15 March 2016

Édouard Louis: Histoire de la violence (2016)

I had wondered how Édouard Louis was going to follow up his highly successful En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule – apparently to be translated as The End of Eddy, which misses out the surname the author had to grow up being called. As it happens, another autobiographical work was to come soon after, although under very unfortunate circumstances.

Histoire de la violence – if translated as 'History of Violence' – sounds very grandiose, and the reader might expect that he or she is in for heavy theorising on the changing nature of violence in society, but that would give entirely the wrong idea: 'Story of Violence' would be much more accurate. And this story happened to Édouard Louis.

To the author's credit, the novel is not sequential, and is in fact told by two narrators: Louis himself in regular, educated French, and on a number of occasions by a representation of Louis's sister Clara's speech to her husband, in colloquial, slangy French. Throughout, there is a number of references to Louis's working-class childhood in Hallencourt, although the name of that small town in Picardy is never actually mentioned.

En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule is dedicated to Didier Eribon and Histoire de la violence to Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, the two sociologists Louis spends Christmas Eve with near the Place de la République. He walks towards home clutching his Christmas presents, books that he intends to look at before he goes to bed, and he stresses that he wasn't drunk, although he decides that it's wise not to return by bicycle. On the way home he's greeted by the stranger Reda, a Kabyle whom he discovers is doing odd jobs on the side, and he decides to invite him in. It's a few hours later that the problems start.

They have sex and it's just as Reda is preparing to leave that Édouard realises that he can't find his phone, which like many people he uses as a nervous tic. He does, though, discover his iPad, which he fishes out of Reda's pocket and in a roundabout way asks him to return his phone, even offers to pay fifty euros for it: stealing isn't seen as a huge crime for someone who's grown up in an environment where lack of money can be a major issue.

Unfortunately, Reda (rather oddly) reads Édouard's words as a kind of affront not only to himself but also to his mother, and reacts angrily by calling him a 'filthy queer': the insult of course isn't at all odd because Reda is merely divorcing himself from the truth, in denial of what he has done. But his words aren't the problem: his actions are.

Reda threatens Édouard with a gun, tries to strangle him with a scarf, and brutally rapes him. This takes the reader back to the first page, with Édouard trying to hide all trace of Reda by washing him out of his system (mainly at the launderette), and yet forgetting to destroy Reda's crushed cigarette packet or wash the glass he's used to drink vodka: slim DNA evidence they will bring.

But then, Édouard is far from happy with the police, annoyed by their evident racism, automatically (and incorrectly) calling Reda an Arab, and associating 'Arabs' with criminal activities. Édouard Louis's left-wing credentials are clear in this book, which ties in with what Didier Eribon wrote in Retour à Reims about the working-class being faithful to the politics of their roots in spite of upward mobility. Evidently, there are few things to laugh about in this second novel, although the reader must wince not only at the gratuitous violence but on learning of Édouard Louis's initially very misguided attempts to join academe by wearing, er, a suit and butterfly tie.

ADDENDUM: Of course, none of Édouard Louis's mishaps that he describes in his relationship with 'Reda' are at all funny, although initial legal complications are distinctly farcical. Read here (in French): Eddy Bellegueule alias Edouard Louis, Riadh.B alias Reda et le féroce juge Bourla

My other post on Édouard Louis:

Édouard Louis: En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule | The End of Eddy

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