The End of Eddy: The complexity of intolerance
It was February the sixteenth in South Kensington, only a short while after Valentine’s Day, and maybe wisps still remained of the atmosphere of ‘love’, if love- that most dangerous of emotions- can really be defined by daft cards, roses that are far too red, oversweet chocolates, and silly underwear. And, clawing our way from the anonymous bustle of South Kensington, we- some regulars, some new- arrived up the stairs and into the Salons of the French Institute. We were to discuss this particular evening ‘En Finir avec Eddy Bellegueule’, a novel that can, initially at least, choke the heart- with its apparent authenticity, its seeming cleverness. It is about the difficulty, the dilemma, of love, when love is not of the ‘heterosexual norm’. But, as one proceeds through the work, one may be forced to ask: is there something shallow, even vindictive, about the author, as he discusses his problems with his impoverished background? Or is he just being honest- fanatically honest?- about the oppression he laboured under, being gay in a working class village in Picardy?
In his ‘En Finir avec Eddy Belleguele’, Edouard Louis presents us with intolerance in the twenty first century- with the labyrinthine motives and causes behind homophobia and racism. This, his first novel, is set amidst the slums and factories of northern France. The book seemed gripping at first, but, as I was carried along on the violent disturbing polemic of this work, once I reached two thirds of the way across its trajectory, I became uneasy. Is this novel an example simply of revenge? Is the author being too anxious to attack- in words- his own family, his own village, his own class? Is his all too obvious honesty itself a façade intended to mask an unhealthy hatred of those who had bullied and humiliated him? Or is the work a visceral protest against the way the poor in France have been neglected by the preening Paris establishment?
Here is an abundance of question marks, and I confess to feeling ambivalent, uncertain, about this piece. There is an evident sincerity, as the author burrows into the problem of himself and into the passions and prejudices of those nearest him- the book must have been more than painful to produce, as he mulled over memories of home, family, school. His almost vicious honesty means that ultimately he reveals more about himself, his own feelings and failings, than he could have intended.
The novel- or autobiography?- starts in the late 1990’s. Eddy makes this confession about his early life:
‘I have no happy memory of my childhood.’
There were less gloomy moments, he admits, but these were eventually erased. As Eddy- or Edouard- adds, with a hint of philosophizing:
‘Simply, suffering is totalitarian; all that does not enter into its system is made to disappear.’
So, the author, whatever his name may be, is intent on describing his working class upbringing as fundamentally authoritarian. His fellow pupils spit at him, and delight in making him lick up their saliva. His father is very promptly labelled on page two as a heterosexual thug, violently jealous of any man suspected, not very rationally, of flirting with his wife- Eddy’s mother. Whenever one of the pet cats has new kittens, the father puts them into a plastic bag and beats them against concrete until they are dead. Perhaps Eddy is here giving us a gruesome image of how the father is mistreating the children- as small witless creatures to be battered and crushed. Alternatively, this image conveys the manner in which the deprived and marginalized are obliterated by the rich.
The impression is one of the violence inherent in being working class:
‘Like all the men of the village, my father was violent. Like all the women, my mother complained about the violence of her husband.’
The violence is everywhere- in the home, where the father sees himself as boss or dictator, and in the school, where the gentleness and passivity of Eddy make him labelled a ‘pede’- a ‘queer’ to be bullied.
Someone who had actually heard Edouard Louis speak at a meeting commented how the writer is Marxist in his views, the author believing it is the cruelty of the system that renders being in the working class so brutal. And, in this novel, Eddy details the stifling poverty that destroys self- esteem, health, the ability to dream of anything beyond the lack of money. Essential hygiene is neglected- nobody can afford a dentist, nobody washes their teeth, and the result for Eddy was the grim pain of regular toothache leading to nights without sleep. The men, wanting always to prove how hard (‘dur’) they are, disregard doctors and medicine. The author’s description of his suffering, of his family’s suffering, simply through not having enough cash, was, for me, moving.
The book displays its intelligence in emphasizing the complexity of intolerance. In the first place, the homophobia and racism are occurring in a working class setting, that is, amidst people exploited in the local factory, continually tired, never really able to ‘get by’, always surrounded by dirt, who are themselves being driven down by the tyranny of mammon and greed in the Republic. As Edouard Louis, the sociologist, might point out, they have been brutalized by the system. But maybe Eddy Belleguele, the novelist, dwells too much on the roughness of his upbringing, and there is definitely a sense that he is betraying rather than standing up for his class. He sees education as a means to escape. He looks up to the teachers, who preach the (theoretical) values of the Republic- involving equality, whatever the skin colour, religion, or sexual orientation of the citizen. They are the middle class, the ‘bourgeois’, or ‘bourges’, of whom the mother and father are much more suspicious- regarding them as patronizing, hypocritical, and ultimately hyper- self seeking. The mother warns Eddy at the novel’s start:
‘The school playground functioned the same as the rest of the world: the big ones did not bother with the little ones. My mother said it while speaking of the ordinary workers ‘We little people are of no interest, above all to the rich.’’
The father’s attitude to the ‘bourgeois’ is predictably more visceral and hateful; there is in him even a sort of proud contempt for those who possess money, who are far above him upon the financial ladder. Yet the father boasts to his work mates that his Eddy is an excellent student at school, that his son might even be wealthy one day- indeed, bourgeois. So Eddy adds, quizzically, with even the sneering irony of the detached narrator:
‘He who detested, he said, the bourgeois nearly as much as the Arabs or Jews, he wished me to pass to the other side.’
The ‘other side’ being, of course, the bourgeoisie.
It is with words - and, in the end, with his own name- that Eddy emphasizes his passage, as it were, from the working class to the middle class. His family uses the word ‘bouffer’ for to eat- which is a more colloquial French term. But, having received an education, Eddy decides to use the much posher word, ‘diner’. For a translator, disentangling the nuances of ‘diner’ and ‘bouffer’ would be very difficult, and thus I am leaving these particular words in French in the following passage from the book:
‘With my parents, we did not dine, we ate. Most of the time, indeed, we used the word ‘bouffer’. Years later I will use the word ‘diner’ in front of my parents, and they will make fun of me ‘How he speaks, our stranger, who does he think he is? There it is, he is going to the grand university, he is playing the big shot, he is getting his philosophy out in front of us.’
‘To speak philosophy, it was to speak like the enemy class, the rich. To speak like those who have the opportunity to go into higher education, and, so, to study philosophy. The other children, those who ‘dine’, it is true, drink beers sometimes, watch television and play football. But those who play football, drink beers and watch television do not go to the theatre.’
Using a different vocabulary from that of his family and friends in the village is part of his escape. Language is one of the ways in which a community defines itself, and Eddy is negating the words and phrases of a working class boy from a village in Picardy, perhaps so as to obtain the veneer of being middle class. He may say later, as an adult, that the neglect he felt when only a kid from his parents stemmed, he at last perceives, from the economic conditions his family suffered under. But his Marxism, once so prevalent and fashionable amongst the French intelligentsia, may just be concealing this suspicion, which in the passage above is voiced by his parents: in his desire to get out of the class into which he was born, he is prepared to betray it.
The suspicion is augmented by the author’s change of name, to which the book’s title refers. ‘En Finir Avec Eddy Bellegueule’ could be rendered by ‘Finishing with Eddy Bellegueule’ (the title of the English translation, which has just come out, is ‘The End of Eddy’). One might think the title is about how the narrator of the novel has been crushed by homophobia and gay- bashing. But, in actuality, the author decided to alter his name from Eddy Bellegueule to Edouard Louis, which seems mainstream and up- market. ‘Eddy’ is dumped, which is not quite so imposing as ‘Edouard’.
The title may actually pertain to the abandonment by the author of the name he was born with. Given the trauma he was under as a kid, it seems natural that he would want to symbolically bury all he went through. For a son or daughter to attain university in a working class setting can always separate a child from his or her parents.
One might inevitably question the authenticity of this work, the first novel by Edouard Louis.
It was indeed pointed out in the Reading Group that this book was a novel, not an autobiography. There is the cliché that all first novels are autobiographical, a cliché that ‘En Finir Avec Eddy Bellegueule’ would seem to confirm. Some video, via a laptop, was shown to the Reading Group, first an interview with the author, then a television show where a journalist went to the village where the author was raised. It was suggested in the Reading Group that at least one of the events in the novel may have been invented. The book, however much it may be fiction, is obviously and agonizingly heartfelt, and it considers all the complexities and contradictions of intolerance- of homophobia and racism.
Homophobia and homosexuality are, in the book, if not quite symbiotic, interwoven, certainly. Eddy, stigmatized as gay by his tone of voice and exaggerated mannerisms, says to himself: ‘I will be a hard man.’ His aim is to avoid the bullying of which he has been a victim consistently, by pretending, to himself and to others, to be ‘straight’. He ineffectively tries- through failed attempts with a couple of would- be girlfriends, and through somewhat grim pornography- to be ‘straight’. He is not happy in himself with his burgeoning gay identity. He ends up in a school corridor bullying another effeminate pupil with the taunt: ‘Shut your mouth queer boy’. He is greeted with approving laughter by other kids nearby. ‘Everyone looked at him and looked at me. I had succeeded, the moment of this insult in the corridor, in displacing the shame onto him.’ Is this an indication, albeit as only a child, of the lack of courage of the narrator? Eddy is, one feels, perpetually betraying others. In the book, he manages to make his own father out to be a monster. The characteristic of solidarity, with his family or his class, is very far from Eddy’s inner make- up.
It is a habit of betrayal.
Another instance of the intermeshing of homosexuality and homophobia occurs in an open shed- ‘Le hangar’. Four boys, including Eddy, watch a (straight) pornographic film on video. Pornography looms a lot in this book, more as a symbol of the debasement of working class life in ‘modern’, ‘secular’ France than of personal ‘sexual liberation’. Faith, Church, do not figure at all in the book.
Eddy is told to steal some rings from his sister, so that he can wear them and imitate a woman. Then the four strip off and copy what they saw in the illicit movie. They are eventually caught by Eddy’s mother, and Eddy is given a beating by his father. The irony is that ‘normal’ boys, who could be potential queer- bashers themselves, engage in homosexuality while still being straight- it is only Eddy who actually feels a homosexual charge in the somewhat nasty business. Probably there is a difficult Freudian explanation for this sort of paradox. Homophobia in an individual or a society could be a disguise for a latent homosexuality. The point in this novel is the reinforcement of the real murkiness of intolerance.
The intolerance of his father- a violent drunk- is not altogether straightforward, once more. In the chapter entitled ‘The other father’, Eddy describes an incident, related by his mother, where his dad actually stopped some boys engaged in an incident of queer- bashing against someone who was not hiding his sexuality in Eddy’s awkward fashion. She also tells how, going in vain to find work and girls in the South of France in the late 1980’s, the father actually befriended there an Arab. The two- one French, one from the Maghreb- were very close. Yet now, Eddy’s mum laments, who is not herself very liberal on the race issue, the dad is, much more extreme than her, and wants to hang foreigners.
Intolerance is, the author again reminds us, something that is bewilderingly complex.
There is another animal image (recall the kittens killed in a carrier bag by the father), as Eddy discusses his cousin, Sylvain- ‘un dur’- ‘ a hard man’. Eddy compares Sylvain, who suddenly decides to drive a car at a policeman, to a dog that becomes a killer. The dog, tame for years, turns on and savages a child.
Is comparing a working class man to a mad dog useful in any way? It isn’t.
Sylvain eventually dies of lung cancer in prison. Sylvain comes across to me as a rough and ready rebel who is prepared to stand up to the police and the courts- which are capable of being vicious, in France or anywhere. Eddy, by contrast, simply runs away, always runs away- from bullies, from pseudo- ‘girlfriends’, Laura and Sabrina, and, in the end, from his family and village. Who is less brave, Eddy or Sylvain? Who is the traitor to his own?
The genre of the homosexual ‘confessional’ is not unknown in the Mediatheque. One example is ‘The Journal’ by Fabrice Neaud, from the 1990’s. This almost philosophizes about homosexuality in the form of a ‘BD’- Bande Dessinee- a graphic novel. Neaud presents to us raw homophobia and the essential coldness of French society. Having experienced the gay community, he details its failings too- he makes fun of the various types at the local gay bar, the only one in town. As with Bellegueule, there emerges a sense of self- loathing- and self- pity.
Of course, another example is Jean Genet, who, in his ‘Miracle de la Rose’, describes prison life among young convicts. Genet, who was dedicated to the underworld, seems poetic, rather courageous, where Eddy’s autobiography is self- involved and emphasizes the pathetic rather than the poetic.
In the epilogue, his flight from his home village begins. He is a boarder at a Lycee. He is at last ‘far from my father, far from them’. The betrayal of his own class now becomes more explicit. He obviously prefers the ‘delicate’ manners of the children of the bourgeoisie in the Lycee to the roughness of the workers in the factory. He comments, with what I feel could be interpreted as arrogance:
‘Perhaps I have always been bourgeois material imprisoned in the world of my childhood’
This, for me, is not a sentence on behalf of the Revolution.
He succeeds, in the end, in betraying not only his class, but also his mother to boot. I translate, with my customary lack of flair, the whole incident:
‘I wear my jacket especially bought for my entry into the Lycee
‘Red and gaudy yellow, of the Airness label. I was so proud to buy it, my mother had said'
‘It is your present for the Lycee, it is expensive, we made sacrifices to buy it'
‘But as soon as I arrived at the Lycee I saw that it did not correspond with the people here, that nobody dressed like that, the boys wore grown up coats or woolen jackets, like hippies
my jacket made people smile'
‘Three days later I put it in the public bin, full of shame'
‘My mother weeps when I lie to her (I lost it)’
What Eddy- or Edouard- is disposing of in ‘the public bin’ is his mother, his father, his brothers and sisters, his village, his class. This book is not an event of liberation, but of desecration.