Strings of Letters and Names of Warehouses

Edouard Louis, trans. Lorin Stein, History of Violence

Harvill Secker, 208pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781911215752

reviewed by Stephanie Sy-Quia

There is something suspicious in the ways Edouard Louis’s 2014 debut novel, The End of Eddy, has generally been discussed, in its branding as a novel of growing up gay and poor in post-industrial Northern France, which even appears in the blurb. The phrase is now de rigueur for reviewers: ‘growing up gay and poor’ (James Macaulay in The Washington Post), ‘growing up gay in a violent, neglected town in Northern France’ (Kim Willsher in The Guardian), ‘growing up gay in industrial Northern France’ (The Scotsman), ‘growing up gay in rural France’ (David Aaronovitch in The Times).

The ordering of these two, gay before poor – or its euphemisms stand-ins, ‘neglected’, ‘industrial’, ‘rural’ – suggests an empathetic failing as concerns the latter. It is as if sexuality were more the more urgent matter, or even somehow redeemed the protagonist for a mainstream audience all too blind to the points of friction between social liberalism and economic conservatism. Yet this ordering does a disservice Louis’s work.

In February 2017, in conversation with Tash Aw at the London Review Bookshop, Edouard Louis said the following:

‘This village was a very small village in the north of France, where twenty years ago there was a factory, where mostly all the men would work. One day the factory closed. Suddenly all the people became jobless and became hopeless. Of course, because the people were excluded from everything: the access to school, access to legitimate culture; excluded from having money, at the end the only thing that was really left to us was the body. And when you just have the body, you end up creating an ideology of the body. An ideology of strength and masculinity. That’s why it was so important to my father, because it was the only thing we had left to us.’

This ‘it’ is Louis’s body, its unsummoned effeminacy and homosexuality, the aspersions it therefore casts on his father’s own masculinity. But the relationship between Louis’s sexuality and the community of his childhood is not one of simple prejudice, nor is it limited to the issue of masculinity. Rather, his sexuality appears as an inadvertent attack on an ‘ideology of the body’ that his Northern community has imposed on itself in response to a state which has stripped away ‘access' to everything else. History of Violence makes this clearer than The End of Eddy.

The title loses some of its nuance in the English. ‘Histoire de la violence’ does mean ‘history of violence’, but the phrase ‘histoire de’ in French often resembles the English ‘a case of,’ or ‘a matter of’. ‘Case’ is moreover felicitous, because the book is, among other things, an account of a crime that took place on Christmas Eve 2012, when Louis was walking home from dinner with friends and was accosted by a Kabyle (Northern Algerian) man (who introduced himself as Reda) in the street. Louis invited him to his flat, where the two shared a night of sex and talking. As Reda was preparing to leave, Louis noticed he has stolen his mobile phone. He confronted him, a fight ensued, Reda threatened to shoot him, tried to strangle him, and raped him.

History is narrated in large part by Louis’s sister Clara: Louis has gone back to the country to stay with her, and overhears her tell the story of the above events – from beginning to the forensic examination and beyond – through the kitchen door. The addressee is her husband, the tale told in terms he will understand: as an almost cautionary tale of city living and its depravities. He is a long-distance lorry driver who has spent ‘ten years on the road all over Europe and into Asia,’ travelling thousands of kilometres per week. Cities are for him ‘only strings of letters and names of warehouses, or at the most they signify different figures, since his salary depends on the distance between each city and France’. His work exhausts him, leaves him lonely, without so much as the opportunity to speak. (It is also one of the highest-paying professions that does not require a university degree, and there are hopes of automating it. This would allegedly make the roads much more ‘efficient’, and, chillingly, 4.4m of the 6.4m professional trucking jobs in the United States and Europe could be eliminated, according to a May 2017 report by the International Transport Workers’ Federation.)

A key figure linking the two novels is Louis’s cousin Sylvain, who has a chapter dedicated to him in The End of Eddy and a few vignettes in History of Violence. In Eddy, his path to prison via a life of petty crime is, we are told, emblematic of the trajectory many of his peers face. In History, Sylvain is the hero of a piece of primary school legend: one day, he slowly and deliberately straddles the windowsill to taunt the teacher. ‘No one had forgotten,’ writes Louis, ‘over the years the scene had become a constitutive myth of masculinity, a sort of ideal, an origin story of masculinity, a reference point against which boys would have to invent themselves; it was something they dreamed about.’ Sylvain did it to ‘show who he was, to embody absolute freedom’; instead he later ended up behind bars.

The violence Louis sets out to examine is manifold and reaches far back into history: the violence a state inflicts on its own (poverty), the violence the poor inflict on each other and themselves (machismo), the violence the state inflicts on another (colonialism). The last is germane, given Reda’s status as a so-called beur, a second-generation Algerian immigrant. For his part, Louis has relatives who fought in the French army in the Algerian War – a war, which, at its height, was waged by an army made up of 57% conscripts. The absence or presence of conscription in a country tends to be indicative of how a fatherland sees its (often, poorer) citizens and their right to self-determination. Unable to rely on the draft, the British army, for example, disproportionately targets young people from poorer backgrounds and more deprived cities for its recruitment campaigns. For Louis, all violence is linked, and in his oeuvre thus far, particularly in this second novel, he has looked it in the eye, to examine its origins with keen and insistent eloquence.

Edouard Louis has appeared at a moment when we are increasingly preoccupied with the poor and their presumed prejudices. Consulting Eddy’s Amazon page, I see that people who bought it also bought Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari, Didier Eribon’s Return to Reims, and JD Vance’s libertarian memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. (It is interesting that, according to this metric, there is a dearth of autofiction addressing class by UK authors.) Poverty Safari has just won the Orwell prize; its title encapsulates why we buy it: it is a journey into unknown locales. While visiting his sister, Louis reflects in History: ‘You know that coming to see her means facing your own cruelty, what in your shame you call your cruelty. To see her is to see a side of yourself you don’t like, and that makes you resent her. You can’t help it.’ If Eddy was a dispatch from the heart of life in poverty, then History contemplates the distance that has grown since then. It is a story heard distorted, barred to us; a reminder that we, those who have had the privilege of access to ‘legitimate culture’, cannot ever fully enter; a reminder, in fact, of our place – but also of our duty to pay attention.