‘What We Need is a Revolution’
Édouard Louis, trans. Lorin Stein, Who Killed My Father
Harvill Secker, 96pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781787301221
reviewed by Adam Scovell
In Who Killed My Father, Louis moves away from fiction. This short polemic is in many ways a companion piece to The End of Eddy, and interrogates that novel’s blurred line between reality and imagination. It is, then, a self-reflexive critique, probing more deeply into the previous assumptions that found their way into that celebrated book. Alongside this there is an exorcism of the past and a rebuilding of the crumbling relationship with Louis’s father. Of all the writers in the broad realm of autofiction, he is the most earnest as to why he chose the form. It’s not through self-obsession, indulgence or lack of ideas – all criticisms sometimes aimed at these writers – but because it is the only fictional form that allows him to explore his subject matter honestly. The long-neglected working class, the failure of modern politics to acknowledge their existence and the subsequent xenophobia, support of the far right and masculine violence – these all form a part of Louis’s novels.
Who Killed My Father is a long-read essay that shifts between recollection, critical analysis and an apportionment of guilt for those Louis suggests are responsible for his father’s ill health. What is so refreshing about his writing in every instance is how honest he is about his own past failings. He is not, when placed in the past tense, a figure of purity protected by an invisible, impenetrable layer of hindsight. Instead, Louis is arguably as brutal about relaying and passing judgment upon his own youthful actions as he is of those of his family and those that surround them. The family unit comes to represent the political failings of France in the last two decades or so but Louis is never above it. It is the personal that he is best at recreating, capturing the small awkward detail of a world almost scrubbed from the collective cultural psyche but clearly there in the public consciousness.
In one instance, Louis recalls a fight between his father and brother, one for which he was ultimately responsible. Over the dinner table, he tells of his mother secretly providing money to his brother against his father’s wishes. The writing balances the guilt provided by hindsight with the melancholy suppressed in the memory. For the scenario represents a multitude of things: his mother’s homophobia, his brother’s alcoholism, his father’s violence. The social systems around them have almost choreographed every aspect of the moment. In a lesser writer, this scenario might come off as melodrama; in Louis, what shines through is this profound sense of social determinism. This showcases precisely why Louis has become so respected so quickly. ‘What we call history is nothing but the story of the same emotions, the same joys, reproduced across bodies and time,’ he writes, observing his mother’s catharsis as she finally throws his father out. Louis’s entire body of work attests to this circular repetition in the negative, and the possibility of breaking out of such circularity. For Louis – like Stephen Dedalus of Ulysses – history is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake.
The essay concludes with a plea from his father, far beyond the deafening silence or sharpened disappointments that characterised their relationship in The End of Eddy. ’You’re right –what we need is a revolution,’ he says. Having previously lent his protest vote to the Front National of Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen, he now leans towards the original left-wing tendencies from before the rise of populist French nationalism. The same evolution is charted by Louis’s mentor, Didier Eribon, who examines the shift of support of France’s Communist Party to the Front National in Returning to Reims (Retour à Reims, 2018). With the left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon experiencing a wave of genuine popular support, it seems as if certain political pillars are realigning.
It’s almost impossible to read Who Killed My Father without considering the recent months of political action, protest and violence surrounding the movement of the gilets jaunes. Tellingly the movement is supported by Mélenchon and Le Pen, both vying for its soul. Not to be confused with the recent spate of British ‘yellow jackets’, who are almost entirely made up of far-right activists with the sole aim of harassing prominent anti-Brexit figures, the French yellow jackets are in many ways the revolutionary beginnings that Louis’s father called for. The movement certainly characterises the forgotten communities found in Louis’s books: the timing of Who Killed My Father’s publication, so close to the boiling point of the protests, shows how adept Louis is at reading the political climate underneath the radar.
Of course, Louis cannot provide answers to every problem faced by such communities; sensibly, he never tries. This is especially wise considering the increasing level of violence staged every Saturday in the name of the gilets jaunes, clearly suggesting that the movement has drawn more extreme elements from other causes and that its message has become splintered, not least in response to police violence. With the confusion regarding what the gilets jaunes actually now represent – some fighting for vital changes to basic income and public housing construction, some repeating far-right rhetoric regarding levels of immigration – Louis concentrates instead on the everyday situations that have bred such fertile disenfranchisement.
Louis’s father was so previously tied to his manual work that he almost becomes a piece of machinery, one that eventually wears down until the point where we see him in Who Killed My Father. The process of this destruction of the body, and undoubtedly the bodies of others from the same class background, is drawn quickly and with precision. This decay is not simply caused by working but exacerbated by the French state when finally forced to look after these broken soft machines. The title of the book is a giveaway as to how it will eventually conclude: a kind of tribunal carefully cross-examining the various presidents and policies which have drastically affected Louis’s father for the worse. Its lack of question mark is telling; its title is a statement, an admission of evidence, an acceptance of experience outside of the literary norms, not a question politely posed to the reader.
These are the presidents who made it difficult to get money, removed work, brought in callous policies that further dehumanised those who sought financial help after years of manual labour. It’s a powerful summation, not least in the way that Louis frames his analysis. In some ways he draws from fictional techniques, as if the narrator of this essay turns into a detective laying down the facts of the case. Nicolas Sarkozy was ‘breaking your back’. François Hollande ‘asphyxiated you’. And Emmanuel Macron, perhaps the president who raises Louis’s ire the most, is ‘taking bread from your mouth’. It’s as rage-ridden and powerful a political statement as any found in more straightforward essay writing.
In her review of History of Violence, Stephanie Sy-Quia commented on the lack of autofiction by working-class British writers. Reading this short and wonderful book only serves to expose the sheer size of this chasm. French literature has been immersed in these debates for several years now – testament to the country’s political climate and its wider support for more daring political writing. Look towards any ‘new British novelists’ list for the coming year and we find ourselves in a completely different world, one where you would be hard pressed to find an equivalent, especially with regard to class. Louis’s book raises the phantom of the political spectres currently haunting France and shines a light on its array of inequalities. But most of all, Who Killed My Father – in this remarkable translation by Lorin Stein – highlights the profound dearth of comparable writers currently put forward by British publishing, an industry in which such voices are notably absent.