Review: A memoirist ‘phenomene’ is France’s answer to Knausgaard — minus the narcissism

On the shelf

A woman’s struggles and transformations

By Edouard Louis
FSG: 112 pages, $20

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In his radiant autofiction, Édouard Louis turned his painful youth into literature, becoming one of his country’s most celebrated literary exports. His debut The End of Eddy was a tricky portrait of growing up gay and poor in northern France. He has explored this milieu in three consecutive volumes, including A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, now available in English by Tash Aw.

Like his European brother Karl Ove Knausgaard, Louis turned to the novel to process his traumatic personal story, and in the process has found a compassionate global audience. But while Knausgaard’s “battle” takes place largely on internal planes, Louis describes his personal and family struggles in terms of political powers. This paved the way for his growing profile – he became a prominent commentator in English-language media during the French anti-government protests in 2018-19. Many of his works have been adapted for the stage and a fifth book has already been published in French. Louis, not yet 30, is and phenomenon.

The reasons why he charmed readers are obvious. Louis writes simply and clearly. He’s disarmingly frank and serious in a way that makes it difficult to stop looking, like a child who doesn’t break eye contact. His second novel, History of Violence, a devastating chronicle of a sexual assault Louis experienced as a younger man, was the work of a writer for whom no subject was taboo. He’s also a beguiling, photogenic interviewee and a dedicated ambassador for his work and politics. Earlier this year he appeared in a one-man play in Brooklyn based on his third novel Who Killed My Father? and donned a makeshift superhero costume for the show’s finale to deliver a series of dramatic allegations against French politicians raise. Watching Louis speak and act, it is clear that he needs its message to connect.

A Woman’s Battles is Louis’ most hopeful book yet. It completes a double parental portrait that began with Who Killed My Father?, this time describing the changes in Louis’ mother’s life after she left his father. After two trying decades of domestic misery, Louis’ mother is finally happier, speaking of her life “in the future tense”, living in Paris and ready to be called by her real name for the first time in print: Monique Bellegueule.

“Sometimes she would say, laughing: Monica Bellucci is the Italian translation of Monique Bellegueule. Monique Bellegueule, Monica Bellucci. I am Monica Bellucci from France. She tossed her hair back as she said it, just like a movie star.” That laugh must have had a bitter taste; Models and Hollywood fame never beckoned to Monique. And unlike Bellucci in Italian, “Bellegueule,” the surname Louis dropped as part of his own reinvention, is regrettably weird in French (“Prettymug”).

Marriage was not kind to her. In The End of Eddy, we see her first husband “dead of cirrhosis of the liver and only found many days later, lying on the ground with a half-decomposed body and crawling with worms.” Her second, with whom she would have Eddy/Édouard, seemed different at first: “But very quickly he became someone else – that is, he became just like everyone else.”

book cover for "A woman's struggles and transformations" by Edouard Louis, translated by Tash Aw

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

a drinker. A bully. “He often refused to speak to her for several days without reason.” Once at a village festival he called her a “fat cow” in front of everyone. He stopped her from learning to drive and from wearing makeup. She did what she was allowed: cooking, cleaning, smoking, watching TV. Now and then she played the only CD she owned.

When Eddy was a child, Monique became pregnant with twins and, fearing that the family budget would not be sufficient, decided to have an abortion. Eddy’s father “got oddly upset – he who had always been disgusted with religion, who had always associated religion with power the way it connected school and state – and said to my mother, ‘You’re crazy! We will not kill our children! Abortion is murder.” The patriarchal gavel had fallen. “He decided, she gave in.”

Only after two decades, during which Eddy has become Édouard, does Monique break down. The sudden separation paves the way for a rapprochement between mother and son. She finds a new house and then, through a friend, meets a man who doesn’t push her around and moves in with him in Paris. In one particularly touching moment, actress Catherine Deneuve pays Monique a surprise visit and smokes a cigarette with Monique, after a casual comment from Louis about a film set he was invited to watch. Here it’s a shame that the translation weakens the punctuation of the original: “Catherine Deneuve!!!!”

As in previous books, Louis mixes the personal and the political. He takes direct action against the homophobia, racism, chauvinism and class hatred that are rampant at home. But here, too, he quickly realizes that the responsibility does not lie with the individual, but with systems of self-replicating male and class violence. Looking at a rediscovered photograph of his mother as a young woman, Louis reminds “that those twenty years of devastation were not something natural, but the result of external forces – society, manhood, my father – and all of those things could have been different.”

In a recent interview, Louis stated this more clearly: “I don’t believe in individual responsibility. I believe in society, I believe in social class, I believe in structure, I believe in domination. But I don’t believe in people choosing to be violent.” This book, he said, is “not about me or my mother—it’s about the world we live in.”

Read in this way, the book may appear to deprive them of their agency to absolve Louis’ parents of their cruel behavior (“Can’t you be a little normal now and then?’) As victims of broader societal forces, they are consequently powerless to do more than pass on their misery. Perhaps it was in this way that Louis was able to write about her so compassionately, with a lack of vindictiveness that readers would otherwise find marvelous. But while such an attitude risks reducing his powerful human drama to a simple political message, Louis mostly sidesteps it by keeping a constant eye on behavioral nuances. To forgive but not to forget.

Louis has said his next book will be a portrait of his older brother, who died this year. So readers hoping for something radically different from him might have to hold their breath. But they can also miss the point. Each new book, while retreading familiar territory, unveils new levels of Louis’ redemptive insight and vision. And just as raking across the same ground kicks up different rocks, Louis will (for now) continue to sift through his past to understand the wider world in powerful new ways.

Arrowsmith lives in New York and writes about books, films and music. Review: A memoirist ‘phenomene’ is France’s answer to Knausgaard — minus the narcissism

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