Those of us who move from the provinces pay a toll at the city’s gate, a toll that is doubled in the years that follow as we try to find a balance between what was so briskly discarded and what was so carefully, hesitantly, slyly put in its place. More than thirty years ago, when I was in Egypt, I met a cultivated English couple who invited me to stay in their house in London on my way back to Ireland. They could not have been more charming.
The only problem was that they had an Irish maid who, as soon as I arrived as their guest, began to talk to me in the unvarnished accent of home, as though she had known me all of her life. Since she was from a town near mine, we spoke of people we knew in common or knew by name or reputation. It was all very relaxed and friendly.
Later, after supper, my two English friends asked me if I minded them raising a subject that troubled them. Did I know, they asked, that my accent and tone, indeed my entire body language, had changed when I met their maid? I was almost a different person. Was I aware that I had, in turn, changed back to the person they had met in Egypt once I was alone with them again?
I asked them, did they not also speak in different ways to different people? No, they insisted, they did not. Never! They seemed horrified at the thought. They looked at me as if I was the soul of inauthenticity. And then I realized that those of us who move from the periphery to the center turn our dial to different wavelengths depending on where we are and who else is in the room. In this world, memory becomes a form of reparation, a way of reconnecting the self to a more simple time, a way of hearing an old tune before it became textured with orchestration.
Raymond Williams, who taught at Cambridge, was one of the leading English thinkers of his generation. In 1960, two years after he published his best-known book, Culture and Society, 1780–1950, he published a novel, Border Country, in which he attempted to deal with the distance he had traveled from his upbringing in Wales as the son of a railway signalman. The book is filled with an ambiguous longing for a home that has been lost, as the son Will, who is known in the outside world as Matthew, returns to the small house where his father’s health is failing.
Every encounter is fraught with strain and difficulty. Matthew is studying things as culture that others view as nature. He has gained a place in the world that matters until the very notion of what matters can be easily, or uneasily, undermined by his rehearing the accent of his native place. “I hardly know myself here,” he says to his wife when he calls her in London. His wife notes that his voice, even after a few days at home, has “changed back.” However, being with him, a neighbor says, is “like guiding a stranger round.” Matthew’s meeting the people with whom he was brought up, including his own parents, and seeing them with the eyes of an outsider emphasize the fact that he is someone who has constructed an identity, an identity that Border Country itself, a book of great tenderness, sets out to make fragile.
Toward the end of his book about self-invention and belonging, Returning to Reims (2009), Didier Eribon, the French sociologist, biographer of Foucault, and author of Insult and the Making of the Gay Self (1999)—to whom the young French writer Édouard Louis dedicates his novel, The End of Eddy—invokes Williams’s Border Country. “When I got to the end of the novel,” he wrote,
to the moment when the son learns that his father has died,…I felt tears well up in my eyes. Was I about to cry? If so, over what? Over whom? The characters in the novel? My own father? I thought of him with a sense of heartache, and regretted that I hadn’t gone to see him, that I hadn’t tried to understand him…. I regretted the fact that I had allowed the violence of the social world to triumph over me, as it had triumphed over him.
Earlier, Eribon describes hearing the news of his father’s death:
The gap that had begun to separate us when I was a teenager had only grown wider with the passage of time…. There was nothing between us, nothing that held us together. At least that is what I believed, or struggled to believe; it had been my idea that one could live one’s life separate from one’s family, reinventing oneself and turning one’s back on the past and the people in it.
He then, looking at some photographs with his mother, describes the French “working-class environment I had grown up in, the incredible poverty that is palpable in the appearance of all the houses in the background, in the interiors, in the clothes everyone is wearing, in the very bodies themselves.” Soon he begins to question himself about the distance between the world he now inhabits—that of a French intellectual—and the world from which he comes, wondering why, since he had written about shame, he had “written so little about forms of shame having to do with class.” The question he poses is:
Why, when I have had such an intense experience of forms of shame related to class, shame in relation to the milieu in which I grew up, why, when once I had arrived in Paris and started meeting people from such different class backgrounds I would often find myself lying to them about my class origins, or feeling embarrassed when admitting my background in front of them, why it had never occurred to me to take up this problem in a book or an article?
He teases out the connections and the distinctions between moving away from home and coming out of the closet as a gay man “while shutting myself up inside what I might call a class closet.”
As he contemplates the lives of his parents in the northeast of France, his father working in a factory, his mother cleaning houses and then also working in a factory, he has to allow himself to see that their drudgery paid for his privilege. While his mother “was sleeping at night in order to get up at 4 AM, I was staying up till dawn reading Marx and Trotsky, then Beauvoir and Genet.” He sees, as he attempts to evoke the unglamorous past from which he was desperate to emerge, that his very interest “in Marx or Sartre was my way of getting out of this world, out of my parents’ world, all the while of course imagining that I was more clear sighted than they were about their own lives.”
He has to face the idea that his not keeping in touch with his own brothers, who had not followed his trajectory, had not much to do with his sexual identity, but was “due to my social identity, my class identity.” In order to advance in the world, he “had to nullify certain relationships.” In effect, this involved “cutting my own brothers out of my life” until he is accused by his sister-in-law of being “a faggot who abandoned his family.”
This also involved, of course, changing how he spoke once he left the provinces for Paris. “For a number of years I had to shuttle back and forth between two registers, between two universes.” Later, he compares this to the idea that many gay people learn to move “regularly back and forth between spaces and between temporalities (from normal to abnormal and back again).”
As his book proceeds, Eribon’s tone becomes more certain, the writing more stark, more memorable, his knowledge of his plight simpler and more disturbing:
Basically, I had been convicted twice, socially speaking: one conviction was based on class, the other on sexuality. There is no escaping from sentences such as these. I bear the mark of both of them. Yet because they came into conflict with each other at a certain moment in my life, I was obliged to shape myself by playing one off against the other.
In his book, Eribon also invokes the French writer Annie Ernaux, who described her own humble origins:
She provides an amazing description of the uneasiness or distress a person feels upon returning to her or his parents’ house after not only moving out, but also after leaving behind both the family and the world to which she or he nonetheless continues to belong.
He quotes Ernaux on her mother, who ran a small grocery store: “I was both certain of her love for me and aware of one blatant injustice: she spent all day selling milk and potatoes so that I could sit in a lecture hall and learn about Plato.”
Ernaux’s two short books, A Man’s Place (1983) and A Woman’s Story (1988), vividly capture her parents’ lives and deal unsparingly with her own mixture of closeness and distance from them as she invented herself as a writer. She describes her own and her parents’ unease with the language that was natural to them, and the tone she felt she should use when she spoke: “As a child, when I tried to express myself correctly, it was like walking down a dark tunnel.”
In an interview in 2014, Édouard Louis said:
Return to Reims played a capital role in my life…. I was overwhelmed by this book. I felt I was reading the story of my life. I went to a reading by Didier Eribon. At the end, I went to see him, and told him my story. At the time, I was still a student in Amiens; I used to go out a lot, and didn’t read much…. He was the one who encouraged me to try to get into the École Normale. When I wanted to write my novel, I thought about the singularity of my own path in regards to those of Annie Ernaux or Didier Eribon. I realized that I didn’t belong to their world either. I come from a world that I feel has remained absent from sociology or literature. It’s a world that we can’t see and whom no one speaks about because it’s almost impossible to leave and because it’s difficult to talk about without being labeled a class racist if ever you mention its misogyny or its homophobia.
Louis’s book is described as a novel but its young narrator, Eddy, is clearly modeled closely on Louis himself. Although it explores a childhood in a northern France blighted by poverty, misery, and prejudice, The End of Eddy differs from the work of Ernaux and Eribon because it is not a return home during a middle age tempered by literary success; it is not replete with emotion recollected in tranquility. It is written in the white heat of recent experience. (Louis was born in 1992.) But it connects with the other two writers in the urgency and honesty in its tone as it attempts to shatter the image of French refined manners and social equilibrium. It connects with Eribon also because it links the political and the personal, showing how a working-class family in France can so easily shift its allegiance to the National Front. (Eribon’s father had once been a Communist.)
Like Eribon, Louis makes clear that once he had arrived in the realms of privilege in France, he had to disguise his origins. When asked why his teeth were so bad, for example, Eddy relates, “I would lie. I’d say my parents, intellectuals, slightly too bohemian in their outlook, had spent so much time worrying about my literary education that they sometimes neglected my health.”
Since Eddy was identified as gay from an early age, he was regularly bullied and beaten by schoolmates. In his village, masculinity was important. Thus, as the firstborn son of his father, his arrival was a matter of pride:
All too soon I shattered the hopes and dreams of my father…. When I began to express myself, when I learned to speak, spontaneously my voice took on feminine inflections…. As I grew up, I could feel my father’s gaze, when it fell on me, grow heavier and heavier, I could feel the terror mounting in him, his powerlessness in the face of the monster he had created and whose oddity became clearer with each passing day.
Eddy’s father, who had worked in the same village factory as his own father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, retired early due to a painful injury caused by heavy lifting. The family lived in poverty in a small damp house. His father was given to drunken rages. The bedroom Eddy shared with his brother or his sister was tiny, with a cement floor, mold on the walls, and a broken window. The upper part of the bunk bed often collapsed, injuring the one sleeping beneath. Since his brother watched TV through the night, he could not sleep. Food was often scarce, or bought on credit. But some of the neighbors lived in even worse poverty:
Dirty laundry was all over their house; dogs urinated in all the rooms, soiled the beds; the furniture was covered in dust, and not just dust, really, more a kind of filth that no word quite captures: a mixture of dirt, dust, food scraps, spilled drinks, wine or Coke that had dried up, dead flies or mosquitoes.
No one in that village escapes the misery. Even young women who went to work as cashiers “got used to stiffening hands and wrists, to joints worn out by the age when others are just beginning their studies.”
Eddy’s family suffers from many types of illnesses and disabilities, while a neighbor dies in his own excrement. And then “there’s the aunt who pulls her own teeth with a pair of pliers when she is drunk, for no reason, just for the fun of it—a pair of pliers like a mechanic would have. She is drunk often enough that, inevitably, she runs out of teeth to pull.” Part of his own problem at school was caused by “the language my family spoke at home, which was therefore my language, marked by frequent errors and the use of the Picardy dialect that we sometimes spoke better than standard French.”
In this world, prejudice against Arabs and outsiders is pervasive, just as rampant homophobia is. Louis paints his narrator not only as a fearful victim of violence and poverty, but also, in his dreams, as a “class renegade,” as he set about adopting values “precisely in order to construct a self in opposition to my parents, in opposition to my family.” His parents thus were raising not only a homosexual, but also a class traitor.
Louis describes with honesty and clear-sighted sharpness Eddy’s efforts, as he grows into his teens, to pass as a heterosexual, or to make himself into one. He promises himself, “Today I’m gonna be a tough guy.” And then he adds in parenthesis:
And now I’m crying as I write these lines; I’m crying because I find that sentence hideous and ridiculous, this sentence that went everywhere with me for several years and was, I don’t think I’m exaggerating, at the center of my being.
But what is also at the center of Eddy’s being emerges in one single-sentence paragraph: “I had to get away.” When he tries to run away, however, his father becomes upset and starts to cry. “You can’t do shit like that, you know we love you, you can’t just run away.”
Like Annie Ernaux and Didier Eribon, the war Édouard Louis is waging is not against his own background, but against an image of France as comfortable, settled, at ease with itself, an image that has fully excluded him and made him feel shame. When he finally gets away, into a world that he has dreamed of, he notices in his boarding school, to which he has won a theater scholarship, the gentle manners of the other boys and says to himself, as though he is still the son of his father: “What a bunch of fucking faggots,” and then muses: “Maybe I’m not gay, maybe things aren’t the way I thought they were, maybe I’ve just always had a bourgeois body that was trapped in the world of my childhood.”
But his own homosexuality and his own class origins belong to him as a gift that he can bestow with a mixture of relish and cold rage on his fellow citizens. In The End of Eddy, which has been a best seller in France, Louis enacts a sort of homecoming as he offers his compatriots a new version of their country, a version that he has chiseled with considerable skill, thus remaking France in his own image, with his own unsparing gaze.