No Happy Memories
From Devotion, Egon Schiele, 1913
by Paul Johnathan
The End of Eddy,
by Édouard Louis, trans. by Michael Lucey,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp.
Every morning in the bathroom getting ready I would repeat the same phrase to myself over and over again so many times that it ceased making any sense, becoming nothing but a series of syllables, of sounds. Then I’d stop and start over again Today I’m gonna be a tough guy. I remember it because I would always repeat exactly the same sentence, in the same way as you repeat a prayer, in the same words, the exact same words Today I’m gonna be a tough guy (and now I’m crying as I write these lines; 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 centre of my being).
The disclosure of private experience within the form of autobiographical writing has fuelled a significant amount of literary discussion so far this decade. What started in 2010 as a moment, not yet then a movement, lacking worldwide momentum with the publication of David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto has fast become universal reality. From Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, publishers and audiences alike have (re)aligned to a truth-oriented literature, devoted to the exploration of real people offering their version of the truth. Our need for escapism has largely been replaced with increasingly unexpurgated, unfiltered and uncensored works of literature, capturing snippets of human experience, as narrated by the people who experienced them. Lucas Mann’s Lord Fear, Gregor Hens’ Nicotine and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breathe Becomes Air are just three examples of autobiographical and memoiristic novels offering insight into the author’s own private life.
The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis further strengthens this tradition with its sincerity of intent, reasserting the self of the narrator, who is also the protagonist, through a Gide-like retrospective confession. Had you not heard of Louis, a phenomenon sweeping first Europe and then the world, you could be excused to think by looking at the cover that The End of Eddy is a children’s book. Instead, the book doubles as a Knausgaardian recollection of the author’s youth and a statement on the social, economical and political realities of present day France and its repercussions on the young. “From my childhood I have no happy memories,” reads the novel’s opening line.
Eddy is a deromanticised account on all fronts. Divided into two parts and structured as a collection of vignettes, the main frame of the text is a confident reconciliation of the author with his working class background, and a stark portrayal of his place—physical and otherwise—of origin, from which he has long disembarked. Set in rural France, its slow pace forces the reader to confront Eddy’s total lack of agency with its depiction of aggressive masculinity, the cult surrounding male violence, and how being different can be a detrimental experience, especially for a young boy. There are no noble savages here: Eddy is surrounded by characters that act like a manic Greek chorus out for blood – and it’s Eddy’s or anyone else who is, like him, different. Unfolding along the labels unflinchingly imposed on him, “Faggot, fag, fairy, cocksucker, punk, pansy, sissy, wimp, girly boy, pussy, bitch, homo, fruit, poof, queer, or homosexual, gayboy”, with a narration that gathers pace to reflect Eddy’s growing sense of identity, is a coming-of-age story of sorts, a sexual awakening, that is intimate, yet brutal.
Louis’ writing is courageous throughout the text. Beyond the obvious literary connections to Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, and the works of Jean Genet, among others, I was reminded of another European author that took the literary world by storm at a young age and created a major scandal upon the publication of her debut; Melissa P. and her diary 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed. Beginning his sexual life at the age of ten, drawn to secret encounters with three other boys, one of whom is his cousin, Louis perfectly balances the introspective experience of the event from Eddy’s perspective, while also offering a convincing portrayal of the secondary characters, the collective innocence, against the internalised experience, in what is by far, for me at least, the book’s most horrific scene: “I felt his penis hard against my buttocks and then inside me. He gave me directions Spread them, lift your arse a little. I obeyed his orders with the sense that I was in the process of turning into what I had always been.”
Whether recounting his secret encounters in “the shed” or elsewhere (“We worked ourselves into a kind of frenzy. Not a day would go by when I wouldn’t meet up with Bruno, or my cousin Stéphane or Fabien.”), or his immense pre-teen enthusiasm (“Once my hands had taken on the smell of their genitals, I wouldn’t wash them; I’d spend hours sniffing at them, like an animal. They smelled like what I was.”), Louis displays a special talent when it comes to writing about sex, or more specifically the growing sense of his character’s sexual identity. He avoids all forms of cliché by masterfully displaying his sole character to vocalise the experience as imitating the cliché, in this case porn: “Take it, take my cock, you know you like it.” His writing heightens in introspective expressions of desire, alternating with a rather deadpan delivery of Eddy’s observations:
Their breathing became more and more halting. Bodies sweaty, eyes glued to the screen, eagerness perceptible on everyone’s lips, which trembled slightly, especially at the corners of their mouths. They unzipped their trousers and started playing with themselves. I can still hear the moans, real moans of pleasure. I can still see the dampness on their cocks.
Louis writes without self-pity – “I never managed to come, not once, and because I tried so hard my penis, raw and blistered, would usually hurt for days afterwards” – and steers clear of prosaic descriptions (“My whole body, from my ears to the damp nape of my neck, including every pore of my skin, was shaken by my orgasm”); the result is a text devoid of rage. You would expect this book to be his chosen form of revenge against his former aggressors, but this is a far more serious undertaking to create a concrete picture of his recent past to display the horrors of his upbringing without judgement. From parental negligence and abuse to the brutality he endures elsewhere, whether it is his father telling him to “shut the fuck up” because he’s watching TV or proudly announcing he will be watching porn, or the lack of food and dilapidated state of his home, are conditions that you may think would be absent in twenty-first century Europe. Louis presents these experiences with precision, but void of sentimentality: “He announced that he had received a letter about a month ago, but he hadn’t thought to show it to me until now. As he said this his face took on an amused expression that let me know he wasn’t telling me the truth, that he had hidden the letter so that I would have to lie around waiting all summer.” At times, he even presents himself deliberately participating in the collective unconscious of his community, mainly as a way of guaranteeing his survival: “It was even better for my reputation that I was going out with a slut.”
Why the end of Eddy? “Eddy was the kid I never succeeded in being,” said Louis at an interview at the London Review Bookshop. Enter the Lana Del Rey-esque reinvention of identity on “Eddy’s” part to publish his debut. In writing The End of Eddy, Louis has attempted to reject the typical depiction of the outsider: the individual predestined to escape the collective inferiority of their peers. But though Eddy isn’t an artistic genius waiting to be discovered, in the vein of Billy Elliot for example, he is still, after all, different; he keeps a journal, we’re fleetingly told, hinting at an artistic disposition that remained undeveloped, which I at least, am interested in reading, if only to see the recounting of the experience as soon as they’ve occurred, the stress of urgency in his voice. To suggest that even that small artistic tendency was not in fact a precursor to his life as a writer feels rather insincere, especially since the novel ends with Eddy’s exodus and the beginning of a life directed at artistic development. “I had to reject the whole world,” he confesses, almost regretfully, the only time the emotion surfaces in the entire text, therefore offering a slightly conflicting ending that feels rushed, an afterthought, and a fragmented one at that, appended to an otherwise strong debut.
For all its stylistic poise, the text also feels deliberately truncated. The loosely connected vignettes create the sense that Louis chose to condense the story dramatically, but why? For dramatic effect? To avoid repetition? Or due to his inability to face further demons from his past in his efforts to vanquish it? The finest parts of the retrospective narration have, after all, come at a great cost to the author (“When I got home I broke down in tears, torn between the desire the other boys had provoked in me and the disgust I felt towards myself, towards my own desiring body.”) And in spite of Eddy’s eventual departure, the language leaves the reader just as disenchanted as they were at the beginning of the novel. Eddy still is and always will be the person who experienced this violence, a violence that follows him into his new life, as we will find out in his second novel Histoire de la violence. In the end, a tough guy he has become, perhaps of a different kind. To use his mother’s words, it takes “balls” to vocalise and depict the world that rejected him, and that he, in turn, rejected. Perhaps then, we can see the reason he chose to legally change his name, as a way of banishing his past into oblivion to gain his future. Eddy Bellegueule has died, but The End of Eddy reverberates beyond his grave.
About the Author:
Paul Johnathan is disenchanted.