by it. James Baldwin’s mother, also. In The Devil Finds Work he recounts that when he started getting interested in reading and writing, his family hid books from him, as if they felt that he would move inexorably away from them, forever, if he read.
It’s not just in France. Even Alice Walker talks about how culture removed her from her family. But we beat power with power, strangely, the only way to beat power is with power. That is why I try with my books to use this purely bourgeois object as a way to fight the culture of domination that is the bourgeois. And sometimes I think it works because the right attacks me, and the bourgeois, too!
On a more personal level, my family doesn’t really understand what I do. A book is something so foreign and far away and bizarre, they can’t imagine what my day looks like, what it means to research, to go to a conference or give a talk. We don’t speak the same language. I’m scared to speak to my mother of my life. If I speak about my books or a conference in the USA, it is a way of saying that I travel, when she never got to travel. All these words and phrases are traps. I seize this to write. I can’t fix this problem in my daily life but I can expose it.
Why should society use violence — such as punishment — against violence?
CM: The former Paris Review editor Lorin Stein is the English translator of your second book, History of Violence, and translated a New York Times op-ed of yours, “Why my father votes Le Pen.” While reading History of Violence, I couldn’t ignore the irony that your words about sexual abuse were being translated into English by a high profile white man who he, himself, has been accused of sexual misconduct and abuse of power. To the extent that you are aware of Lorin Stein’s sexual misconduct with women who worked under him, what do you think of him as a translator of your work?
ÉL: I wanted him. Lorin is my friend, and he is an excellent translator. I insisted, because the question was brought up by editors and people at FSG. It’s obviously very complicated. The first thing that is very important, because it’s one of my big subjects: I don’t believe in punishment. I don’t think it’s the best way to fix a problem, a situation. This is at the heart of History of Violence. Why should society use violence — such as punishment — against violence? The example (on a much larger scale) that I often cite is after 9/11. You had extreme violence, fire, blood — people dying — and what does the Bush administration do? They create violence elsewhere and they spill blood elsewhere and for me, there is a major tendency in our society that says: we are going to regulate violence with violence. Of course, you can’t compare a terrorist attack with what we are discussing, but precisely, what is interesting is to see that — at any level — small violences or big violences, the urge for punishment is the same.
What I say in this book is that this isn’t a solution that I find acceptable. I don’t want my story to put more violence in the world. After the sexual assault, the police told me: “We are going to put the guy who did this to you in jail for years. He made you suffer, so we will make him suffer.” Aren’t there other solutions? I’m not saying that we should be passive when someone commits a violent act. You have to ask questions and fix things, but I don’t understand the drive to make someone suffer because they were violent. And historically, if you look closely, you’ll see that it was in the most violent contexts that society found alternative ways of dealing with violence.
I realize that this could sound naïve, and almost puerile — I’m out of sync with the people around me. Sometimes I look around myself at others, I see their urges to punish, and think that people are part of a human kind that I don’t understand. That I’m an extraterrestrial, or something. The guy who assaulted me went to jail before assaulting me. Did it change him? Maybe he became even more violent there, in jail, so maybe, in a society without prison systems, he would not have assaulted me. It’s a question that needs to be addressed. It’s what we need in the very important #MeToo conversation, I think: how can we avoid reproducing violence against violence?
Once again, I’m talking about very different issues here, and I don’t compare what happened in my book and what some people say about Lorin. We must insist that no one talked about rape in his case [Ed. note: Lorin Stein was among those anonymously accused of “serious sexual abuses” in the “Shitty Men in Media List” document that circulated last October.], but it felt to me that some people wanted to punish him, and that the punishment was more important than anything else. He is the one who published my book in the USA. He is the one who made this book — about sexual violence — possible in the USA.