7 March 2016

Didier Eribon: Retour à Reims | Returning to Reims (2009)

This could be described as Didier Eribon's coming out novel, only not as a homosexual (which he'd already done) but as something he felt harder to reveal: his coming from a working-class background, which for many can be seen as a source of shame. In this book, following his father's death, Eribon returns to visit his home town of Reims, where he grew up in an HLM, although his parents moved to the outskirts of Reims, to Muizon, some years previously. As well as describing Eribon's personal memories of Reims from his birth in the late fifties, it also charts the change within, even what can be described as the death of, the working class.

Eribon, then, grew up with a kind of double curse on him: his sexuality and his class. There are, unsurprisingly of course, many similar elements in Édouard Louis's En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (to be translated as The End of Eddy): the lack of understanding of (indeed contempt for) difference, the lack of and little concern for education, the non-intellectual activities, etc.
He hated his father, and vividly remembered him coming home a few days after Friday payday when Eribon was four or five, and his father still drunk from his binge and standing in the kitchen throwing bottles of milk, oil and wine at the wall opposite: as good a reason as any not to attend the funeral. His mother, though, he realises slaved in a factory for him to give him the education she was so ashamed of lacking.
The book is determinedly left-wing, school to some extent seen as a plot to prevent the working class from joining the dominant class, to perpetuate the status quo: the war is against the working class, with school as the battleground.
And yet the modern working class is at war with itself: from the solidarity of Eribon's youth, the class struggle of the dominant against the dominated and the importance of communism as an ideological tool, the working class is now divided and instead of seeing immigrants as their friends sees them as their enemies and increasingly votes for the extreme right-wing Front National. There is little awareness of the paradoxes. Didier Eribon paints a bleak picture.

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