Last night I attended a truly fantastic event at Waterstones in Deansgate Manchester in which the poet Andrew McMillan discussed the debut novel The End of Eddy with its author Edouard Louis. I’d received a galley copy of the book but rather naughty of me I know I didn’t get around to reading it in time for event. What attracted me to this talk was the buzz I’d heard around Edouard Louis and his book. He’s become something of a celebrity in his home country of France and his debut novel had won the English PEN award. I’d heard that the novel explores notions of social-class, masculinity, homosexuality and violence and as someone with a personal and academic interest in the intersectionality of class, gender and sexuality, I knew this was a talk not to be missed. I woke up extra early to start reading the End of Eddy and as soon as I’m finished I’ll review it right here. Instead, I thought I’d write about the discussion that took place between McMillan and Louis last night.
Edouard Louis kicked off by reading a short extract from his novel. It was wonderful to hear the story read with a French accent. It made it seem more real and immediate somehow. Once Louis had finished reading McMillan began by talking about his love of the book, how beguiled he was by it. McMillan described it as the pivotal text of our age – high praise indeed.
His first question to Edouard Louis was about the form of the book. The novel is a fictionalised account of his childhood in a small town in Northern France and Louis described how important it was to write about true facts and experiences and the pain they caused. This partly explained why he read such a short extract from the book. It’s clear that this is still something painful and visceral for him. He mentioned Chelsea Manning and Snowdon and their pursuit of truth and how important that was. Referring to the characters in the book based on his own family, Louis talked about the negative reception of the book from some critics in France who didn’t believe such lives existed. “The people were dismissed as fiction. We felt it. No one cares if they think we don’t exist. Journalists have said it can’t be true.” Other journalists, thinking they were defending him and his book have written that they don’t care if it’s true because it’s literature. But both sides miss the point which is that truth-telling is a political act. By telling the truth about his experiences Louis is trying to reveal the lives of the people of his childhood, those that represent the working-classes or as is now more accurate, non-working-classes, those from former industrial places that can’t find work. McMillan agreed that placing those kinds of people at the centre of literature isn’t done enough.
Edouard stated that “my first question when I started to write was who is excluded from literature today? All the big revolutions in literature were writers who wrote about people who was excluded.” He added, that he was always fascinated by the likes of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and de Beauvoir because they wrote about those that are excluded from society and written out of literature, I would argue. “The people of my childhood were not there so I put their lives in my book and people hate it sometimes,” he said. McMillan asked if there was resistance to the book? Edouard, in response, once again mentioned de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison and also Pierre Bourdieu as individuals who told the truth. “The truth is difficult to reach because it’s covered by lies.” I guess people have a hard time hearing the truth, especially when it runs counter to what they already believe.
McMillan followed this up by talking about the austere style of the language that’s very straightforward as a means of truth-telling. In response Edouard referenced Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers and a scene where one of the characters is spat on. It’s described as being like a flower and Edouard said that kind of language was the opposite of what he wanted to use because he didn’t want to make beauty out of violence. Eddy was being spat on because he was gay and literature shouldn’t make beauty out of violence.
The subject of Eddy being bullied in the book also came up and McMillan remarked that it was almost as if the other kids knew he was different before he did. Edouard agreed and discussed the word ‘faggot’. He said, “faggot was waiting for me before I was born. Why this word would define my life, my fate. Eddy’s not a different child, he didn’t feel different it was others forcing him to be different.” Instead, as a writer he wanted to break the narrative. The book is about struggling to fit in and his own dream was to be normal and confirm. It was others that defined him as different before he did. McMillan agreed adding that Eddy’s narrative was all about him resisting what others think he’ll be. Edouard mentioned the film Billy Elliott as one example as well as writers he admires such as Baldwin and Stendhal.
McMillan then brought up the issue of agency and the lack of agency poverty gives people. He talked about the cycle of violence in the book and about how poverty can trap people in a cycle they can’t break. They’re forced to assume certain roles; that of the macho husband or dutiful wife. Edouard said that, “the will of doing something isn’t something you’re born with. The will of fleeing for Eddy took a long time.” He mentioned his mother and her lack of freedom and that freedom was a lie. By saying everyone is free you’re putting the onus on the individual to then create a space of freedom. Instead, he said, we all belong to a context. McMillan expanded on this by stating that, “it was telling people in your village they were worthy of being in literature. There’s a need for people who are disenfranchised to make their own story, narratives they can pass down.” He refers to the mother in the story and her sense of humour. It’s as if she’s saying, ok if no one else tells our story then I will. Referring to his mother and father, Edouard said that he wanted to put in the centre of the novel the language his parents spoke. He also talked in detail about the masculinity of his father and brothers and how every day they would go to the cafes and because his father was ashamed of him, he would stay at home with his mother and sister. So he became attuned to women’s speech, the kind of speech that’s built on exclusion because she didn’t finish school and his father didn’t want her to work because she’s a woman. He described how his mother was very literary in the stories she told, likening her to Antigone.
McMillan brought up the issue of performed or heightened masculinity in the book, something that was also the subject of many of the audiences questions afterwards. What I found insightful about Edouard’s response was when he said that when the working-classes are excluded from cultural capital they only have their bodies so of course they rely on their masculinity. But he added that all the male characters in the book as failing when it comes to masculinity especially his father. “We live in a world where there are strong rules and norms and we continue to reproduce them again and again and it only ends up causing us shame because we don’t fit into the norms”, he said. As we all know, no one respects these norms and yet they’re all so imbedded in the way we behave that when we don’t live up to those norms, I agree with Edouard, it produces feelings of shame.
I took a lot away from the talk and the issues raised are something I’ve been thinking about all morning. The first thing I did when I woke up was to start reading Edouard’s Louis book because I was so anxious to read an author that was willing to reveal the severity and violence of the small town he came from and how important I feel it is that we move towards self-representation o working-class communities. What I took away from McMillan and Louis talk was the authors willing to be self-reflexive and self-critical about the people of his childhood and locate all the problems he faced within a Marxist analysis.
I did wonder, as I was sitting listening to the talk, whether a lot of the problems in the novel were class-based and Edouard was keen to add that traditionally representations of the working-classes has veered from wither despising them or mythologizing them, there was no middle ground. You either had, what he called, good savages vs. disgusting savages. He said he hated both ways of seeing the working-classes. I was in agreement with Edouard in seeing class in relation to gender. “Social class is as much economic as it is to do with masculinity because it’s about when people can’t choose.” What I also liked was his response to one audience member who wanted to know why he didn’t write about what happened to Eddy afterwards when he got to the high school and Edouard was clear that he had no interest in writing about how we/he becomes bourgeois. He wanted it to be about the working-classes. He’d learnt to be suspicious of book from his mother and father so it took a play he was studying at high school to fire his love of literature. His book seems not to be about his journey out of class, as so many working-class novels are, but about representing with truth and honesty the people of his childhood. I applaud him for that and personally I can’t wait to see what he writes next.