Saturday, January 28

Author Édouard Louis: ‘Progressives can’t just sit back and say, “Isn’t the rise of the far right awful?”’ | Édouard Louis

One evening in his Paris flat, Édouard Louis, the French literary star who shot to fame at 21 with The End of Eddy, his devastating account of growing up poor and gay in the north’s far-right heartlands, found something intriguing as he was sorting through papers. It was an old photograph of his mother aged 20, looking happy. “She was smiling and full of hope,” he says with utter incomprehension, because all through his childhood he’d known her as hard, stern-faced and struggling. “I immediately started asking myself what had destroyed that smile.”

Louis, now 29 and at the forefront of a new generation of autobiographical writers, set out on what he calls an “archaeology of the destruction of a smile”. It plunged him back into the grey mist and red brick of his village in the Somme, to what his mum called their “ruin” of a house, with holes in the wall that let the rain in.

Monique, from a poor family in the north, became pregnant at 17, abandoned her training at a hospitality school, married for convenience at 18, and by 20 found herself stuck with a man she hated. At 23, she fled with her two children to her sister’s crowded tower‑block flat in a northern industrial town. The only way out was to find another man. Enter the aftershave-wearing (“rare in those days”) factory worker with whom she would later have Louis. Monique ended up in a tumbledown village house, raising five children (her husband refused a termination of her last pregnancy, which turned out to be twins). Louis’s father didn’t like her smiling because “it didn’t correspond to what he expected of her”, Louis says. Hers was a life of cleaning, putting meals on the table and being called a fat cow by her husband in front of everyone at the village fete. She had no driving licence, no qualifications, no money and made no decisions. As she put it: “I’m a slave to this shithole.”

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“My mother’s role was to stay at home, take care of the kids, do the housework and wait for my dad when he went to the bar,” Louis says. “That waiting is so often at the heart of masculine domination. My dad would have a tantrum if we didn’t wait up for him. Not only did he go out, but we had to wait for him to get home to have our dinner, because he couldn’t eat alone. It was about falling into the rhythm of time set by a man.”

But decades later, after Louis had escaped to Paris and was becoming a writer, something surprising happened. By then, Louis had gone from a teenager devastated by poverty and homophobic bullying, whose only prospect of happiness was drinking plastic cups of hard alcohol at the village bus shelter and who hadn’t read a novel until the age of 17, to starting work in his late teens on what would become his massive bestseller and bring global fame. He was in a Paris flat reading, when his mum called from the village. “At last, I’ve done it,” she said. “I put all his things in bin bags and threw them out on the pavement.”

The heart of his mother’s story, Louis says, is: “She leaves a man she was a prisoner of for 25 years. My dad always told her: you stay home, you do the housework, you raise the kids, you don’t wear makeup – he would mock her if she tried to. And one day she broke her chains, left and totally reinvented herself, and in her 50s found a beautiful freedom, leaving for the city for the first time in her life.”

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The resulting autobiographical novel, A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, is written from Louis’s perspective, growing up with Monique and then witnessing her going from being stuck at home frying food and mopping floors to an improbable moment smoking a cigarette with Catherine Deneuve in Paris. It has been hailed in France as Louis’s best book yet, a poetic, tender, joyous and melancholy postscript to his earlier stomach-punching account of Picardy village life. It will be published in English this month, in translation by Tash Aw.

Édouard Louis in the stage production of his 2018
book, Who Killed My Father.
Photograph: St Ann’s Warehouse

We speak by video, as Louis is in New York, about to go on stage to perform in the theatre adaptation of his 2018 book, Who Killed My Father. The international solo stage show – about how factory work, street-sweeping and French politics broke his father’s life and body – was adapted with the German theatre-maker Thomas Ostermeier and is part of the global phenomenon that Louis’s life story has become. His autobiographical second book, History of Violence (2016), about his allegations of sexual assault in Paris and the police investigation that followed, was also adapted for stage by Ostermeier. (A Paris court case concerning the allegation resulted in an acquittal in 2020 and Louis has appealed.) His childhood saga of poverty, violence and homophobia in rural France, The End of Eddy, was the first to be adapted for the stage, and now James Ivory is preparing a major TV and streaming series, combining it with Louis’s father’s story.

“Being on stage is a very different feeling to writing, sitting alone at your desk every day for several years to produce a book,” Louis says. The theatre and TV are part of his mission to “reinvent autobiography as a genre, to push it even further”. He realised autobiography’s political power “almost by accident” because “it’s harder to escape than fiction – you can’t cling to the lifebelt fiction gives you when you’re confronted with a violent scene … you can’t say: ‘Oh but it’s just a character; it’s made up.’”

Thanks to his writing, Louis’s family have become unlikely national heroes. Monique first appeared in Louis’s debut bestseller under the fake name of Brigitte – hard as nails, long in the face, but trying her best. She would ask Louis to knock on neighbours’ doors to get pasta when they had nothing to eat, knowing they’d take more pity on a child. When his father punched holes in the wall after drinking too much, she’d cover them with his brother and sister’s nursery-school artwork.

Even in the grimmest moments, there is an absence of judgment in Louis’s depictions – his father’s domination of his housewife mum is portrayed as a product of the times and surroundings in the post-industrial north. Louis says he wants to explore how “violence is not imputable to individuals, it’s not the responsibility of an individual, but very often the result of a context”. For him, this message is a battle. “It’s something people often don’t want to hear.”

Louis sees his family stories as a fair “but not idealised” account of working-class people, to counter what he calls French society’s tendency to “violently caricature” the poor. He feels that “insults and humiliation” against working-class people permeate the political discourse in France, including by the recently re-elected president Emmanuel Macron. The villages in and around the Somme, where Louis grew up, gave the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, some of her highest scores in the presidential election in April, after she promised to help those who couldn’t afford to make ends meet.

“Progressives can’t just sit back and say, ‘Oh look, the rise of the far right, isn’t it awful? Aren’t they horrible?’” he says. Instead, they must “create the conditions for change”, so that people can get back on their feet and think differently. He believes that the French left, which formed a historic alliance in parliamentary elections last month, can offer an alternative to the far-right surge, bringing working-class voters on board.

Some of the most heartbreaking scenes in his latest book come when Louis turns the spotlight on his own behaviour towards his mother, as a child. Occasionally, his mother would allow herself a moment of joy, sipping lychee liqueur and putting on her only CD, the 1991 Scorpions hit Wind of Change. Louis, aged nine or 10, was so used to seeing her miserable that any trace of joy on her face seemed “scandalous or a lie”. He would storm into the room and tell her to switch it off. “I saw my mum being put in her place by my dad and I reproduced the situation. I thought it was the normal order of things,” he says.

Originally, he set out to write his mother’s story of transformation by intertwining it with his own. When he left the village to go to high school in the northern city of Amiens, he began by shedding his sports tracksuits and altering the way he ate, spoke, moved, dressed and laughed. Later came the deeper reinvention, when he went to Paris to study and wrote his first novel – changing his name, teeth (“too northern France”, a partner said of his crooked, decaying smile), his hairline, his face. To make ends meet, his jobs in Paris included sex work to pay his huge dental bills.

In the end, Louis separated the stories and wrote two books – first about his mother, and then the powerful Changer: Méthode, about his own transformation, which is soon to be translated into English. They are “parallel metamorphoses”, he says. At one point, Louis had catapulted himself so far up the social ladder that he was spending time with men who owned artworks by Picasso or Monet, and whose one‑night hotel bills would be the equivalent of a year’s income for Louis’s entire family of seven. “When you’re a defector from your social class, it allows you to see both sides of the world; it gives you a position as a witness, allowing you to see the contrast between those lives, and the scandal of the contrast,” he says.

During his own transformation Louis would go back to the village using exotic new long words, or telling his mother to play Mozart to his siblings. The class divide drove a wedge between them that nearly killed him – once when he complained of agonising stomach pains, at first she thought he was just being precious, but he ended up in hospital with a ruptured appendix. Ultimately, though, it would bring them together.

Writing about his mother, Louis felt he was joining a cultural canon of gay men who tell stories about women. “The book is the story of an alliance between women and gay men that runs all the way through the history of art,” he says, citing the Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodóvar, or the Quebec director Xavier Dolan. He feels that gay men and women “are two groups who have both lived under masculine domination. There’s a shared destiny in their understanding.”

The homophobia he suffered as a child did hamper his relationship with his mother, but they were able to rebuild things when she was “free”, he says. “Before her liberation, she was a hard woman, ashamed of me because she thought I was too effeminate. She had little patience for her kids. But the day she freed herself from my dad it was as if an electric current of violence was shut off. When my mum was no longer the conductor of that violence, she became someone else totally.” He adds: “She became very luminous, very funny – I hope that comes across in the book.”

This is Louis’s political message: the violence of one person’s situation – his father’s upbringing and job – creates violence against another: his father’s treatment of his mother. That in turn led to Monique’s harshness against her kids and their rejection of her, “like a Greek tragedy where the violence circulates in a family”.

After Louis’s parents split, his mother swiftly found a new man, a caretaker in Paris. She moved in with him, and around the same time, Louis met the screen legend Catherine Deneuve on a film set. Searching for something to say, he told Deneuve about his mother and where she lived. When Deneuve said she’d visit, Louis thought it was just small talk, but a few days later his mum called and said: “Guess who I’ve just smoked a cigarette with? Catherine Deneuve!”

It became a kind of “fable of her liberation”, Louis smiles. “She still talks about it every day.”

There is a melancholy to the book’s apparently happy ending. Monique’s decade-long questioning – “How could I leave? Where would I go?” – echoes through the story like a ghost of all the women who never did manage to get away. Her swift moving in with a new partner raises questions over whether that too could go wrong.

“I wanted to tell a beautiful story that could also make people angry,” Louis says. “It’s an unlikely story of a woman who frees herself after 25 years with a man who crushed her. I wanted people to ask: why don’t more stories end this way?”

A Woman’s Battles and Transformations by Édouard Louis, translated by Tash Aw, is published by Harvill Secker. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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