A World Left Behind

Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims

Allen Lane, 256pp, £17.99, ISBN 9780241344620

reviewed by Adam Scovell

Examining who we are means exploring who we once were – and the intervening meander between the two selves. More specifically, it is an examination of where we once were and what that distance now means to us. This is all the more profound when the subject has gained privilege – a phenomenon as much geographical as it is sociological. In a recent wave of new literature, these differing selves have been viewed through the prism of identity, but the strongest often look at the silent inequality of class and how this manifests guilt and shame through the distance created by social mobility. Returning to Reims, by philosopher and public intellectual Didier Eribon, is one such project. First published in his native France to great acclaim in 2009, Eribon’s bestselling memoir examines the twin dilemmas of a working-class background in northern France and how being a gay man fed into a growing need to escape.

French literature has been overtly concerned with this subject in recent years, not just through Eribon’s work but through the powerful auto-literature of Édouard Louis (The End of Eddy, A History of Violence) and Annie Ernaux (A Man’s Place, The Years) – both of whom have praised Eribon’s book. Ernaux arguably foreshadowed this literary movement, having been investigating these relationships since the turn of the millennium. Looking back at the improbability of lived lives and their final trajectory, such works mix a potentially controversial reworking of reality – the French media has made a pastime of tracking down Louis’ real-life characters – with a clear, precise prose and an earnest attitude towards addressing the issue of class. By virtue of their subject matter, these works by default also address the political issues that have come to dominate our current decade.

Eribon’s book fits into this schema in some sense but brings with it a particularly erudite addition of critical theory. If Returning to Reims is primarily a personal reflection on the issues surrounding class and sexuality, then the book’s spine is really how such issues became more apparent through a reading of critical and philosophical theory, especially that of Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre. Eribon’s background as an expert in these areas gives him the finesse to go much deeper into the issues than other writers – outside of personal relation and into the purely sociological. Once the angle of perception is fully detailed – the revisiting of the town and family the writer was eventually estranged from, the impossible distance that grew between him and his now deceased father, etc – Eribon is almost ruthless in his critical evaluation of his own past in a deeply earnest and refreshing way.

Through such an unsparing eye for the slowly performative nature of his own middle-class identity – his desire to distance himself from his humble background via cultural symbols such as books, types of music, choice of newspaper and the like – Eribon gets to the heart of the recent shifts in the politics of the working-class. His deft evaluation of the rise of a right-wing mentality within the working-class is surely one of the most effective explanations of its kind. He notes ironically that his own desire to escape his roots reflects the general ambivalence towards a section of society which never quite conforms to the ever increasing social requirements set by progressive morality. This act of escape is part of the sociological make-up of the very problem at hand, the distance that renders discussion more difficult as it grows.

The act of looking back may carry the baggage of political acknowledgement but the most effective moments of Eribon’s book often question this act and what it entails. More than just returning to converse with his mother, look at old photographs or taste the symbolic madeleine that sets off a whole chain of remembering, Eribon turns the act of revisiting upon its head. He suggests early on that ‘my life is not only haunted by the future; there are also the ghosts of my own past, ghosts which leapt into view immediately upon the death of the person who incarnated everything I wanted to run away from, everything I wanted to break with.’ There’s a sense that, rather than simply looking back, Returning to Reims transports the writer back into his past and asks him to look forward to the now, challenging him to see how he finally arrived there and what was lost along the way. It makes for a more earnest perception of the past than most biographical works.

In some ways, the project evokes the second half of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980) in that a family death leads the author to question the very act of looking back. Whereas Barthes used this to examine the action of photography, Eribon is interested instead in the development of political sociology. Barthes himself is mentioned variously alongside several other thinkers, most of whom were aptly also haunted by their various pasts. Eribon famously knew the dying Michel Foucault and published a biography of him in 1989. It is unsurprising, then, to find the philosopher’s work embedded throughout, though intriguingly it is early works such as Madness and Civilisation (1960), the works wrestling most overtly with Foucault’s troubled identity, that get most attention. This makes sense because these books kick-started Eribon’s own interrogation of the working-class world around him and, in the hindsight of Returning to Reims, somewhat diagnose its problems for the author today.

Of course, such projects have their own built-in flaws though Eribon at least acknowledges the paradox of writing about the working-class, even as someone from such a background. Later on in the book he identifies a continuing paradox in any number of writings about the working class:

‘When people write about the working class world, which they rarely do, it is most often because they have left it behind. They thereby contribute to perpetuating the social illegitimacy of the people they are speaking of in the very moment of speaking about them.’

It’s an impossible paradox to fully remove: that being in a position to write and publish a work will almost inevitably remove the writer in some way from the original situation. Legitimacy and authenticity become measured in the past tense.

However, the issues addressed in Returning to Reims do require Eribon’s academic abilities, not least in pinpointing the complex shifts of working-class political allegiances, from the Communist Party to the National Front. In doing this, the writer also essentially characterises the problems facing western politics generally. Again a paradox is present, for such a shift automatically creates a desired distance, between provinces and capitals, parents and offspring, working-class and middle-class. This will be an acute and recognisable feeling for anyone with parents who voted for Brexit, especially if coupled with experience of a similar shift of class through higher education. Yet without somehow addressing and reducing this distance, it will only continue to widen, allowing for the uncontrolled rise of various collective and unchecked manias whether they be Marine Le Pen gaining over 13 million votes, 17 million votes for Brexit, or 30 states ultimately voting for the Trump presidency.

Melancholy is the overriding aspect of Returning to Reims, not simply because of the political maladies it highlights but because the barriers inherent in the class systems carry with them an inbuilt sense of guilt. Eribon was given the opportunity to escape by his parents working long hours in difficult jobs, allowing him educational opportunities eventually unavailable even to his younger brothers. He questions whether he could have been more helpful to them, staying to nurture wider interests which could, hypothetically, have moved them away from eventually becoming ardent National Front voters. But the gratitude sours to discomfort at the constant and endlessly persistent xenophobia on display. That such clarity was gained only through the help of those who ultimately seem on an entirely different wavelength gives Eribon’s work an undeniable sense of loss: lost opportunity, lost morality, lost connections yet also lost authenticity.

Of course, the reader knows how the narrative of Returning to Reims ends because they are holding it in their hands. But, unlike other such narratives, Eribon cannot forget the past, the past that his father died in and, ultimately, that his own mother is forever stuck in. The book ends with this tint of sadness, with his mother not understanding what Eribon’s new, highly accomplished university role of sociology professor entails. She asks if his studies are something to do with society, unaware of the irony that the chief problem he will no doubt be addressing, and had been for many years even when he was still in Reims, was right at home in her own everyday world.