Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon review – can you escape your upbringing?

A virtuosic memoir of sexual awakening and of childhood within a French working class that now seems to have deserted the left

What has happened to the left? It’s a question being asked all over Europe, but is especially pertinent in Didier Eribon’s home country, France. In last year’s presidential election, the Socialist party candidate scored a dismal 6.2% in the first round of voting, while the Bernie Sanders-esque Jean-Luc Mélenchon (universally described as “hard left” or “far left”) was also beaten by Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Popular attachment to social democracy is seemingly in retreat almost everywhere.

In this brilliant little book, Eribon attempts to explain why, using his own experience as illustration. It is a memoir of his upbringing as a working-class boy in a family that lived in provincial public-housing estates, where everyone left school as soon as possible and worked in factory or cleaning jobs. Yet somehow Eribon acquired a taste for philosophy; he moved to Paris and discovered life as a liberated gay man, and eventually became a respected professor of sociology.

The book begins as Eribon returns to the area of his childhood, in and around the north-eastern city of Reims, after the death of his violent and homophobic father, whom he hadn’t seen for 20 years. But as his mother suddenly opens up to him about her own past, he embarks on a process of reckoning and understanding. “Everything my father had been,” he comes to realise, “which is to say everything I held against him, all the reasons I had detested him, had been shaped by the violence of the social world.” As the author insists repeatedly, indeed, the fact that he was able to escape this milieu does not mean that it did not thoroughly determine the trajectories of most other people around him.

“In purely statistical terms,” Eribon explains with black irony, “a drift into delinquency was one of the prime options open to young people from the neighbourhood.” His grandmother (who once told him: “It’s healthier if a man smokes”) abandoned her children to an orphanage, and was then one of those women brutally shamed in the streets after the liberation of France, accused of having consorted with the German occupiers. His mother, in turn, was never able to finish her schooling, and so couldn’t hope to find a more intelligent man than his father. And so, Eribon concludes: “Social endogamy is as rigidly controlled as is academic success. The laws governing the two processes are tightly intertwined.”

The question that really drives Eribon towards the latter stages of the book is: how did people like his own family, who used to vote communist when he was a child, end up voting in such large numbers for the far right? Firstly, he points out: “To be a communist had next to nothing to do with a desire to establish a government resembling the one found in the USSR … In working-class environments, leftist politics meant first and foremost a very pragmatic rejection of the experience of one’s own daily life. It was a form of protest, and not a political project inspired by a global perspective.”

The young Eribon.
The young Eribon. Photograph: Courtesy Didier Eribon

The problem, as he sees it, is that the left ended up abandoning talk of the “working class”, a political concept through which people could experience fellow feeling with others in the same boat. After the turn in the 1980s and 90s towards talk of individual rights and responsibilities, by contrast, this idea of group feeling, indeed of fraternité, had been atomised. And what took its place was the cynical exploitation and fomenting of anti-immigrant attitudes by the far right, which brought the working class back together but this time under a mood of hostile nativism rather than economic solidarity. The National Front, Eribon asserts, was now “the only party that seemed to care about them, the only one, in any case, that offered them a discourse that seemed intended to provide meaning to the experiences that made up their daily lives”.

This book is also a touching memoir of sexual awakening, and a gallery of philosophical ideas and characters, as Eribon explains with passion what inspired him as a teenager about the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, and later those of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault. He is terrifically, amusingly rude, meanwhile, about the conservative philosopher Raymond Aron, whom he once met: “The very moment I set eyes on him, I loathed his ingratiating smile, his soothing voice … he was a soldier in the service of those in power helping them to maintain their power.”

But Eribon always returns to what he calls the “miracle” of his discovering the life of the mind. “After all,” he points out, “that one should study, that reading is enjoyable, that books are something you can love – these are not universally distributed attitudes, but are in fact closely correlated with social conditions and with the background you come from.” Those of us lucky enough to have had that instilled in us from an early age can only salute him.

Returning to Reims is translated by Michael Lucey and published by Allen Lane. To order a copy for £15.29 (RRP £17.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Steven Poole

The GuardianTramp

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