10 February 2014

Édouard Louis: En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule | The End of Eddy (2014)

En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (translated as 'The End of Eddy') is Édouard Louis's first novel, published when he was twenty-one, and is highly autobiographical. Louis is also strongly influenced by the work of Pierre Bourdieu. 'Eddy' is obviously not a 'natural' French name and was chosen by his father to make it sound American, a bit 'tough guy', and indeed much of the book is about Eddy failing to be a tough guy, or 'un dur', not being a 'man' but more like a 'woman'.

Eddy lives in a small village in Picardy which is governed by a defiantly working-class masculinist culture. This is a place where political correctness is unheard of, where the men leave school as fast as possible for the factory and the women get pregnant in their teens and marry shortly after. Eddy's parents did just that: Eddy's father went straight to the brass factory like his grandfather before him, and his great-grandfather before that. His father married a woman in her mid-twenties who had been previously married when she got pregnant at seventeen. The naturalistic nature of the novel suggests a twenty-first-century Zolaesque creation. Only this was written by someone who, unlike Zola, was in fact born into the working class. Internal working-class novels (that is, by and about the working class) are relatively rare in France.

Leisure time involves drinking, and it seems as though all the men in the village soak themselves in either pastis, or wine from five-litre boxes. Television is almost as essential as air to the Bellegueule household, and is turned on full volume and never switched off during waking hours. There are four TV sets in Eddy's family, one in the living room and one in each bedroom, and they have never had an internet connection. When Eddy is born he has an elder half-brother and a half-sister, and by the time he begins his story he has a younger brother and sister.

It's perhaps needless to say that this is a poor family surviving on its wits. The TVs were all fished out of the village tip and made functional by Eddy's father, meals are often of poor quality and occasionally they have to use the Restos de Coeur charity, noise is all around, the conversation is banal and frequently racist and homophobic, and all the five children have to take a bath in the same water. When Edouard Louis left home his new friends couldn't understand why he spoke so loudly, and he explained his bad teeth away by inventing 'bohemian' parents. Several publishers turned the novel down because they found it too caricatural, although Louis drew from his own experience.

Eddy begins his narrative by speaking about the 'two boys' who haunt the book, the bullies who taunt him, bang his head against the wall in the corridor where he tries to hide at school during breaks, and spit at him in the face or on his sleeve and force him to suck it up. Frequently on waking up the images of the two boys is the first thing on his mind, and it is with relief that occasionally his mother wants him to stay away from school and help her in the house.

The problem Eddy has is that he is perceived to walk like a girl, have the mannerisms of a girl, speak affectedly, and that he doesn't like to join in 'men's' games, such as football. And of course everyone around him sees him as different, his father despairing that he isn't fitting into the niche that he has tried to create for him. His father reacts to his son taking medication with 'Comme dans les asiles de dingues' ('Like in loony bins'), although the irony is that the father is given to punching holes in the walls of the house, and these have to be concealed by the children's drawings. (The narrator nevertheless defends his father by saying that he avoids the genetic trap of hitting his children, unlike his grandfather.)

The mother appears as far more complicated than the father. In one paragraph the narrator adopts a Foucauldian stance and says that it took him years to realise, for instance, that his mother isn't being incoherent or contradictory by sometimes saying that she could have continued her studies to a high standard, then at other times saying that she has never really been interested in studying – on the contrary, she is attempting to resolve a conflict between what I choose to call the naturalistic discourse and her son's oppositional discourse, which is fighting against parental and general local familial values.

The narrator sees his mother as torn between various discourses, such as the shame of not having studied, and the pride of having produced beautiful children. Certainly, one not specifically underlined conflict of discourses is between the naturalistic and the economic: it is the norm in this society to go as soon as possible from school to factory, which would not normally represent a clash between discourses. Here, however, Eddy's health and temperament would probably mean that he had to stay at home if he left school, meaning the parents would lose his family allowance: much better, then, that he continue at school.

The crunch comes as a result of Eddy watching a porn film with three other kids, one of whom is an older cousin. They decide it's unfortunate that they can't do the same as in the movie, but then realise that they can make do with second best – if two of the boys wear a ring they can play the girls and the other two the boys. Although Eddy understands that the difference here is that the other three are merely playing at homosexuals when he's doing it for real, he obviously goes along with it and allows himself to be sodomised by one, and then he in turn sodomises another. This continues until the day his mother walks into the shed where they're playing porn stars and finds her son's cousin buggering him.

The story gets through to the whole village, via his cousin, and he has to bear increased bullying and insults: his cousin escapes with impunity because he doesn't act like a, er – the book is full of insulting terms for gay: 'pédé', 'pédale', 'tante', 'tantouze', 'tapette', 'tarlouze', etc.

Eddy tries, he really tries, to be un dur, tries to alter his walk, his voice, his mannerisms. He realises that he needs to prove the heterosexuality he doesn't have, so first comes the perceived salope ('slag') Laura. It's in the final fifty pages that the tension loosens and self-parody kicks in big time. Eddy has been going out with her, and they've kissed a lot, and finally on one occasion he actually gets an erection: the internal monologue screams 'guéri', 'guéri' ('cured, cured'): his heart hammering against his chest, he arrives home thinking his parents will see a change in him, and he even cheerily greets his father, only to receive back: 'Ta gueule je regarde ma télé' ('Shut your gob I'm watching my telly'*). Needless to say, Laura hasn't failed to notice the slights she's getting for going out with un pédé, so she soon ditches him for un dur.

Next (and last) in Eddy's short-lived heterosexual life comes Sabrina, and this episode is – at Eddy's expense, it must be admitted – the funniest chapter in the book. Eddy's half-sister, who is now living in the house she's bought for a song from grandmother, fixes up the date. Sabrina doesn't live in the same village and is several years older than Eddy, but she's obviously attracted to him, and he tries to be attracted back. They go to the local club several times before Eddy's sister contrives to go home with Sabrina's mother, leaving the 'loving couple' to use the sister's bed that night. They get into bed and Eddy still has his trousers on and moves as far away from Sabrina as possible without falling out of the bed, although she attacks him, fishing out his cock and trying really hard to make it come to life, but even if he thinks about having sex with men he can't get hard. Sabrina cries when he says goodbye next morning.

After a half-hearted attempt to escape, Eddy finally does so with great panache: instead of going to the lycée in all-too-close-to-home Abbeville, he secures a place to study his beloved Drama at distant Amiens, where he has to live in. His father has inevitably tried to frighten him with stories about vicious Arabs in the town, but the lycée represents a major change in the narrator's lifestyle. Here are students from another class, some of whom even have his 'feminine' airs, and they seem far more welcoming. More importantly this is the beginning of the death of Eddy and the birth of Édouard, in effect killing the father.

I'm not too sure what the Sylvain chapter is doing in this, as it doesn't in any way appear to add to the story and just seems as though it's padding the book out. It's simply a further example of the negative lifestyle of the inhabitants of the area.

In spite of the self-tormenting comical bits, this is a very bleak vision of the underclass in Picardy. There was a danger, I felt, of creating a classist binary – a fact reinforced by the colloquial speech in italics which comes from the locals – although I think Édouard Louis just about escapes from it by depicting some of his characters in a sympathetic light, if not all the time then at least some of it.

I loved the book, and mostly cringed, occasionally laughed, and in the end cheered at Édouard Louis trying both to break into and finally out of the skin of Eddy Bellegueule. I have just one question: he's obviously waited all his life to write this book, so how will he follow it up?

*The use of the possessive adjective is an idiosyncrasy rather than a localism.

Below is a link to an interview with Édouard Louis discussing his book.

ADDENDUM 1: There is also a link to an article showing the reactions of the Bellegueule family in Hallencourt (Somme) to En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule. Interestingly, the article also contains a few paragraphs on the book's dedicatee: Didier Eribon, a sociologist and philosopher at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne, Amiens, is also gay and from a working-class background, and wrote of his return to Muizon, Reims, in Retour à Reims (2009).

ADDENDUM 2: I've just noticed that Édouard Louis's book is to be translated into English by Sam Taylor as The End of Eddy and will be published March 2017(?).

ADDENDUM 3: The second novel by Édouard Louis is Histoire de la violence and will be published on 7 January 2016. A résumé is here.

Édouard Louis: En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (2014)

Courrier picard: 'Les deux visages d'Eddy Bellegueule'
Édouard Louis: Histoire de la violence


Agnes said...

Thank you for this post. I'm currently reading the Swedish articles about the book, and wanted to get more backstory.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

This was so useful for my own investigation about this book, and well-written as well. Thanks!