The Radicalization of Édouard Louis

Parents and Sons

Édouard Louis’s chronicles of class.


When his debut novel caused a sensation in France, Édouard Louis was just 21. The End of Eddy (originally published in 2014 as En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule) was an unflinching account of Louis’s difficult childhood as a gay boy in Hallencourt, a postindustrial village in northern France. In this world, the men were monstrous alcoholics, the women were trapped in miserable marriages, and the children were too many. Louis chronicled a community ravaged by addiction and violence and abandoned by the state. He described the working class at its worst: These men and women weren’t just tired and hungry; they were resentful, callous, and racist. To make life even tougher for luckless little Eddy Bellegueule (Louis’s birth name), they also proved to be viciously homophobic.

French critics were divided in their judgment of The End of Eddy—some revered it, others reviled it. But they were united in their fascination. The poverty Louis described was so wretched that some questioned the book’s veracity. (His response: “Every word of this book is true.”) The Parisian elite had not only forgotten about the rural working class; they refused to be reminded of its existence.

Louis’s sophomore effort, History of Violence (2016), a harrowing account of a brutal sexual assault by a Kabyle (Algerian) man that he met on the streets of Paris, cemented his status as one of France’s preeminent novelists. Praised for its “raw honesty,” the novel recounted both Louis’s rape and the subsequent post-traumatic stress in relentless detail. As in The End of Eddy, Louis dissected his most private experiences to probe pressing societal issues: class, race, sexuality, immigration, and the penal system.

Since then, Louis has found both critical and commercial success around the world—topping best-seller lists, winning prestigious literary honors, being profiled in influential newspapers and magazines. Two of his works have been adapted for the stage; in 2022, he starred as himself at an august Brooklyn theater.

Another writer may have disappeared into the prizes and parties of the metropole. Yet even if, as Louis himself acknowledges, he has adopted the manners and customs of the elite, he refuses to adopt their indifference. Instead, admirably, he has used his influence to remind his new friends about people like his parents. Along with the philosopher Didier Eribon and the sociologist Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, Louis has established himself as part of a new group of bold and uncompromising voices on the French left; the three men, together and separately, write and speak often and urgently about the needs of France’s working class. Louis doesn’t just write novels; he pens manifestos, attends rallies, and participates in protests. In 2018, he cut short a trip to the United States to join the gilets jaunes protesters in the streets and to defend them in the press. Much of this activity, both literary and extracurricular, is documented on social media. Lagasnerie has defended his and Louis’s social media activity as more than just a millennial indulgence: “On Instagram, we seek to produce a different aesthetic of intellectuals: more real and more exciting.” If de Beauvoir and Sartre were around now, Lagasnerie seems to imply, they’d be posting pics of the squad too.

In two new books, Who Killed My Father (translated by Lorin Stein) and A Woman’s Battles and Transformations (translated by Tash Aw), Louis continues to mine the personal to write about the political. Like his first two books, they are written in the first person, yet Louis does not occupy center stage here. In these slim, searing volumes—one billed as a nonfiction, the other as a memoir—he shifts his attention to his parents. Although their stories are told in the same confessional style, the voice is more mature—more educated, more meditative, and more militant. The End of Eddy, despite its author’s new name, was filtered through the eyes of little Eddy Bellegueule; the narrator of Louis’s two new books is the Bourdieu- and Marx-reading graduate of the École Normale Supérieure.

Both The End of Eddy and History of Violence were celebrated as works of gay autofiction, and Louis was hailed by many critics as the descendant of Proust, Jean Genet, and Edmund White. But Who Killed My Father and A Woman’s Battles and Transformations belong to a different tradition: the literature of class defectors. Like Annie Ernaux’s A Woman’s Story and A Man’s Place, Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, and Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims (all books lavishly praised by Louis), they tell the story of his working-class parents from the perspective of their mournful and now mostly bourgeois son. Louis’s sexuality remains essential to both books, but class is now paramount.

Indeed, in Who Killed My Father and A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, Louis explicitly tackles a challenge that has long plagued writers of social realism: how to portray individual members of the proletariat but also make them representatives of their class. In these books about his parents, Louis abandons the inward first-person narration of his autobiographical debut and instead alternates between the distant “he” and “she” and the confidential “you.” The restrained third person allows Louis to write without sentimentality and thereby demonstrate his commitment to dispassionate social scientific investigation, but the intimacy of the second person complicates this. Following Annie Ernaux, Louis shows that his determination to analyze events like an objective sociologist is always coupled with a yearning to remember like a forlorn child. He also eschews the techniques that novelists tend to rely on to represent interiority and instead describes mental states in sober, unadorned prose, as in this passage on his father:

You never got over the separation from my mother. It destroyed something inside you. As always happens, being apart made you realize how much you loved her. After the breakup, you became more sensitive to the world. You got sick more often. Everything hurt. It is as if the pain of the separation had opened up a wound and everything around you—your world in all its violence—came rushing in.

Who Killed My Father and A Woman’s Battles and Transformations are not works of psychological depth. But that is part of the point: With the diligence of an ethnographer, Louis presents his parents from the outside. He carefully inventories the emotions that overpower the indigent—shame, anxiety, dread, despair—and chronicles the material conditions that cause them.

The formal experiments of these books make for gripping, but sometimes also jarring, reading. In Louis’s defense, he is trying to solve a problem that is perhaps unsolvable when it comes to narrative fiction: Even Thomas Hardy couldn’t make Tess Durbeyfield simultaneously a tragic heroine and a typical milkmaid. Likewise, Louis cannot make his father at once unique and allegorical. In both books, he finds himself caught in the bind of representation: To make his readers care about the factory workers of the North, he first has to make them care about his factory-worker father and his housewife mother. But if they care too much about either, they might come to believe that his parents are somehow different, more worthy, than their neighbors. (Who among us doesn’t believe that Retty Priddle is no Tess?)

Louis is also aware that his class mobility has irrevocably altered his relationship to this world. He must now speak on behalf of a class to which he no longer belongs. The danger here is that his outrage about the injustices faced by the working class might start to feel manufactured instead of authentic. Is it possible for him, now securely a member of both the bourgeoisie and the literary establishment, to feel the same rage and resentment that he did as a child? Louis’s anger does feel pure, but he cannot avoid the guilt of the defector. All of this makes Who Killed My Father and A Woman’s Battles and Transformations chimerical works—part polemic, part confession, part apology.

In The End of Eddy, Louis’s father is a brute, someone who elicits fear, loathing, and disgust from his long-suffering wife and children. On the one hand, he never once lays a finger on any of his biological children or his stepchildren, even though he was beaten by his own father growing up—“violence had saved us from violence,” as Louis notes. But in every other way, Louis’s father is a petty domestic tyrant. Once, in an act of startling sadism, he pours a litter of kittens into a bag and smashes them against concrete.

Who Killed My Father is a sobering, clear-eyed account of one man’s slow and steady degradation: in addition to his physically abusive father and his own hard drinking, his decision to quit school at age 14; his brief, unsuccessful attempt to avoid the fate of the factory workers who came before him; his accident at work, which crushed his back and left him incapacitated; and finally, after the state rescinds his disability benefits, his forced return to work. “It is hard to describe your life in anything but negative terms,” Louis writes. Using his father as a representative subject, Louis catalogs the indignities heaped on working-class bodies: diabetes, cholesterol, obesity, fatigue, pain.” Paraphrasing Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Louis asserts, “You belong to the category of humans whom politics has doomed to an early death.” In a single sentence, Louis addresses the unique individual who is his father and then transmutes him into a type.

Part of the allure of Louis’s writing is his undisguised, unapologetic fury. In The End of Eddy, this anger was raw and wild. He set it loose on whoever was closest: his schoolmates, his siblings, and often his parents. In Who Killed My Father, his fury has been trained and redirected. The new target is the ruling class.

The lucidity that comes with this anger is why there is no question mark in the title of his only work of nonfiction—Louis already knows the answer. In plain, direct prose, he enumerates the crimes of the smirking suits who have ruled French politics for the past few decades: Jacques Chirac (who took away state coverage of his father’s medicine), Nicolas Sarkozy (who led a campaign against “les assistés” and forced his father back to work), and François Hollande (who passed a labor law making it easier to fire workers and increase working hours). But Louis reserves special ire for the smug claymation president currently in power:

August 2017. The government of Emmanuel Macron withdraws five euros per month from the most vulnerable people in France: it reduces—by five euros—the housing subsidies that allow France’s poorest people to pay their monthly rent. The same day, or a day or two later, the government announces a tax cut for the wealthiest in France. It thinks the poor are too rich, and that the rich aren’t rich enough. Macron’s government explains that five euros per month is nothing. They have no idea. They pronounce these criminal sentences because they have no idea. Emmanuel Macron is taking the bread out of your mouth.

If you like subtlety, Louis is not for you. (You probably wouldn’t be for him either.) A writer like Louis might sensibly worry about the utility of books as a tool of class struggle, but the work itself retains a sense of urgency. It is this radiant anger that saves Louis from the despair that consumes so many of his fellow millennials. He makes it easy to share his rage about the ruling class’s contempt and neglect, even if his attempts to shame the shame-proof feel futile.

Who Killed My Father not only condemns the powerful men of French politics; it also indicts the left for abandoning the working class. In the American press, Louis has been lazily compared to J.D. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame. Both seem concerned to explain why their communities shifted political allegiances—an account, desperately sought by the mainstream press in the wake of recent elections, of why these people are attracted to the likes of Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. Yet only a fool could conflate Louis and Vance. They might both write about the hardships of left-behind communities, but they have come to incompatible conclusions about the solutions. On his campaign page, Vance laid out his anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, pro–Second Amendment agenda and defended the “conservative way of life that values grit, determination, and freedom.” He has, in other words, embraced what Louis has called the “false explanations” of the right. The final words of Louis and de Lagasnerie’s “Manifesto for an Intellectual and Political Counteroffensive” (first published in Le Monde) sum up their mission: “to bring the left to life.” Vance wants the keys to the castle; Louis wants to burn it to the ground.

By rerouting his rage—away from the individual, toward the state—the Louis of Who Killed My Father has sharpened it. His expanded vision yields a clarity that produces a wholly different picture of the man. Louis constructs this revised draft by assembling a series of anecdotes. (He has never been much interested in plot or linearity.) Several of these anecdotes are not new. Louis restates facts, even whole incidents, from his first novel, but they are refracted through a different lens. Louis embraces repetition as a political gesture: The working class has been so absent from literature, he has said, that he is determined to tell the same story over and over again.

But his newfound sympathy for his father also allows other, happier recollections to rise to the surface. We see his father blushing after his son finds out he used to dance; tearing up while listening to the opera; crying when the Twin Towers were hit on 9/11; singing loudly with his son to a pirated copy of a Celine Dion album; laughing riotously after his son imitates an alien; and buying him a videocassette of Titanic and letting him watch it on repeat. Louis, who has always seen himself as a source of deep shame for his father, realizes that he is also a source of intense pride for him.

The man who emerges in this book is almost unrecognizable—capable of tenderness and exuberance, deserving of compassion. Louis realizes that, despite the callous shield his father has developed over the course of his unhappy life, he loves his son fiercely. This discovery exacts a confession from son to father: “It often seems to me that I love you.”

To do justice to his mother in A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, however, Louis recasts his father in the role of drunken bully. With the detachment of a social anthropologist, he reports on his mother’s innumerable struggles during the “twenty years of her life deformed and almost destroyed by misery and masculine violence.” Her childhood, mostly a blank, is marked by the death of her factory-worker father. At 16, while she is at culinary school pursuing her modest ambition of becoming a cook, she is impregnated by a man who asks her to keep the baby. So she drops out of school and marries him. Before she is 20, she has had two children with an alcoholic husband who beats her and cheats on her. It is only after he starts waking up “drunk even before he started drinking, the alcohol no longer draining from his body,” that she decides to leave him. Soon after, she marries Louis’s father.

This second marriage sours quickly too. Louis’s father is a volatile domestic authoritarian. Though he doesn’t beat her like her first husband, he seeks to demean her—“fat cow” is a typical jibe. Added to the injury of insult is the insult of monotony. She is imprisoned by the dull routine of housework, oppressed by “the precise duplication of hours and days that life with my father imposed upon her,” Louis writes. When, despite an IUD, she gets pregnant for the fourth time, she is dismayed to discover that there are two fetuses. She wants an abortion—she knows they cannot afford another two mouths to feed—but her husband refuses to allow it: “He decided, she ceded.” The cycle of poverty is complete. The tragedy of Louis’s mother’s life is that it replicates the lives of so many other working-class women.

The accident that seriously injures Louis’s father transforms the family “from being poor to being destitute,” which forces his mother into an exhausting, humbling job as a home health aide. The physical agony that her husband’s injury causes him and the indignity of no longer serving as the family’s breadwinner increase his taste for bullying. Louis’s mother returns, after long days of backbreaking labor, to a man who lashes out to remedy his own suffering: “She no longer had a story of her own; her story could only be, ultimately, his story.”

Compounding the everyday deprivation of his mother’s life is her constant yearning for something better. She had always wanted to be different from the people around her. (She married her second husband because, unlike every other man she knew, he wore cologne.) At one point, she fights through the endless hurdles of bureaucracy just to take her family on vacation. She maintains her dignity by holding on to pride. She insists on the superiority of her family over her husband’s (her relatives work; his are unemployed or in prison). She makes sure her children know that her job is as a home health aide, not a cleaning lady, and, like Hardy’s Tess, she claims to have an aristocratic heritage. At one point, Louis steps back from his narration to muse: “Why do I feel as though I’m writing a sad story when my aim was to tell the story of a liberation.”

Louis’s mother is forbidden to wear makeup—one of his father’s pettiest acts as household dictator. Recognizing this, Louis writes:

I started this book wanting to tell the story of a woman, but I’ve realized that yours is the story of a human being who fought for the right to exist as a woman, as opposed to the nonexistence imposed upon you by your life, and by life with my father.

What he means is that women like his mother have been deprived of their femininity by the patriarchy. Nevertheless, it is odd to downplay gender here when describing someone whose every aspiration in life has been foiled by a series of mostly unwanted pregnancies, who escapes one bad marriage only to enter another, and who has been forced by these circumstances to stay at home in order to cook, clean, and look after the children. It sounds like the story of a woman to me.

Louis feels compelled to tell his mother’s story after he accidentally stumbles across a photo of her before she became his mother. In it, she looks free, even happy. The image evokes shock, then anger, sadness, and finally remorse:

Seeing the photo reminded me that those twenty years of devastation were not anything natural but were the result of external forces—society, masculinity, my father—and that things could have been otherwise.

The vision of her happiness made me feel the injustice of her destruction.

I cried when I saw this image because I was, despite myself—or perhaps, rather, along with her and sometimes against her—one of the agents of this destruction.

Guilt taints almost every memory in A Woman’s Battles and Transformations. Louis relentlessly tallies the ways that he was hostile to his mother as a young child: pretending that he didn’t know her when another child asked who she was; saying that he wishes his teacher was his mother instead; screaming that she had to stop on the rare occasions when she was enjoying herself. “I didn’t understand why,” he admits, “but I hated seeing her happy.”

Yet all this pales in comparison to the way Louis treats his mother after he starts to attend high school and enters the universe of what she calls “les bourgeois.” As with his father, so too with his mother: Once Louis moves away from home to attend a performing-arts high school in Amiens, the schism between them deepens.

When I came back to the village those first times, I wanted to show you my new membership—that is to say the growing divide between my life and yours. It was above all through language that I made this distinction. I was learning different words in high school, and these words became the symbols of new life—unimportant words like bucolic, fastidious, laborious, underlying. They were words I’d never heard before. I used them with you, and you got annoyed: Enough of your minister’s vocabulary! You’d say, That guy—ever since he went to high school he thinks he’s better than us.

As soon as he is able, Louis wields these new weapons at his disposal—books, an expanded vocabulary, proper grammar and etiquette—and attacks his mother with them. At every opportunity, he asserts his superiority, but his mother, no fool, recognizes the ploy instantly. And his motives, Louis confesses, were never pure: “I became a class defector out of revenge.” As the social gap between them expands, it brings a new truce, but only at the cost of silence. Inhabitants of separate worlds, mother and son no longer have anything to say to each other; what once united them no longer exists. “When I was a child,” Louis writes, “we felt ashamed together—of our house, our poverty. Now I was ashamed of you, against you. Our shame had parted ways.”

One day, struck by agonizing stomach pains, Louis comes home and begs his mother to call for help. Convinced that he is acting like a spoiled little rich boy, she refuses to lift a finger; actually, she barely stops watching television. When he finally drags himself to the hospital, he learns that his appendix is a few hours from bursting. Yet so firm is Louis’s commitment to his novelistic social science that he presents his mother’s act of astonishing negligence by outlining the conditions that produced it:

I saw what was happening: you thought I was exaggerating the pain because I was behaving like city folk, the people I had wanted to be like ever since I started at the high school in Amiens, privileged people. In our world, medicine and relationships with doctors had always been considered a way for les bourgeois to feel important by taking meticulous and extreme care of themselves. Essentially, I think you saw this scene as an extension of all the others since the beginning of our estrangement; as my way of showing class differences, of attacking you. (And how could I reproach you for it, since it’s true, I was waging a war against you?)

Yet when he begins to visit the homes of his bourgeois friends in the city, Louis comes to realize that not all women are treated like the women in his village: They are not publicly humiliated or beaten until their faces are swollen. He comes to recognize too that his mother’s incessant talking, which used to drive him crazy, was a way to ease her boredom. Later, when his mother asks if she can clean his house for money—if she can become his cleaning lady—Louis, who has otherwise reveled in his newfound class privilege, is forced to reckon with the reality of his new status: “Had I become one of those bodies I’d hated?”

Unlike Who Killed My Father, however, A Woman’s Battles and Transformations is also the story of a parent’s liberation. One day, out of the blue, Louis’s mother calls him to announce, “At last. I’ve done it.” Louis knows, even before she tells him, that she has decided to divorce his father. The decision to end her marriage changes her life. She moves to Paris and starts to dress better, to wear makeup and jewelry, to color her hair, to speak differently. She is, miraculously, happy. The transformation is radical: “Nothing about her resembled the woman who had been my mother,” Louis writes. It is tempting to call her a new woman, but it might be more accurate to say that the woman in the photograph has finally come back to life.

The separation of Louis’s parents also brings mother and son closer together. Louis notes, with some satisfaction, the reversal of their fortunes:

It’s strange: We both started our lives as History’s losers—she the woman, I the dissident, monstrous child. But as in a mathematical equation, a perfectly symmetrical inversion, the losers of the world we shared became the winners, and the winners the losers.

Louis doesn’t pretend that this is a fairy-tale ending—he knows his mother is still reliant on a man, still lonely, still relatively poor—but he cannot help seeing it as a victory. Their shared journey from hardship to freedom brings relief, for Louis and the reader alike. Yet there is something disappointing about this story of individual (rather than class) liberation. Louis’s stated desire that this book might serve as “the home in which she might take refuge” feels like a surrender to the personal. In the final pages of A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, the child conquers the sociologist.

What makes Louis’s books required reading is his readiness to depict ugly behavior, but to do so in a way that always provides context for it. Recent fiction about the working class—Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize–winning Shuggie Bain, for example—is often reluctant to do this. The milieus of The End of Eddy and Shuggie Bain are nearly identical: a blighted postindustrial community ravaged by addiction and violence. Like rural northern France, inner-city Glasgow in the 1980s was not exactly a friendly place for a young boy desperately failing to hide his sexuality. Poor, gay, and misunderstood by everyone around them, both Shuggie (Stuart’s avatar) and Eddy live as creatures in anguish.

Yet for all the similarity, Stuart and Louis see the world differently, and this is how Louis sets himself off from his peers. Although Shuggie Bain is, if more implicitly, a political novel (Thatcher is Stuart’s unnamed villain), anger is entirely absent from the book. Stuart’s novel is set in a world without monsters: Even Shuggie’s stepfather, the closest any character comes to malevolence, is accorded a moment of sympathy. Shuggie’s alcoholic mother is neglectful—at times, criminally so—but she is never intentionally cruel. She is sweet and kind, caring when she’s not drowning in her own vomit. It is an extraordinarily sympathetic account by a man who, because his mother spent all of their benefits money on drink for herself instead of food for her children, was often left hungry. Yet Shuggie, despite all the suffering, is an angelic child, and one devoted to his mother—her caretaker, guardian, and fiercest defender.

In Louis’s world, there are no angels. Cruelty abounds. Though Stuart presents working-class people with more generosity, Louis’s depiction of poverty is more radical in its honesty. Deprivation doesn’t just cause pain and hunger; it also fosters hostility. Circumstances warp behavior. And it isn’t always the schoolyard bullies or nasty neighbors who cause the most distress; often, it is those closest to you. Louis is scathing about the government’s neglect of the working class, but he also makes no attempt to sugarcoat the psychological effects of poverty.

Today, liberals are increasingly uncomfortable with representations that show members of oppressed groups in a negative light. They think such representations demean them, rendering them less worthy of sympathy, and worry that showing the marginalized at their worst will make them easy targets for the right. Louis has no patience with this. He knows that hunger and pain can make you mean. It is poverty, not its representation, that is demeaning. To deny this is to sanitize the effects of poverty, perhaps to the point of allowing us to forget about them. Louis indicts the politicians who have failed his family, but he is also writing for the enervated left. There is no one solution to reverse the course we are on, but Louis insists that we start by looking reality in the eye.

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