The Self and Community Consciousness in Edouard Louis’ End of Eddy
by Walker Minot
The title character of The End of Eddy is Eddy Bellegueule, or Eddy “beautiful face,” born in a provincial working-class town near Amiens, in the north of France. He is an effeminate, gay child with a strange voice and interests in dance and women’s clothing, so out of place amongst the hulking men who brawl, seek to conquer women, and work at the local factories (of which there are fewer every day). “Today I’m gonna be a tough guy,” he repeats to himself as a kind of prayer, in his head, out loud, in front of the mirror in the mornings, hoping to transform his nature.
The novel is the story of his end, or rather rebirth, as Édouard Louis, a wunderkind French and now international literary star. It is a well-written and compelling story (within a larger oeuvre) that is also self-consciously politically relevant. In the age of Brexit, President Donald Trump and, proximate to the novel, the National Rally née National Front, Louis’s work is an entry in the emerging “decoding right-wing populism” genre. Or, put in the form of a long question: why are all these semi-rural, post-industrial, in some cases ex-socialist and/or ex-communist communities in Europe and the United States turning toward culturally reactionary, nationalist authoritarianism?
The End of Eddy was first published in France in 2014 when Louis was 21 years old, then translated into English and published in the U.S. in 2017. Eddy Bellegueule was Louis’ name at birth. The book is a work of autofiction: either an autobiography in the style of a novel, or a novel in the style of an autobiography. The former seems closer to the truth. For an international audience, its peers are the flashback sections of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante and the two autobiographical novels – How Should A Person Be? and Motherhood – of Canadian author, Sheila Heti.
Focused and short—unlike the Knausgaard and Ferrante sagas—End of Eddy is striking for its technical proficiency and for its seamless incorporation, with great compassion, of other characters. We see how the community, which is almost always savage, forms Eddy, but also who its people are and a bit of how they are formed as well. Whereas Knausgaard redefined self-absorption and Ferrante presented main characters, Elena and Lila, as foils to such an extent that they seem two halves of a whole, Louis depicts the others in his story as possessing equal human dignity, no matter how undignified their actions, within the protagonist-in-relief-against-the-world narrative form. Heti’s novels, while also borrowing and confronting bildungsroman architecture in some ways, play on different terrain. Hers take place in a world where the subject, having reached adulthood intact, is compelled to reform and measure herself against an idealized vision of what her life could be now that social expectations have become more fluid (at least superficially, for certain classes of people). Louis returns us to a more fundamental source of tension in the form: A child’s struggle to come of age, in conflict with their environment.
The End of Eddy is an astounding presentation of a protagonist’s tormentors as human beings. Despite seeming to drown in misery, the speaker expresses love and sympathy for those surrounding him, whose values and ambitions seem so different from his. Not only are we reading about a coming-of-age amidst oppression, but we’re reading an honest accounting of a human being’s antagonists in the first person, from the object of their torment, that recognizes their humanity as well. Their viciousness is presented in unsparing and sometimes pornographic terms, but with a recognition of the violence that shapes them all: the back-breaking manual labor of the factories, the brawls resulting from pent-up, alcohol-fueled rage, the slow circling of their community’s jobs and expected futures around the drain, from which no substitute can emerge.
Louis writes with clarity, a flair for staging human drama and a sophisticated command of time. Chapters are vignettes, sometimes overlapping, each telling a story of a different character, formative event and/or specific local institution. The book as a whole reads like an unalphabetized index of the town. The first line, “From my childhood I have no happy memories,” establishes the events in the past and the tone of the recollections, while displacing the tension from ‘will he make it out of this?’ to ‘how did he make it out of this?’
The novel sways back and forth from the present to different stages of the past, different scenes and moods, creating a layered whole while rarely obscuring the scene taking place. Throughout, there are passages of other characters’ dialogue in italics. These passages are most often recollections of events and/or rants about the past and they give other characters voices of their own. Almost everything that happens is emotionally disturbing and violence is frequent. But, strikingly executed, the novel is more than a blizzard of first-person horror. It summons a chorus and a star.
Walker Minot is a writer and (remote) office worker in Flatbush, Brooklyn. An MFA student at the St. Joseph’s College Writer’s Foundry, he spends his time writing, reading and worrying about not writing enough while staring out the window, walking around, eavesdropping, taking the subway, and watching sports, movies, and television with his wife.