Edouard Louis: Spit, Not Flowers

By thegoatpol@outlook.com

There’s a lot of shouting in Édouard Louis’ two short novels, The End of Eddy and History of Violence, and a lot of spit. The two often arrive conjoined, as if spit were the material form of language, a more reliable conveyor of meaning than the often misunderstood words. The End of Eddy opens with a schoolyard beating. “The tall redhead spat in my face How do you like that, punk? The gob of spit dripped slowly down my cheek, thick and yellow, like the noisy mucus that obstructs the throats of old people or people who are ill.” It’s bracingly efficient. Between “spat in my face” and “the gob of spit” Louis embeds the words that the redhead spat out (italicized, as are all utterances of the book’s working­class characters) so that nothing separates the spit from the words, a single material assault that cannot be wiped away.

In History of Violence, Reda, a man Édouard picks up for sex on Christmas Eve, gets angry and shouts. “He was making a face and yelling, What did you just say to me? What the fuck did you just say to me? And he was so mad he was spitting on Édouard’s forehead, and Édouard’s face was covered in spit or snot, or maybe both…” Édouard obtusely ignores the violence of Reda’s words and fixes on their literal meaning, a fatal error for which he will be punished. “…get this, Édouard says it again…as if ‘What the fuck did you just say to me?’ was a question. I swear to God, he actually answered the question,” which angers Reda to the point of strangling and raping Édouard. “It was all so crazy I thought I was going to laugh and I thought, How on earth could he be so stupid to hear that as some kind of question?”

The speaker is Édouard’s sister, Clara, recounting these events to her husband, while Édouard hides behind a door trying to eavesdrop. History of Violence is Édouard’s first­ person account of the eavesdropping, in the course of which he corrects Clara’s errors and makes his own complaints about poor listening. Listening and the failure to listen are at the core of these novels. Both can be used as tools of domination, and Louis’ books ask how they can also function as tools of resistance. Indeed, in History of Violence, listening has trapped Édouard in the jaws of Clara’s story and it’s only by shutting her out that he regains his agency. The book ends only after Édouard, crouching behind the door, has said to himself, “Stop listening…Stop Listening,” until finally, “I have stopped listening to Clara.”

Italics checker­board the pages of History of Violence as densely as they do The End of Eddy, but rather than isolating the working­class language of Eddy’s childhood, here they designate Édouard’s internal thoughts, the silent asides he chooses to share only with readers. Italics are an aggressive choice that, alongside other structural similarities (embedded dialogue, long paragraphs, polyvocality), mark the books as siblings, branches of the same tree. Indeed, so much is shared—a first­person narrator (Édouard Louis), most major characters, and some settings (Paris and the small factory town in Picardy where Eddy grew up )—that the books are better read as episodes in a serial that might go on for awhile. In episode one, we witness Eddy growing up gay in a working­class family and the Jekyll­and­Hyde experience of his sexual emergence, a schizophrenia so fraught that in the end it was necessary for Édouard Louis, the gay novelist, to kill­off Eddy Bellegueule, the boy whose hopeless ambition it was to “be a tough guy.” The End of Eddy is his murder weapon. Episode two, The History of Violence, recounts Édouard’s Christmas Eve shortly after writing The End of Eddy, and the pick­up that turned bad, which he tells by eavesdropping on his sister’s account to her husband. Both put language and spit at the center of an apparatus of domination that Louis intends to dismantle and inspect, which is class.

Louis has said, “I carry two languages in me: that of my childhood and the other one, the language of culture, of school, of literature. Genet asked, how to write with the enemy’s language? What does it mean to write in the dominant language, the bourgeois one, about the dominated that, precisely, literature and culture ignore? I don’t have this problem because the language of my childhood was as much my enemy as was the language of the bourgeoisie. It was the language that abused women, that said “faggots,” and that brutalized immigrants from North Africa. I don’t write with the enemy’s language. In the end I write in­between two languages that are enemies.”

Italicization literalizes the split between enemy languages in The End of Eddy, casting the villagers’ working­class French as somehow foreign to the “standard French” of the author. It’s a curiously violent strategy, forcing their words into a kind of mute thingness by the slant pressure of deformation. Their words become crushed, opaque, thingified, and lose the transparent clarity required to carry meanings. At the material level, the book becomes a battleground, its forces visibly marshaled in opposition: italics versus roman. Louis creates a position in­between by casting the writer himself as a character inside the book.

Several times he steps out of the story into the present tense, to dramatize the act of writing. At one point, having recalled his childhood ritual of repeating over and over into the mirror, “Today I’m going to be a tough guy, today I’m going to be a tough guy…” Édouard adds, “(And now I’m crying because I find that sentence hideous and ridiculous, that sentence that went everywhere with me for several years and was, I don’t think I’m exaggerating, at the center of my being.)” After recalling a childhood argument, he adds, “(I didn’t say it exactly like that, but some days, as I write these lines, I’m too worn out to try to reconstruct the language that I spoke back then.)” Is this the frankness of a writer who just wants to be transparent? Or is it something else? Caught in the cross­fire between enemy languages, the writer is scrambling for cover, searching for some margin of freedom outside the fight. Laziness is one such margin. But the claim strains credulity. No writer is ever “too worn out” to make her novel be precisely what she intends it to be. Louis performs his “laziness” as a kind of non­alignment strategy, a neutral ground of unrefinement excusing him from the fight.

This, again, is related to his feelings about Genet. In the same interview in which he spoke of “enemy languages,” he described part of his method, in The End of Eddy, as “writing against Genet,” which he explained this way: “…in a scene of Miracle of the Rose, when spit on for being gay, [Genet] turns this spit into flowers: as if literature entailed aestheticism, as if one had to make things lyrical in order to re­appropriate them; to make them beautiful, and metaphorical.” The in­between territory that Louis constructs refuses the literary tools of aestheticized and metaphorical language. When spat upon, Louis will give us spit, not flowers.

These strategies are not crude so much as they are material. They emerge from Louis’ awareness that books and literature, even language, are material systems whose power relations are manifested via the simplest material choices—what language to use, and with whose vocabulary? Who gets to speak, and who is asked to listen? How are words rendered and delivered to readers?

The End of Eddy is partly comprised of stories his mother and grandmother told, to which he claims he never listened. “She found her own life boring and she spoke to me as a way of filling the void of her existence, which was no more than a series of boring moments and exhausting forms of work….I would turn on the television as she was talking to me. It didn’t faze her….She would drone on just like all the other women to be found in the village center, to the point that a person might have thought there was some kind of contagious disease they had all caught from each other. When they would gather in front of the school, a string of endless tirades would arise, one on top of the other, with no one actually listening.” Words unheard become a kind of toxic waste, but the women just keep coughing it up. His claim to have never listened is transparently false, the book itself being evidence to the contrary. But the form his listening takes is complicated.

Louis recalls that as an adult, finally aware of the value of his mother’s stories, “I tried to record my mother and to transcribe her speech. However, it was not working, it was not understandable at all….That is when I understood it was through construction—hence the word ‘novel’—that I would be able to reach a form of truth.” Rather than giving us a chance to hear his mother, he translates her words into a form and vocabulary we can read as hers, even if it is not. This isn’t “reality” but a reality effect, one that is as aestheticized and artificial as any other literary form. Louis isn’t devious about it. His creation of a reality effect plays out in full view, even more so in History of Violence, where Louis positions himself as the one whose story is hijacked. Multiple parties compete for control of the story of Reda and Édouard (most notably, the police and Clara), until the novelist comes along and trumps them all, by writing his book.
The act of writing become the denoument of every struggle. In both books the chaos of events gives way to the compositional power of the writer, as the rising tide of his language refigures lived conflict into a single, unified text, an integrated system with all its currents and depths and logic. Writing against Genet, Louis is suspicious of the purity of this displacement, and so he works hard to keep spitting in the soup, to mar the refinement of his texts with errors, reality effects, and preserve the mess. But some losses are irreversible. Recalling Reda’s attack, he writes, “if language is the essence of being human, then for those fifty seconds when he was killing me I don’t know what I was….And by a strange reversal, today the exact opposite is true, all I have left is language, I’ve lost the fear, I can say ‘I was afraid’ but the word can only be a failure, a helpless attempt to retrieve the feeling, the truth of the fear.”

The capacity of a story to displace experience and dominate us threatens Louis even before he takes up his pen. Reporting to the police soon after the assault, “I no longer recognized my own memories when I spoke them out loud; the questions I was being asked by the police made me describe my night with Reda differently than I’d have chosen, and in the form that they imposed on my account, I no longer recognized the outline of my own experience….whenever I spoke a word in front of the police, other words became impossible, now and forever.”

The stakes are just as high when family and friends engage in these struggles, but the battle is less one­sided. A short­coming of The End of Eddy was the heroic position it gave, structurally, to the truth­telling son. Louis was able to peddle his own language as giving “a form of truth” to his mother’s words, which he had hated as a child. His translation of her words into literature (albeit a deliberately marred and spit­covered Kitchen Sink variety), could pass as “truthful” in the context created by the book. But he doesn’t attempt this in History of Violence. Especially in the central struggle, when eavesdropping Édouard contests Clara’s version of events, the prevalence of self­interest and the absence of any objective truth are evoked over and over. Édouard reveals himself as flawed, and Clara as perceptive. But in the end it’s all Édouard Louis. He may, “feel like I’d become a character in someone else’s story,” but it is in fact Clara, Reda, his friends Henri, Didier, and Geoffrey, and the police—in short, every character except Édouard Louis—who suffer that fate. What role do we play as readers? Aren’t we like the jury that hears the police’s narrative and then convicts or does not convict Reda of rape and attempted murder? Isn’t a novel just as narrowly confined a lexical system as is criminal law? Aren’t literature’s distortions just as oppressive and alienating as those Édouard Louis experienced when the police took his story?

This is not a shortcoming. The books raise these important questions, and are not obliged to answer them. Particularly in History of Violence, Louis seems to have given up his earlier Quixotic ambition to reach “a form of truth,” and settles instead for something far more useful to all of us. “I’ve often felt most free in moments when I could lie, and by lying I mean resist a truth that was forced on me, on my tissues, on my organs—a truth that was already rooted inside me, that had been rooted inside me for a long time, but that had been planted there by others, that came from without, like the fear that Reda had injected into my body, and I realized that lying was the only power I could call my own, the only weapon I could trust completely.” He quotes Hannah Arendt: “‘In other words, the deliberate denial of factual truth—the ability to lie—and the capacity to change facts—the ability to act—are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source: imagination. It is by no means a matter of course that we can say, “The sun shines,” when it actually is raining…rather, it indicates that while we are well equipped for the world, sensually as well as mentally, we are not fitted or embedded into it as one of its inalienable parts. We are free to change the world and to start something new in it.’ That’s what saved me—my ability to deny the facts.”

3 August, 2022