History of Violence

by Édouard Louis, translated from the French by Lorin Stein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 212 pp., $25.00

Who Killed My Father

by Édouard Louis, translated from the French by Lorin Stein
New Directions, 87 pp., $15.95
Édouard Louis, New York City, May 2017
Dominique Nabokov
Édouard Louis, New York City, May 2017

The story begins late on Christmas Eve, 2012. Édouard is twenty years old, and he has left the apartment of friends in northeast Paris, where they have had a few bottles of wine. He takes a share-bike as far as the place de la République, and then, to clear his head, he decides to walk the rest of the way to his little studio near the Canal Saint-Martin. In the large square, under reconstruction at the time, a man about a decade older tries to pick him up. Édouard resists at first, and then takes the man, Reda, home with him. They have sex five or six times over the next few hours, nap, shower. When Reda starts to leave, Édouard notices that his phone and iPad are missing. He accuses Reda in the gentlest way, and desire turns to ferocious violence: Reda strangles him with a scarf, pulls out a gun, and rapes him.

Except the story does not begin on Christmas Eve, 2012. It begins more than a decade earlier, when Édouard lived in the poorer north of France, and still went by his given name of Eddy. Endlessly bullied by classmates for his effeminate gestures, mocked by his brawler father, Eddy escapes only thanks to France’s elite education system, mastering the social codes that will bring him all the way to Paris, where he has remade himself as a bourgeois. Or the story begins decades earlier than that, in French Algeria, where Eddy’s grandfather fought, and from which Reda’s father migrated to Paris. The etiology of the crime, and the punishment that may follow, stretch past the experiences of two men in the 10th arrondissement. And the walls of the little studio apartment in which Édouard could have lost his life expand to encompass entire regimes of public and private cruelty.

“Édouard” and “Eddy” are both Édouard Louis, and the savagery of that night spirals back and branches forward in History of Violence, his second autobiographical novel. It’s a treatise on class, race, and sexuality intertwined with an agonizing testimony of crime, recounted in a prismatic fashion that fractures those horrible minutes of Christmas 2012 into shadows and reflections. Since its publication in France in 2016—where it drew both raves and furious denunciations—History of Violence has become an international success; last year it was adapted for the stage by Thomas Ostermeier of the Schaubühne, one of Berlin’s leading theaters. It also afforded its author a public renown that he has eagerly embraced, with aims that go well beyond literature.

Louis has since emerged as the French literary world’s most implacable, immoderate opponent of Emmanuel Macron, the young president whose promises of national renewal have lately run aground. Having endorsed the far-left anti-European candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the 2017 presidential…

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