History of Violence by Édouard Louis – review

The French author follows his acclaimed debut novel with another unflinching dramatisation of personal experience

Édouard Louis published his first novel, En finir avec Eddy Belleguele (published in English as The End of Eddy), four years ago, when he was only 21. The book briefly topped bestseller charts in France and opened up a debate about both the portrayal and the betrayal of the working class. The novel was directly autobiographical – Louis changed his surname from Belleguele as its final act – and documented the brutal realities of his growing up bookish and gay in a family subsisting mainly on welfare in small-town northern France. Through his own fractured and violent adolescence, Louis traced, in looping, interiorised prose, the ways in which the working poor had been marginalised and abandoned by successive governments, leading to a political shift to the populist right (on the eve of the French elections last year he wrote a New York Times op-ed titled “Why my father votes for Le Pen”). He argued that poor, white France shared the discrimination experienced by immigrants and the gay community; “it is urgent, it is necessary,” he has insisted, for writers and artists “to build new spaces to address the question of domination and exclusion”.

This second novel is in some ways a disturbing dramatisation of that latter intent. It is again a profoundly personal book, dwelling on the circumstances of a one-night stand between Louis and a man he met on the street on Christmas Eve 2012 in Paris, a night that ended with the author being raped and almost murdered. The man, called Reda in the book, and subsequently prosecuted and imprisoned for his crime, was a second-generation north African immigrant. Louis uses the trauma of the encounter and its aftermath to unpick ingrained attitudes to male rape and racism, not only in the response of his family and the police to his ordeal, but also within his own head. It is not a comfortable read.

To begin with, Louis skirts and evades the horribly surreal facts of the night, making the reader follow the ways he tries to get them right in his head. The voice of the book is only obliquely confessional, the telling of the violent events catching the dead ends and tricks of memory and overwhelmed subjectivity of post-trauma. In the days after the attack, the character Édouard stays with his elder sister and some of the events are told through his eavesdropping on her discussing it with her husband, a truck driver.

Much of the rest immerses the narrator in the insistence of the authorities that he “gets his story straight”. In the police interview room, as he gets stuck on the detail of the noise a woollen scarf made as Reda tried to strangle him with it, the way it “squeaked, like nails on a blackboard”, the female officer insists he must start again – “that’s not how you go about it”, she said “in a completely anarchic way” – and he remembers exactly how she winced when she said the word “anarchic”, as if “the harsh glare of the fluorescent lighting was driving her crazy”.

Édouard can’t talk about what happened, and can talk about nothing else. We are invited to listen in as every fact about his life becomes forensic evidence – the nooks and crevices of his apartment, and then his body. Telling the story as fiction makes good sense – his private narrative is co-opted and processed as it becomes the property of the state.

As the voice gets closer to the violence itself, it takes on a hard-to-watch, freeze-frame quality – noticing everything, but not always in sequence. Just as readily, though, Louis will step back – for example, for a chapter on the literary influence of William Faulkner on his ways of telling. The self-consciousness can occasionally feel contrived, or at least French, but the book at heart is both brave and ambitious in its determination never to let its reader, or its author, escape lightly the damaging realities it describes.

History of Violence by Édouard Louis is published by Harvill Secker (£14.99). To order a copy for £10.99 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

Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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