Édouard Louis’ autobiografictional phenomenon appears three years later in English translation by Michael Lucey.
The moulting of an old self. An attempt to constitute himself as an individual, as beautiful. First moments of real self-discovery on 16:
I’d pilfer some of my sister’s clothes and put them on and parade around … These performances, for which I was the only spectator, seemed to me the most beautiful I had ever seen. I found myself so beautiful that I could have cried tears of joy. My heart could have exploded it beat so fast.
E’s emancipation is definitely by his own bootstraps, which can pair uneasily with the determinism governing the people in his world. But critical self-awareness also emerges as one of the forces that contribute to the social aporias that hold reality in place (see note about mother’s “modes of discourse” below). TEoE ultimately feels soberingly diagnostic without being too directly prescriptive. That diagnosis plays paradoxically with perspective, as E’s position is now an alienated one, yet he claims an unromantic lucidity from direct experience: the buildings of his Picardy neighbourhood
conjure up in the imagination the towns and working-class landscapes of the North with houses crowded up against each other, piled on top of each other (in the imagination of people who aren’t there, that is. People who do not live there. For workers from the North, for my father, my uncle, my aunt, for those people, they conjure up nothing in the imagination. They provoke a disgust at daily life, or, at best, gloomy indifference. (22)
(See also the interpolation of symbolically freighted working-class food into haute cuisine, 77) E is perceptive and deft when marshalling our sympathies, knowing when to emphasise the uniqueness of his deeply troubling experiences vs when to paint pictures many of us could recognise:
I wandered without seeming to wander, with a sure step, always pretending I had something specific to do, some place to go… (24)
This is a text about the complexities of involvement vs abstention, about “what the real meaning of complicity is, what the boundaries are that separate complicity from active participation, from innocence, from carelessness, from fear.” (26) The note here is on the recurring, magnetic presence of E’s school bullies; under the heat of their glare E’s emotions and reactions warp until they are at times so deceptive as to even resemble gratitude (we learn later that he “knew them really well,” better than almost anyone else, purely through these physical interactions ).
But the dynamics of complicity also govern the involvement of E’s people in their own lifestyles. Causality is indecipherable: “Bellegueule is a fag cause he gets beaten up (or the other way round, it didn’t matter)” (25); his mother would rationalise his father’s health issues “without realising that these problems were not the cause, but rather the result of my father’s punishing workday.” (27) People (always already) tired before work rather than after (52); a cousin attempts a crime to at least equal the jail sentence he knows is coming anyway. There is a sense throughout that writing has at least helped E (he has written himself out of his past), and that literary diagnosis will elucidate these dynamics for proper attention. But when E adopts a panoptic perspective the inevitability seems to rush up to us from below: his mother
didn’t understand that her trajectory, what she would call her mistakes, fitted in perfectly with a whole set of logical mechanisms that were practically laid down in advance and non-negotiable. (53)
The textual effect of these inconsistencies is often a kind of jarring affective disjunction, most commonly where the recorded past’s light entertainment scans as appalling tragedy; see the grisly, Joyce-Carol-Vincent story of an immured deceased man – “we told that story often, we thought it was funny.” (82) Sometimes its just the proximity of violence, as in the grandmother’s disquietingly extended metaphor of a rabid dog when sympathetically relating the story of her grandson Sylvain’s evasion of the police. (115-6)
E’s frustrated and abortive realisation of his own homosexuality is riddled with these disjunctions as he internalises the confusing compulsions of his surroundings as violently contradictory and self-destructive feelings. (these again mirror more popular forms of self-destruction, as in the youth alcoholism of 86; 128 has the striking image of E trapped between his own subconscious impulses and the external rhythms of industrial, masculine society: “sound of a hammer, then a heartbeat, sound of a hammer, then a heartbeat; the two together combine in an infernal symphony”) The sense of being always-already thwarted extends to his identification with female pop singers and tv personalities, as he is forcibly identified with a gay tv host by his caustically homophobic father (“once again, crying was not an option. I smiled and hurried to my room.” 97) The epicentre of these excruciating negotiations of identity is the chapter ‘The Shed’ (which begins the book second section), in which E’s first homosexual experience is a kind of sickeningly perverted emancipation, a pitch-dark cousin to Alma’s epiphanic beach story in Persona. It allows him to perceive the more radical futility that emulates the broader aporetic social determinism but which weighs on him centrally as a young gay man: “The crime was not having done something, it was being something.” (140) This sequence is the text’s Big Crunch, at which the pressure is maximum and from which E is propelled outwards (though still whirling chaotically) towards his eventual amputation from his home.
It is important to note that the chaos does not subside, because again E is forced to internalise this traumatic experience and fundamentally misinterpret it. He strains to attain the standards of heterosexual virility that are demanded of him; he can justify his flickering success as facilitated by the real underlying problem: “We are always playing roles and there is a certain truth to masks. The truth of my mask was this will to exist differently.” (149) The conscious, bootstrap agency that will eventually give him the centrifugal shove needed to escape his social orbit is here interpreted counterproductively and, again, self-destructively. That glimmering prospect of emancipatory self-love (Philautia) quoted at the top here temporarily becomes an obstructive impulse to self-correct, having internalised externally imposed standards:
I wanted to show the world, and myself, since I was watching everything I was doing and kept by far the closest eye on my own performance, … that I was attracted to women… (163)
But the individual focus of the book is retained and does become liberating. E cites Gide as an inspiration (for his inclusion of gay lives in a literary sphere that had not thitherto accepted them openly) but the titling of a late chapter (beginning “I had to get away” 175) as ‘Strait is the gate’ is transformative (strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life…)
What is most immediately eye-catching about the book is the use of register. The provincial, often acidic and guttural speech of the townsfolk (of the recalled past) is rendered in italics (though Lucey’s translation does seem to slightly muffle the effect). E said in PR that he “wanted to point out that these two languages are created in relation to each other by mutual exclusion,” and he achieves this disjunctive effect by weaving the prose together with a flow that accentuates the disparity:
She even said as much from time to time, Look, when your job is wiping old people’s arses, that’s the expression she’d use, I make my living wiping old people’s arses, old people with one foot in the grave (then the inevitable joke, always the same one, at this moment of the story All it would take is a heatwave or a flue epidemic and I’d be out of a job), every evening up to her elbows in crap in order to earn enough to keep food in the refrigerator… (58)
There is a kind of infected frustration that E reveals to be in part produced, again, by internal confusion: “I came to understand that many different modes of discourse intersected in my mother and spoke through here…” (59) discourses with contradictory ideas and impulses about education, employment, family, pride, shame, poverty, culture. As far as his own voice, E foregrounds the distance; he admits that
(I didn’t say it exactly like that, but some days, as I write these lines, I’m too worn out to try to reconstruct the language that I spoke back then) (66)
(he also confesses to crying as he writes on 143). He has an objective, almost Levian documentary style, which occasionally rises to a pitch of Gallic urgency: “Imagine a scene taking place every day…” (47) (This reflects back onto a proleptic note about the inheritance of a loud tone that makes him stick out among the “self-possessed voices of well-brought-up young men” in the city. 59)
“I didn’t want to be around them; I refused to share this moment with them.” (184) The ending is a furious defiance, a rapturous realisation of E’s status as a person. It made my breath catch in my throat. But there is a poetic epilogue filled with fragmented observations of a new life at the lyceé that ends with a troubling recurrence. At first this confused me but I think the formal shift helps to constitute this as an important postscript, a story on its own terms. The End of Eddy happens at the end of the book, but that is not to say that the future is devoid of the forces that created him. It sheds light on E’s decision to revisit his past: he is writing in a future from which his past will continue to return to him.
I thought of Knausgaard only twice: when I picked TEoE up, and on 74, when an aside reports his sister’s notice that they would need to renovate their late grandmother’s upsettingly neglected house, much as Karl and Yngve do with their deceased father in My Struggle Book One. E cites Kn in that Paris Review interview so I wouldn’t be surprised if this parenthetical addition is a nod. In any case, the fact that it stuck out to me revealed how sui generis E’s text is, despite being grouped in the same autobiografiction bracket. It’s somehow purgatory and cathartic while also being revelatory. It speaks with a distinct voice that rewrites its precedents (as a thorough reevaluation of socioeconomic problems in contemporary France, as an autobiographical investigation of LGBT identity). It weaves and spins its internal relationships and dynamics into aporetic inconsistencies, its protagonist only wrenched from the social mechanics with a scream and ragged scars that belie the finality of the title. Thinking about reading it again soon.