ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED four years ago, Édouard Louis’ debut novel The End of Eddy (translation by Michael Lucey, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017) quickly established the young author—he was in his early twenties when he wrote it—as a new literary phenomenon. The book, an autobiographical novel about growing up poor and gay in a village in northern France, has already been translated into twenty languages.
“I wanted to bear objective witness to an unbearable violence,” Louis told me when I interviewed him last year. The violence he speaks of—and writes about so powerfully—is the violence engendered by poverty and class domination, which he sees as “always linked to gender domination and to homophobia.” Louis’ suffering—within his family and at school (and later in what he hopes will be the more tolerant embrace of Paris and the bourgeoisie)—is unsparingly described in the novel’s crisp, lapidary prose. “We are witnessing the blossoming of a strong new voice who has a long career ahead of him,” wrote Eduardo Febles in his review of the book in these pages (G&LR, Sept-Oct 2017).
I spoke with Louis via Facetime (I was in New York, he was in Paris) on the eve of his departure for the Singapore Book Festival in early November 2017.
Philip Gambone: Do you think you suffered more than other boys in your village?
Édouard Louis: That’s really difficult. As a queer person in the village, in that social class, of course I suffered more than my brothers and straight guys. A queer person or someone who is not a white person would suffer much more in my village. At the same time, the fact that these people called attention to my difference was what allowed me to escape. So now they suffer more than me. Yes, I suffered, but the point is everyone suffers in that milieu.
PG: The opening sentence of your book—“From my childhood I have no happy memories”—is so arresting. Did you have that sentence in mind when you started writing the book?
ÉL: No, I found that sentence later. But I had that feeling when I was thinking about my childhood. There is such a big gap between our feelings and how we articulate them. Very often we suffer because so many things are going on in our bodies, and it’s so difficult to speak them. In fact, when I was writing the book, I was thinking of Violette Leduc [the French lesbian novelist], who started her book L’Asphyxie  with the sentence: “My mother never held my hand.” It was that rhythm that I had in my ear.
PG: That opening sentence has the same kind of iconic power as the opening sentence of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. How important has Proust been to your development as a writer?
ÉL: Like many writers, I love Proust. But, contrary to someone like Proust, who was born into a bourgeois, cultured family and wrote about it, I identified more with Françoise, Marcel’s maid, than with Marcel himself. Sure, I felt close to the gay characters, but I started writing The End of Eddy with that experience of feeling closer to the maid. Most of the LGBT books I was reading I couldn’t completely relate to, because my experience as a queer child was linked to this queer body within the working-class community.
Society takes everything from the working class: culture, money, access to things. The only thing left for people like my mother and my father was their body. So in the end we shouldn’t be surprised if people of the working class build an ideology of the body, of being tough. It’s the only thing they have left. Of course, it’s an ideology that has horrible effects on women and gay people. That’s the difference with Proust.
PG: In Colm Tóibín’s review of your book in The New York Review of Books, he quotes you as once saying that it’s difficult to talk about the world you come from “without being labeled a class racist if ever you mention its misogyny or its homophobia.” How did you overcome that fear in order to take up the challenge of writing your book?
ÉL: The European Communist Party in the 20th century had a way of talking about the working class: they are better, funnier, they have a “real life,” whereas the bourgeoisie has a fake life, they’re hypocrites, they pretend; and so we are stuck in that ideology. When I started writing The End of Eddy, the way I had to think about it was, on the one hand, to escape that bourgeois way of talking about the working class—they are dirty, they are lazy, they could have been something else if they had worked harder in school—and, on the other hand, to say they are better at everything. What I tried to do was not to think in terms of morality. My question was not to ask, are they good or not? My thing is truth: to ask if [my depiction] is true or not? That’s much more powerful.
I also wanted to show that the people of my childhood, the class where I grew up, are also victims of the violence: they dispensed as much violence as they endured. When I was a kid and my father was drunk, he would always cry and tell me, I don’t understand why I am so violent. He felt that something was crushing his body, had taken over his body. As in [Toni Morrison’s] Beloved when Sethe cuts the throat of her daughter, and says later, “I don’t know, something happened in my body.” It was all the grief of racism, of social domination.
When I talk about the violence of the people in my childhood, it would be stupid not to acknowledge that it was violence. Yes, of course there is a lot of homophobia in the bourgeoisie as well. Some people wrote terribly homophobic reviews of my book, even in newspapers I consider serious, like Le Figaro. Of course, all that exists, but at the same time, it was much easier to live as a gay person in Paris than it was in the milieu of my childhood.
PG: You write about your own complicity with the violence of your childhood. How so?
ÉL: When I say complicit, I mean I was forced to be complicit. I would never blame someone who was dominated within the prevailing social structure. What is important to say is that people are made to be complicit, are forced to be complicit. It gets in their mind, under their skin. That’s how power and domination work. The way I was forced to be complicit in the violence I suffered is that I didn’t want to say that I suffered. Those two guys would beat me every day in the corridor at school, spit on me, call me a faggot, because I was a queer child. They wanted me to pay for that. Unfortunately, it’s not such a rare story. I have met so many people who told me exactly the same story. But the fact is during all my childhood, I would do everything I could to protect these guys. I didn’t want others to know what they were doing to me. I would never denounce them to an adult. Sometimes I had bruises and my mother would say, “What’s that?” I would tell her I was just playing soccer. I was ashamed of being insulted.
That’s a big problem: how can you fix society if the people who suffer are ashamed of suffering? In the world we live in, there are so many ways of shutting people up, of preventing people from talking. It’s the case for queer people; it’s the case for people of color. So many times when people speak out about racism, the response is, Oh, it’s just victimization. It’s time to move on. You should stop complaining. All of that is a way of preventing people from talking.
For me, the problem of the world we live in is not that people speak out too much. On the contrary, when you see racism, when you see homophobia, when you see violence, why is it so difficult for people to speak? When I published The End of Eddy, some people attacked me. They said it was an exaggeration, that gay people should stop complaining, that it’s not that bad. Whenever you talk about violence, you will always have people saying it’s an exaggeration. As soon as you don’t experience violence, it’s so difficult to understand it. You have to be so generous to understand what other people suffer.
PG: You mention a journal that you kept during the years you lived in the village. Did you reference the journal as you were writing the book?
ÉL: In the three-and-a-half years since I published the book, you’re the first to ask me that question! I destroyed it a little while after I wrote it. I destroyed it because, as a gay child in the schoolyard, my experience was unsayable; it was too dangerous to recount my experiences. I wrote a diary every year, and I would always destroy it because I was afraid. For example, my sister also wrote a journal. I was imitating her. She is now 27 or 28, and she still has her journal. But I don’t have my journals, because I belonged to those people who couldn’t recount their stories. When I started writing The End of Eddy, I finally had the feeling that I could tell my story. For so long, the history of queer people has been the history of the unspeakable life, and it still is in some ways.
PG: You speak very affectionately about some of your teachers: that “they voiced the discourse of the French educational system, that we were all equal.” How important was your early schooling in giving you a different picture of what you might become?
ÉL: There is a big history in France of education in the values of the French Republic. Our teachers told us that no matter your race, no matter your sexuality, no matter your tastes, we are all equal. They would say this every year when we started school. And because of that, I felt that maybe there was a world where I could be another person. In my village, people either worked in the factory or they were living off of welfare. Our teachers were the only people who belonged to another milieu. I saw another kind of life in them. They were not rich, but they were people who had gone to the university. And so I began to think that maybe I had a history that I didn’t know about.
That’s what queer people often realize—with books, with the cinema, with literature. We’ve already mentioned Proust, Leduc. But also with Almodóvar, or Gus Van Sant, or Garth Greenwell, who wrote one of the most beautiful books written in the last few years [What Belongs to You]. When you are a young queer person and you read these books, you realize that you have a history that you didn’t know, that you can be more than you are because some people fought for you, for your existence, for the way you live, for giving you an opportunity to be what you want to be. And so that’s what happened to me when I went to see the movies of Gus Van Sant. I thought to myself, I am more similar to him than to my father or my brother.
PG: Speaking of Garth Greenwell, he wrote a lovely review of your book in The New Yorker. He called it “at once an act of solidarity and an act of vengeance.” Do you feel you have achieved vengeance, and if so, on whom?
ÉL: I really disagree with Garth on that. When I was writing The End of Eddy, I didn’t think of it as an act of vengeance. Not at all. On the contrary, when I was writing it, I had just arrived in Paris—I was the first in my family to go to the city to study—and so I was confronted with people I had never met before, people of the cultural bourgeoisie. And of course, as anyone who changes his social class, I felt out of place. We didn’t speak the same language, we didn’t share the same past. I heard them say things like, Oh, we went to that movie, we visited that country, and suddenly I couldn’t relate. And so, while I was writing the book, I was actually writing it as an act of revenge against the people of the bourgeoisie. It was against them, not against my family. I got the impression that the people in Paris didn’t understand anything about domination, about poverty. I had the impression that we didn’t exist for them.
When I finished the book, I sent it to a couple of publishers in Paris. And some of them said, We’re not going to publish it because what you say is unbelievable. It’s against that kind of violence that I wanted to have revenge. What these publishers said was a symptom of what I felt in Paris: for these people my mother doesn’t exist; for these people my father doesn’t exist.
But the problem is, if you act as if these people don’t exist—if the people on TV and in the newspapers don’t talk about them—they will have a strong reaction and they will say, “Yes, I do exist!” and they will go out and vote for Trump and Le Pen in order to proclaim, “I exist, I suffer, I breathe.” And so, that was the revenge. If Garth Greenwell saw revenge, it was because I was talking about the extreme violence of that milieu.
PG: Among the many things I admire about the book is your honesty about your father—not just in the scenes of violence, but in those rare moments when he showed you kindness and gentleness. Given the often violent ways of your father, was it difficult to include the details of this other, more appealing, side?
ÉL: Yes, it was, but for me it was more [about being] political than about being sincere. You know, Michel Foucault often talked about writing as an act of courage. I was fighting against myself because, of course, it was really difficult to [include] those details, but it was precisely because it was difficult that I had to say them. Society puts in the shadow of privacy what society doesn’t want to deal with.
Hervé Guibert, a French gay writer, one of the most important of the 1990s—he died very young from HIV—wrote this beautiful book about how his body was being destroyed, titled To the Friend Who Didn’t Save My Life. When he wrote it, a lot of people attacked him, saying that [what he was going through] was private, that he was making money out of his privacy. But no, what Guibert was doing was to challenge the historical border between what is political and what is considered private.
Like most people, my father was several persons at the same time. He was the father who loved his son as fathers often do. At the same time, he was the guy who hated boys who had a desire for boys. And so he was struggling. At the same time, he was telling me that he loved me and that I was the shame of the family.
PG: At your talk at the French Library in Boston [on Oct. 28, 2017], you said that you had never seen as violent a country as the U.S. Could you elaborate?
ÉL: You know, I went to the U.S. because there are a lot of writers I admire there. But I came to experience American society’s violence and extreme class differences. The cost of education, the cost of going to the doctor! And what is even more violent is the way America so often denies all these problems. It’s so difficult to talk about class in the U.S., about class domination, about poverty. So you have two kinds of violence in America: the objective violence and the other level where you deny that reality.
In France, of course, we also have social domination, but we can talk about it, we deal with it. In the U.S., even those who pretend to write about working-class people write about them with the language of the dominant ideology. The language of the self-made man that says, “Oh, you can do it, everyone can do it. We have a society where people can change, where we can become someone else.” But there is never an analysis in terms of underlying structures, of how society can [influence] your mind.
When I read the book Hillbilly Elegy [by J. D. Vance, 2016], I found it terrible. American people loved it so much, because it was pretending to talk about poor people, about the working class, but it was talking about them with the ideology of dominant people in the U.S.
PG: Your book got me to think about violence in a different way. We tend to think about violence as things like guns on the street, but your identification of violence with poverty, oppression, homophobia, Islamophobia expands the definition of violence so much.
ÉL: If we want to talk about violence in a contemporary way, we have to include all the dimensions that we know: sexuality, race, gender. In The End of Eddy, you see that class domination is always linked to gender domination and to homophobia. For someone in the working class, like my father or my brother, they had to build their identity as tough guys. And that meant to challenge the status quo: to refuse to go to school, to refuse to study. You were a real tough guy if you insulted your teachers. But in doing that, you excluded yourself from a different future, a different destiny.
In writing Eddy, I was trying to show that my father is poor because of homophobia. My brother, who is a straight white guy, is poor because of homophobia. That’s why homosexuality is a struggle for all of us. We now know that several terrorists had relationships with men: they hated their own desires, which created this crazy mind, this crazy schizophrenia, that pushed them—it’s not the only reason, of course—but that pushed them into getting involved with terrorism. Maybe if the society we live in were less homophobic, then what happened in Nice would not have happened. The struggle against homophobia challenges the whole world and not just the life of queer people.
PG: Speaking of challenging the whole world, how do you account for the incredible success of your book, its appeal to such a broad audience?
ÉL: It was such a surprise. At the beginning, my publisher and I didn’t think it would sell 2,000 copies. I never imagined I would be translated, or that I would have one translation after another. No one expected that. The success is really difficult to understand. Maybe it’s been so successful because the book deals with violence in all its forms—homophobia, class domination, racism—so [it speaks] to many people who have been dominated like me. As Toni Morrison once said, “I write the books I want to read.” The world we live in is so violent, but we rarely find this violence in books.
PG: We were talking earlier about “tough guys.” One of the most surprising moments for me occurred when the two boys who bullied you so mercilessly yelled bravo at your cabaret performance at the end of your middle school years. Did they finally find something in you that they could admire?
ÉL: Like my father, they were sociologically schizophrenic. They hated me because I was a queer child, and they were proud of me when I was acting in the cabaret. They were proud because I was successful and they knew me. It’s really difficult: homophobia is a complex thing.
Maybe I was more obsessed with these guys than I admitted when I was writing the book. Even after I left the village, I was obsessed with them: they were the center of my life. I had them in my body, I had them under my skin. It’s bizarre, it’s probably a bad thing, because we shouldn’t be obsessed with the people who oppress us, we shouldn’t try to prove things to the people who oppress us.
At the same time, I wouldn’t say it was their fault. Because the goal of The End of Eddy was to excuse these people who spit on me every day. To excuse them doesn’t mean that I love them, to excuse them doesn’t create a relationship; it doesn’t create an intimacy. To excuse comes from the Latin ex causa: to find the cause somewhere. To find the cause of what they were—in society, in homophobia, in social structures. They were continuing that violence that they grew up with.
PG: At the end of the novel, you are still wondering if you are gay, still trying to fit into the world of the straight boys. At what point in your life did you finally come to terms with being gay?
ÉL: I was about seventeen, after high school, when I admitted it to myself and to others. When I told my mother, at the beginning she was upset. She cried. After a couple of days, she said, “Oh, Eddy why do you complain? I was never homophobic with you.” But that’s what makes violence a very complex thing. My mother almost never said to me, “Oh you’re a faggot.” She would never think of herself as a homophobic person, but the thing is she was always telling me, “Oh you’re not masculine enough; you do those feminine things in front of everyone.” So I wanted to kill myself. I was so ashamed. For her it was just a few sentences, it wasn’t articulated as something violent, but for me it meant everything. People don’t even have to decide to be violent in order to be violent.
PG: You have achieved so much at such a young age.
ÉL: It’s really difficult to talk about my age. My age changes all the time. Sometimes I feel so young—like when I watch Harry Potter on my computer—I feel like I’m twelve. Sometimes I feel so old. Violence makes us older. When those two guys at school were beating me and spitting on me, I was ten years old and I’d go home and feel older than my mother. This knowledge of violence made me older.
PG: Do you have any nostalgia, any lingering affection, for the village life you left?
ÉL: We are always nostalgic. Even about a destroyed childhood we can be nostalgic. We can be nostalgic for a childhood we hated, we detested. Because childhood is a moment where the world around you is expanding every day. Every day you realize the world is bigger than you thought, deeper than you thought, more complex than you thought. And when you become an adult, you start to see all the barriers, all the things you can’t access, all the things that are not for you, that are out of reach. For me, childhood is a paradise of welfare. People take care of you, buy food for you, provide a house for you, and so, even if you detest your childhood, this makes you happy. It’s a kind of socialist experience.
PG: What class do you identify with today? Do you consider yourself now a part of the bourgeoisie?
ÉL: It would be naïve to say that I am not a part of the bourgeoisie: I went to school, I studied, I have more money than my parents, I live in Paris, I travel. So all the evidence is that I am bourgeois. When I was a kid, I was objectively part of the working class, exactly the same way now I am objectively a part of the bourgeoisie. But that doesn’t mean I like it. There are so many moments when I feel bad within the bourgeoisie. My role is to use the experience of my childhood in order to be unbearable for the bourgeoisie now that I’m here. You shouldn’t be writing if you don’t want to be unbearable. You have to challenge things, have to give another picture of society. You have to confront people with the way they are living, with what they are doing. You have to deliver the truth. That’s my goal.
Philip Gambone is the author of a book of interviews with gay fiction writers, Something Inside (University of Wisconsin Press).