By Nynke Anna van der Mark
The parameters of life in a small working-class town in Northern France in the 1990’s are narrow. Social life is centred around a few landmarks: the factory in which virtually all men in town work, the schoolyard where the women gossip, the bus stop where the youths come together and drink and the streets in which the children play. The inhabitants of this town navigate between these landmarks while adhering to the normative expectations of gender roles, sexuality, working life and family life. Alcohol and violence are zigzagging red threads in this town. This is the context in which Eddy Bellegueule grows up and as Édouard Louis he narrated this process in later years. This narrative was published in 2014, titled En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, which was translated to The End of Eddy. The title of his well-received autobiographical debut summarises it all. I’ll come back to that.
While reading this book I felt uncomfortable the whole time. The reader is confronted with pain and violence from the very beginning of the narrative. Louis said in an interview with a Dutch literary platform that when he started writing, he felt like there was a gap between the world and what literature told us about the world. You can feel it in your bones that this is the reason Louis writes. This gap Louis talks about is a gap of class. He was raised in a working-class framework in which a fixed image of toxic masculinity was projected on every man and boy, in which alcohol was intertwined in the lives of each family and in which homophobia and racism were omnipresent. Before Eddy even realised that he was gay, he was exposed to structural homophobic violence each and every day. Physical violence at school, mental abuse at home. As a result, he spent his whole childhood trying to change into a ‘real man’, desperately trying to like girls and navigating between the limits that confined this small-minded town. Eddy does not want to be different. He wants to be like his father, like his brother, like all the other kids at school, but he just does not know how to make this ideal image of himself come true. In the end, he sees only one solution: to get away from the world in which he cannot exist. It is relevant in this respect to cite a paragraph of an article of his hand in The Guardian:
“Literature was not something we paid any attention to – quite the opposite. On television we would see that literary prizes went mostly to books that did not speak of us, and in any case, […] we were aware that […] books in general took no interest in our lives. My mother would say it over and over: us, the little folks, no one is interested in us. It was the feeling of being invisible in the eyes of other people that drove her to vote for Marine Le Pen, as did most of my family. My mother would say: she’s the only one who talks about us. The Front National got more than 50% of the vote in the village where I was born, and that vote was above all, beyond racism, beyond anything else, a desperate attempt to exist, to be noticed by others.”
Louis may have helped to narrow the gap between the world and what literature says about the world, but his novels have certainly not closed the gap between the classes. His mother said that no one is interested in them and now Louis forced literature reading classes to be interested in them. But are they really? Are we really? Are we interested in the people who are symbolised by the protagonists and their problems in The End of Eddy or are we just interested in the literary value of the book, the extraordinary story of a boy who managed to escape his milieu and is an excellent example of social mobility? When I googled Louis’ birth town I put the orange figure on a random street. In Google Streetview I roamed the streets of Hallencourt, I observed the brick houses and I walked to the city hall and the supermarket. While doing this, I felt an intruder in a world I can drive to in a couple of hours, but I will never have real access to. Having read the novel, writing down my interpretation of it in this article, connecting it to interviews in The Guardian and the London Book Review, I am becoming well aware of my own position towards this book. And from that position, it is easy to criticise Le Front National and Marine Le Pen. And I will never stop criticising populism, racism, sexism and homophobia. But it is relevant to consider the impact of class difference – yes even interclass violence – on the electorate of Le Pen. I have a feeling that Louis will tell us more about this in his latest novel Qui à tué mon père? – Who murdered my father?
En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule. Eddy Bellegueule was a character of an escaped life because it could not be fulfilled the way it was supposed to. Eddy was supposed to embody a normative image of manhood, he was supposed to go work in the factory, he was supposed to like and sexualise girls (who in their turn were supposed to embody normative images of womanhood) and he was never supposed to leave town and become a writer. The Dutch translation of the title is Weg met Eddy Bellegueule, which literally means ‘Away with Eddy Bellegueule’. For me, this title both refers to the excluding force the town had on this a-normative homosexual boy and to his own agency which made him say goodbye to this character he could never become. Eddy Bellegueule has ended, but thanks to Édouard Louis, his story will never end.