Édouard Louis, The End of Eddy (En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, 2014)

In this autobiographical novel, Édouard Louis retells his troubled childhood as a gay boy growing up in a rural working class family. In the first part of the book, he sets the background by relaying the daily life of the village and his family – a milieu he grew in opposition to. In the second part, he focuses on his sexual awakening and his attempt at escaping the village.

Before I delve into the content of the book, I think it’s important to note that I’ve read this novel in its original language – French. It was first published in France in 2014 and was translated into English two years later by Michael Lucey (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux). I haven’t read the English translation but heard that it didn’t quite convey the subtleties of language of the original version. I can see why this would be, as there is a constant opposition between the narrator’s elegant prose in a perfect written French, and his family’s mundane and vulgar spoken words. I also read that it was pretty much a best-seller in the US, although it was criticised in France for its coarse language and crude representation of the working class poor. 

Mais d’abord, on ne pense pas spontanément à la fuite parce qu’on ignore qu’il existe un ailleurs. On ne sait pas que la fuite est une possibilité. On essaye dans un premier temps d’être comme les autres, et j’ai essayé d’être comme tout le monde.

But first, we do not naturally think of running away because we do not know that there is an elsewhere. We do not know that an escape is possible. At first, we try to be like the others, and I have tried to be like everyone else. (Translation my own)

There’s no denying it is a very coarse and raw book. I don’t think this is a book for everyone, as I can think of one scene in particular which involves children experimenting with sex, and it was just very hard to read. It is a violent book – and quite graphic at times. But it feels real – I’d say sometimes too real for me. It very much felt like reading Elena Ferrante, if she made her characters speak as rudely as they would in real life. Of course, this is an autobiographical novel so the point is not to know whether such and such happened exactly as they are told. Rather, the idea is to translate the feelings and the essence of a little boy’s life in a working class family in the North of France – the shameful trips to the food bank, or the humiliation of asking the shopkeeper to keep a tab.

Louis went on to do prestigious studies and he knows his Bourdieu and sociological theories very well – he edited a collection of Bourdieu’s works in 2016 and you can read this interview from the Paris Review about it, which is really interesting. Yet, what really struck me in his writing is his political defence of the working class, but also his dire need to distance himself from his family’s ways to the point of complete rejection of his origins – illustrated by his throwing his Airness hoodie – a prized posession in his vilage but a tacky piece of clothing in the city – in a public bin. (That being said, I was shocked that he would get rid of an Airness jumper because I remember how cool it was to wear one in school – which tells you a little bit more about my background I guess) Although I believe that he needs to reject completely the values of his relatives in order to be himself, because he could never fit into the mould of toxic masculinity often encouraged where he is from.

I don’t read a lot of modern books about life as a working class poor, but I’m not sure if there are so many on the market anyway. It’s nice to read a different kind of voice, someone who isn’t from the Parisian middle-class elite, someone who knows what they’re talking about and doesn’t try to paint people from unprivileged backgrounds in a (un)flattering light, but just expose things as they are. That’s why I’m so excited by the creation of Harper North, the northern sister of Harper Collins! I am really fascinated by the North of England (no, it has nothing to do with Brontës…) and I cannot wait to read the new voices they discover.

In summary, The End of Eddy is a book I would highly recommend to anyone who would like to see a different side of France than the one usually portrayed on this side of the channel. I talked a lot of about class, but I also think this book is about masculinity and how dangerous a certain branch of it can be – to women of course, but to men themselves as well. I have talked about childhood here and the vicious circle that comes with being from a certain background here, so I won’t talk about that in too much details. But this book is the kind of book that you read in a couple of days (or even less if your attention span is better than mine) and that will stay with you for a lot more. A political novel that will give you food for thought, for sure!

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