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The Dispossessed

Édouard Louis confronts the French elite’s contempt for the poor.

Illustration by Gérard Dubois

Shame pervades the work of the French writer Édouard Louis. The scenes of aggression in his first two novels, The End of Eddy and History of Violence, are invariably fueled by shame’s corrosive spread. Standing in a crowded middle school hallway, a bullied gay student yells “Shut the fuck up faggot” at another boy; amid the ensuing laughter, he realizes that he has managed, momentarily, to “transfer” his shame to him. Elsewhere, the son of a Kabyle immigrant, mortified by his own desires, perpetrates an act of astounding cruelty. In these books, shame is never communicated but inflicted, imbibed, submerged, and then revealed, often in the most visceral and excruciating ways, despite itself. Even when escape into another life, another self, at last seems possible, there is a sense that this escape, too, will be contaminated—less a break with the past than a variation on it.

New Directions, 128 pp., $18.95

When Louis remarked, in a recent conversation with the novelist Abdellah Taïa, “Shame is the feeling that forges my life as a writer,” he could have meant this literally. Like him, the young narrator of his intensely autobiographical debut, The End of Eddy, is born Eddy Bellegueule. His father gave him that first name because it sounded tough, like a character from an American TV show. But the name soon becomes a burden, an unattainable aspiration. In Hallencourt, the poverty-stricken village in northern France where the novel is set, a father “reinforced his masculine identity through his sons, to whom he was duty-bound to transmit his own virility.” For generations, a local brass works factory had provided Hallencourt with jobs and a modicum of stability; by the time the book begins, in the early 2000s, many of the jobs are gone, destitution is widespread, and a ferocious, rigidly enforced cult of masculinity governs social and domestic life. As a child with effeminate mannerisms and an attraction to other boys, Eddy is doomed to suffer in such a world. He experiences, with his siblings, not only the myriad indignities of being poor—the rotted teeth, the clandestine visits to a local food bank—but he also bears the stigma of being a “fairy,” a “cocksucker,” and (the epithet that his parents preferred, because it was “the one best for conveying disgust”) a “pussy.” Eventually, after strenuous efforts to conform, he flees the village for high school in a nearby city. His departure is portrayed not as a triumph—the precocious kid finally freed from his stifling upbringing—but as a failure to become the person he so desperately tried to be. Just before the book’s publication in 2014, Louis legally took his new name.

In a book crowded with tormentors, it’s the casual brutality of Jacky, the boy’s father, that leaves the strongest impression. Eddy describes his father’s words, his relentless bullying and public ridicule, as “razor blades that would cut me for hours, for days, when I heard them, words I picked up and repeated to myself.” Jacky mostly resists the urge, during his drunken rages, to subject his son to physical abuse (“I won’t ever punch my wife or my kids,” he says. “I might fuck up all the walls of the house, but I won’t do what my dickhead of a father did and mess with the faces of my family”). But there are exceptions. One pummeling occurs after he learns, from Eddy’s mother, that his ten-year-old son has been drawn into sexual relations with a group of neighborhood boys, including a male cousin. “He walked up to me slowly,” Louis writes, “then came the blow, a powerful slap across my face, with his other hand gripping my T-shirt so hard that it ripped, another slap, a third, and then another and another.” So oppressive is his father’s presence that when other characters explode in fury, or indulge their racism or homophobia, they read as proxies for the elder Bellegueule.

Louis completed The End of Eddy at 20, while a student at the École Normale Supérieure, by which point the book’s objective had expanded beyond that of the typical bildungsroman. It was something else: an attempt to lay bare the patterns of exclusion and dispossession in French society that had deformed, degraded, and imprisoned his family and their milieu. What might, in other hands, have been presented as a merely personal or familial story thus became an inescapably political one—about how violence from above gets internalized and rerouted, usually in the direction of those with even less power. This attempt to confront France’s ruling class with the consequences of its neglect made the novel, soon translated into over 20 languages, an unlikely sensation; when it appeared in English in 2017, it attracted comparisons to Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir of growing up poor in Appalachia. Yet where Vance’s book espouses a self-congratulatory bootstraps ideology, Louis offers damning realism in the service of structural critique. He sees his community’s despair rooted not in a lack of pluck or individual responsibility but in “a whole set of logical mechanisms that were practically laid down in advance and nonnegotiable.”

His new book, Who Killed My Father, makes the case more explicitly: France’s class system has long served to separate some groups, “whose lives are supported, nurtured, protected,” from others, who are at once discarded and humiliated. It’s a sentiment widely shared in France today, as a growing segment of the country refuses the abject status accorded them by a Paris-centric political and economic establishment. “We are an entire population, we are an entire people full of shame,” Louis has said. “We are a movement.” Now he wants to collect this shame and direct it at its proper targets: those responsible for decades of callous and crushing policy. Nothing will really change, his work insists, until we manage to shame the shameless.

After publishing two novels heavily based on his own life, it’s significant that Louis’s latest book appears under the banner of nonfiction. At first glance, coming in at just over a hundred pages, Who Killed My Father seems slighter, less momentous than his previous work—clearly a companion of sorts to The End of Eddy and History of Violence, but without the first novel’s wealth of ethnographic minutiae (Louis has spoken of his debt to the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) or the latter’s formal inventiveness (whereby, for example, an account of Louis’s rape and near murder at the hands of a stranger is mostly narrated by his sister, whom Louis overhears talking to her husband in the next room).

It quickly becomes clear, however, that the new book has a force and immediacy all its own. Who Killed My Father tells the story—part lament, part searing polemic—of a tough guy reduced to something like a state of living death. “Last month I came to see you in the small northern town where you’ve been living,” Louis writes in the book’s opening pages, addressing his father directly. “At first when you opened the door, I didn’t recognize you.” Nor do we. Several years have passed since Eddy left home. His father’s body has been ravaged in the interim. When he was 35, a storage container fell on him in the factory, crushing his back and leaving him bedridden and jobless. Now, barely 50, he has trouble walking. He can no longer drive or drink or take a shower without help. He sleeps with a breathing machine to prevent his heart from stopping. His wife, Louis’s mother, has finally left him, ending their 25-year relationship. He has severe diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a ventral hernia; his belly is distended to the point that his abdominal lining has ruptured. He has difficulty speaking. “You had to sit and catch your breath,” Louis writes. “You apologized. These apologies are a new thing with you.”

Given how forbiddingly large this man loomed over his childhood and adolescence, Louis knows little about him. As a young boy, Louis’s father and his siblings looked on, powerless to intervene, as their alcoholic father beat their mother; when he was five years old, the man left for work at the factory and never returned, leaving his family destitute, hungry—this is all we’re told of his earliest years. The book is composed of fragments, wandering snippets from memory, small details gleaned from Louis’s mother and grandmother; Louis lacks a fuller picture of his father’s life and doesn’t try to construct one. “I’ve only come to know you accidentally,” he writes. “Or through other people.” He gleans almost nothing from his father himself, and while Louis adopts an intimate tone with him, it’s more in the manner of a diary or monologue, not an actual conversation.

In his brief, elliptical preface to the book, Louis suggests that if he had written this story as a play, it would begin with a father and son standing a few feet apart in “a vast empty space”—an open field, say, or an abandoned factory. “The son is the only one to speak,” he writes.

He addresses his father, but his father doesn’t seem to hear, we don’t know why not. Although they stand close together, neither can reach the other. Sometimes they touch, they come into physical contact, but even in these moments they are apart.

Their estrangement has a salutary effect, creating the distance from which to reconsider the past. A kind of righteous anger gradually replaces judgment. Nowhere is this truer than in Louis’s discussion of his father’s choice to leave school at the age of 14. Initially, Louis explains that fateful decision as a result of “masculine pride”; there’s frustration that his father wanted to prove, above all other considerations, that he didn’t give a shit. “Constructing your masculinity meant depriving yourself of any other life, any other future, any other prospect that school might have opened up. Your manhood condemned you to poverty.”

And yet, only a couple of pages later, he relates an episode that subtly reverses this formulation. Louis is twelve, in grade school, and he has just learned for the first time about the Berlin Wall. He’s fascinated and disturbed. (“The fact that a major city, not so far away from us, could be divided in two, practically overnight, by a wall, came over me like a storm.”) Later, at home, he begs his father to tell him more: What was it like? Why exactly was it built? Could you ever see your loved ones if they lived on the other side? His father says nothing. “I started to see that my nagging was causing you pain,” Louis writes. “I used words you didn’t understand.” Still, he keeps pushing, and his father erupts.

But it wasn’t the way you usually lost your temper. It wasn’t normal, the way you snapped. You were ashamed because I was confronting you with a school culture that had excluded you, that had wanted you out. Where is history? The history they taught us at school was not your own. World history was what they taught us, and you were left out of the world.

Louis’s father, like his grandfather and great-grandfather, had been expelled from the realm of culture and education long before he chose to leave it behind. His masculine pride was not the cause but a by-product of this exclusion. It was poverty that condemned him to manhood.

As Louis revisits the story he’s been telling himself about his father, he starts to discover a new perspective on their relationship. “From my childhood I have no happy memories,” reads the first line of The End of Eddy. “Suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system.” Now, with the benefit of time and space, and a different name, these memories seep back in; what Eddy couldn’t or wouldn’t see, Édouard finally can. Some are minor, nearly imperceptible: a quick smile in the rearview mirror, his father’s moist eyes while watching an opera telecast. A goofy face—“Look Papa, I’m an alien!”—that elicits laughter. Waking up, on his eighth birthday, to discover the Titanic video box set at the foot of his bed; his father had said no, that’s for girls, but surprised him at the last minute. And then, at ten years old, pictures in an old mildewed photo album of his father, from about a decade earlier, dressed as a woman, a cheerleader.

All my life I’d seen you sneer at any sign of femininity in a man.... I pored over those images all night long—your body, your body in a skirt, the wig on your head, the lipstick on your mouth, the fake breasts under your tee shirt. You must have stuffed cotton wadding in a bra. The most surprising thing to me was that you looked happy. You were smiling. I stole one of the photos and several times a week I would take it out of the drawer where I’d hidden it and try to decipher it. I never mentioned it to you.

Anguished at the sight of that body now wrecked and ruined, Louis identifies, in the book’s final section, the people and forces he believes precipitated this condition. There’s nothing natural, he contends, about a 50-year-old man unable to breathe or walk on his own. Abandoned by the state and useless to the market, his father belongs to a category of people whose suffering confirms, as the cultural historian Michael Denning has put it, that under contemporary capitalism “the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited.” They can be exposed to illness and premature death at no real cost to the prevailing order. “There are murderers,” Louis writes, “who are never named for their murders.” If the book’s title ever contained a question mark, it’s been removed. What remains is a statement, an accusation: They did this to him.

He lists a procession of culprits from across the political spectrum. Jacques Chirac, Xavier Bertrand, Nicolas Sarkozy, Martin Hirsch, François Hollande, Myriam El Khomri, Manuel Valls, Emmanuel Macron: Whether adding work requirements to state benefits—forcing his father, despite his back injury, to take a job as a street sweeper—or cutting coverage for essential medications, these are the politicians who destroyed his father’s intestines, mangled his spine, and asphyxiated him. Louis cites, as emblematic of these vindictive policies, President Macron’s decision in 2017 to reduce by five euros per month the housing subsidies for France’s poorest citizens; that same month, Macron’s government announced a tax break for the rich. “The ruling class,” Louis writes, “may complain about a left-wing government, they may complain about a right-wing government, but no government ever ruins their digestion, no government ever breaks their backs.” For his father and those like him, on the other hand, “politics was a question of life or death.”

Louis’s indictment echoes what has become a battle cry among the French precariat. In November of last year, the gilets jaunes or Yellow Vests movement spontaneously erupted throughout the country, with hundreds of thousands of men and women, many of them hailing from the rural provinces, blocking the roads and roundabouts leading into nearly every town in France. The diffuse, leaderless uprising began in opposition to a planned fuel tax but soon turned into a denunciation of economic injustice more broadly. They saw Macron, who has a habit of speaking derisively of the working class (and pushing “reforms” that disproportionately hurt them), as merely the latest face of elite contempt for the poor. Louis, not surprisingly, has been a vocal supporter of the protests. If The End of Eddy gave the French literary public a window onto the social world of people they didn’t know existed (or whose existence they had gladly ignored), Who Killed My Father is a crucial text for a moment when those people are refusing to die quietly.

In a recent essay, “Can the Yellow Vests Speak?,” Louis described his shock at the first published images of the gilets jaunes .

I saw bodies who almost never appear in the public and media space—suffering bodies ravaged by work, by fatigue, by hunger, by the permanent humiliation of the dominated by the dominant, by social and geographical exclusion.… The bodies that I saw in the photos looked like my father’s, my brother’s, my aunts’. They looked like the bodies of my family, the inhabitants of the village where I lived as a child, of these people whose health is devastated by poverty and misery. Of those people who—rightly—constantly repeated, day after day throughout my childhood, “We count for nothing, no one talks about us.”

While acknowledging the far right’s presence in the protests (commentators immediately seized on reports of demonstrators chanting racist and xenophobic slogans), Louis, like many activists, insisted that the uprising was still taking shape and its political orientation was “not yet fixed in place.” Any social movement, he argued, presents an opportunity to subvert and destabilize language, so that old objects of scorn can be supplanted by more appropriate targets, producing unexpected alliances. Such had already happened with the gilets jaunes , as France’s white rural poor and largely nonwhite urban poor united in an attempt to unmask their country’s leaders—or to enact what Louis, in a 2015 manifesto co-written with Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, defiantly termed the “principle of the redistribution of shame.”

A group of Yellow Vest protesters at Le Havre in Normandy in late December 2018
Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos

On the last page of the book, Louis’s father comes to embody this possibility. A fervent admirer of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, his father had long ago latched on to the only party, as he saw it, willing to diagnose the system under which he suffered. But his views have undergone a shift: “You used to say the problem with France was the foreigners and the homosexuals,” Louis writes, “and now you criticize French racism. You ask me to tell you about the man I love.... You changed from one day to the next.” Louis doesn’t really explain the transformation, and, as presented in the book, with its tone of profound alienation, this abrupt, somewhat shocking ending has the feeling of a dream, if not a miracle. But then the emergence of the gilets jaunes, too, has been called miraculous.

Last month, when I came to see you, you asked me before I left, Are you still involved in politics? ... Yes , I told you, more and more involved . You let three or four seconds go by. Then you said, You’re right. You’re right—what we need is a revolution.

Perhaps the son, improbably, has been able to resuscitate his father.