Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy is an unflinching portrayal of the French working class and the racism and homophobia that its author grew up surrounded by. Here he explains why every word in the novel is true.
Édouard, let’s start with the title of your book—why does it have to be the end of Eddy? Why did you have to end this character?
Édouard Louis: In fact I didn’t want to finish with Eddy; it was my family, it was my village, it was my father, it was my mother who wanted to finish with the kid I used to be. For me, The End of Eddy is the story of the struggle for a kid who does everything just to fit in. He wants to be like all the others, his dream is to just not be this effeminate kid, not be a freak, and the whole book is this attempt to be like the others.
His parents are ashamed of him and he just wants his parents not to be ashamed anymore. He doesn’t want to be a writer; he doesn’t want to be anything. And for me it was very important to tell this kind of story because I wanted to break with the traditional narrative about the outsider, who is always someone who was born different, born more free or more clever or more ambitious than the others.
For me it would have been unbearable just to say: “I was cleverer than my sister, that’s why she stopped school at sixteen and that’s why I didn’t.” And I wanted to show that the difference of Eddy was something built, something that took time to be built. It seemed more welcoming for me to say that we don’t have to wait for different kids to escape, but we can create this difference, and it was the most banal kid.
The lead character has a similar name to yours; you have said that some of the vignettes are based on fact. Given that blurring of fact and fiction, I wondered what might be the best way to describe this book.
ÉL: No, I didn’t want to blur the frontier between fiction and truth, I wanted to write all about truth. Every word of this book is true, every scene of this book I have experienced. You know my dad left school at fourteen? My mother as well, and my little sister and brother at seventeen. We would leave very young and I was lucky enough—for several reasons—to continue. When I arrived in Paris and started to study philosophy and read literature, I had the feeling that the world of my childhood was not within those books. It was almost as though, in order to make a legitimate literature, you had to exclude people from this very working class.
I tried to describe and I tried to paint them in this book. And the working class feels it. My father never read a book; my mother never read a book, because they didn’t get a chance to, but they knew and they still know that literature excludes them. They say that all the time: “Nobody cares about us, nobody talks about us, so now we’re going to vote for Marine Le Pen because she’s the only one who talks about us.” And so they vote for Marine Le Pen, as all my family did, and all the people who I describe in the book; almost all of them voted for Marine Le Pen. It was just a desperate attempt to exist.
When you are from the bourgeoisie, you exist twice. You exist through your body and you exist through discourse—through speeches, because the newspaper talks about you, because literature talks about you. But when you come from the working class you only live once; you don’t have this other life.
There is this wonderful sentence of Toni Morrison’s. She said: “Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong?” And it’s exactly what I felt and why, when I started to write The End of Eddy, I had this urge to tell the truth. We have enough fiction, you know; parents lie to kids, some states lie to us and if someone like Chelsea Manning says the state is lying to us, that person goes to jail for thirty years. We are full of fiction and I love fiction—I read fiction—but at that point, just after childhood, I said “Okay, someone has to tell the truth about these lives, about this exclusion, about poverty, about this feeling of being excluded.”
It was almost as though, in order to make a legitimate literature, you had to exclude people from this very working class.
There is no romanticizing in your book. It depicts racism, homophobia, and extreme poverty. It’s almost a political act, to give these people a voice—was that a driving force behind it?
ÉL: Yes, I wanted that. I didn’t want to say “My father was a homophobe, my mother was racist;” I wanted to say that the system excluded my mother so far that she is racist, my father is so excluded by the system that he becomes obsessed by his homophobia. He would say every day “We have to lock up gays and Arabs in concentration camps”—he was obsessed with it, and where did it come from? That’s why I wanted to write about it. And to talk about when people are violent.
Sometimes my father would say that we have to kill gays. Then one day, there is a scene in the book, where a gay guy from the village is assaulted by a group of men. My father goes and helps him and says to the group, “If one of you touches him, I will destroy all of you.” So there’s all this complexity, all this sound and fury. I think for a long time when we were talking of the working class, people felt you should romanticize the violence in order to make it acceptable. For me it didn’t make sense, because it wasn’t true. Because they are immigrants, gays, women, freaks, they are people who are working class and are suffering because they are different, even if that hurts the working class as a whole.
When I write I think I fight for the working class; I give a voice to the working class, and even if they deserve it I can say my father is homophobic and racist. I don’t love my father, but I can say at the same time living that condition of life is unbearable, and I want to fight for him. I don’t love my mother, and want to help her when I think of the life she has. For me, it is a trick of the meritocratic system to say that you have to love someone in order to want to help them. I don’t care, I just want to be true. I don’t want to love or not love, it doesn’t matter when I write about my father or my mother, it’s just this.
These voices were important because I had them. Like the lives of the working class, their voices were excluded from most literature, too. I heard my mother talking, my sister talking. My father would go to the cafés with my brothers and I was so effeminate that I would stay at home and talk with the women (fortunately for me, as I didn’t want to go to a café filled with “scary” men). So at home I was encircled with women talking and talking about tragedies in fact—and I wanted to write that; I wanted it to be real, somewhere.
Édouard Louis, born Eddy Bellegueule in Hallencourt, France, in 1992, is the author of two novels and the editor of a scholarly work on the social scientist Pierre Bourdieu. He is the coauthor, with the philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, of the “Manifesto for an Intellectual and Political Counteroffensive,” published in English by the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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Interview originally appeared on Penguin UK’s Vintage Books
Cover illustration by Na Kim