Édouard Louis’s Latest Book Offers an Unsparing Critique of Capitalism and Patriarchy

Édouard Louis is one of the fiercest critics of the social harms caused by France's turn to neoliberalism. His latest book, A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, is a damning indictment of the brutalizing effects of poverty on the working class.

Writer Édouard Louis attends a tribute to James Ivory at Cinémathèque Française, January 15, 2020. (Bertrand Rindoff Petroff / Getty Images)

In 2013, the year before the release of his debut novel, the twenty-one-year-old French writer Eddy Bellegueule changed his name to the more literary — and, in France, regal — Édouard Louis. More than a personal reinvention, this change marked for the author a symbolic revolution: the son of a factory worker from northern France was legitimizing himself for the literary salons of Paris. When his autobiographical coming-of-age novel, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (translated as The End of Eddy), was released the following year, Louis was seized on by the publishing industry as a precocious talent, and the novel was quickly translated into more than twenty languages.

But among some critics, questions remained regarding Louis’s working-class background and his novelistic treatment of those who had raised him. Louis, who is gay, had been unsparing in his depiction of his family and neighbors’ homophobia toward him, and unflinching in his portrayal of the sexual violence, domestic violence, xenophobia, and racism he witnessed growing up. Critics on both the Left and the Right questioned whether the young author had exaggerated his account in order to make it rich, and labeled him a transfuge, an upstart or defector — a class traitor — despite Louis’s self-identification as a socialist.

“I Became a Class Defector Out of Revenge”

Since the publication of The End of Eddy in 2014, Louis has consistently said in interviews and op-eds that the prejudice and violence he witnessed growing up were products of poverty — that they were, in effect, foisted on the French working class by the French government’s economic policies. But in his debut, Louis resisted the temptation to editorialize and largely trusted his readers to draw their own conclusions about the novel’s portrayal of these societal ills.

In his two most recent books, the memoirs Who Killed My Father (2018) and the new A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, portraits of both of his parents, Louis returns to much of the same subject matter as in his debut but adopts a more sociological approach, taking the liberty to draw conclusions on behalf of the reader. The reader’s reception of these books will depend largely on whether they find Louis’s diagnoses persuasive, and whether they trust him more as a social critic or as a novelist.

Louis is unapologetic about rewriting scenes from his debut — he is setting the record straight. In Who Killed My Father, a portrait of the man who raised him and a j’accuse of France’s ruling class, Louis writes, “I am not afraid of repeating myself because what I am writing, what I am saying, does not answer to the standards of literature, but to those of necessity and desperation, to standards of fire.” Aesthetic standards are, in Louis’s estimation, subordinate to the demands of politics.

In his latest book, A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, he goes a step further, not only insisting that he does not answer to “standards of literature” but condemning those standards altogether. “I’ve been told that literature should never attempt to explain [itself] . . . never repeat itself . . . never resemble a political manifesto,” he writes, but “I know now that what is called literature has been constructed against lives and bodies like my mother’s. . . . I know, from here on, that to write about her . . . is to write against literature.”

Louis does not specify which literature he is referring to when he says that it has been “constructed against lives and bodies like [his] mother’s” — he is against the category of literature altogether. There is a certain irony that A Woman’s Battles and Transformations is in large part an impassioned defense of his mother’s right to access culture, a category which he both holds in contempt and desires. Louis writes that his maternal grandmother hadn’t learned to read as a child, in part because she was expected from a young age to assist her mother with domestic work; a generation later, Louis’s mother was able to learn how to read, and she graduated from secondary school to culinary school — though Louis cautions that her chosen career path was an “extension, most likely, of the reality of life around her: women had always done the cooking.”

A year into culinary school, her studies were cut short when she became pregnant with Louis’s older brother. “Between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five,” Louis tells us, “a time when others experience life, freedom, travel, learning” — culture, broadly defined — his mother’s life was “deformed and almost destroyed by [the] misery” of child-rearing, cooking, and cleaning.

Louis laments that “things could have been otherwise.” He asserts that those “twenty years of devastation . . . were not anything natural but . . . the result of external forces — society, masculinity, [his] father.” As in Who Killed My Father, Louis suggests in A Woman’s Battles and Transformations that his father’s treatment of his mother was a consequence — a transference — of the ruling class’s treatment of him: “Like most people who suffer, he wanted to make others suffer with him.” And, as a suffering son — a young man, even if a disappointingly “feminine” one — Louis admits that he himself became “one of the agents of [his mother’s] destruction.” Addressing her directly, Louis confesses that he drove himself to do well in school and to move on to university in Paris in part so that he could distance himself from her, set himself apart from her, above her.

He admits, “I wanted to use my new life as revenge against my childhood, against all the times when you and my father made me understand that I wasn’t the son you had wished for.” Together with the critics of his debut, he accuses himself of being a transfuge: “I became a class defector out of revenge — and this violence was added to all the others that you had already lived through.”

Parisian Transformations

Louis admits that, when he arrived in Paris, in “the universe of those [his mother had] always called les bourgeois,” he “immediately wanted to be like them.” He recalls that when he returned to northern France to visit his parents, he “wanted to show [his mother his] new membership — that is to say, the growing divide between [his] life and [hers].” Louis remarks that it was “above all through language that [he] made this distinction” between him and his mother clear — he used a vocabulary and spoke of things that were inaccessible to her — and it is perhaps here that we can guess what the author means when he says that literature is “constructed against” people like his mother: it can talk down to them.

But as Louis goes on to reveal, this is not unique to literature, or to les bourgeois; it can be exhibited by members of all social classes, who may talk down to others in order to prop up their own, often precarious, positions. (This is, in short, Louis’s diagnosis of his father’s recourse to xenophobic and racist rhetoric.) Louis’s mother, for her part, is fond of pointing out that she speaks better than his father, because she was not born in the countryside like him; she is also fond of claiming that she comes from an “extinguished line of a great French aristocratic family.” As someone who suffers daily humiliations, she wants her husband to suffer with her.

But Louis’s mother is not only driven by a desire for revenge. Though Louis insists that she came to see him “only as an instrument of class aggression,” he also notes that when his younger brother and sister were doing poorly in school, she realized that “without qualifications their lives would turn out like hers, and she was in despair.” Without access to the education and culture that her son was now wielding against her, she realized, her other children would be condemned to her same precarious position.

Louis’s “defection” to Paris in fact becomes an aspirational model for the family, not just for his siblings but for his mother too. One night, after years of threatening to leave his father, Louis’s mother finally does so, and she breathlessly calls Louis to announce the news. “She spoke,” Louis recalls, “as if she were telling me about the unfolding of an escape or a burglary that the two of us had worked out together, patiently, secretly, for months and years.” Louis does not disabuse his mother of this notion — in fact, he encourages it, says that he is proud of her. The self-described “class defector” does not accuse his mother of being a transfuge; in the absence of any meaningful government programs to alleviate the conditions of her life, to do so would be cruel.

Before long, Louis’s mother moves to Paris to live with another man, and it is there, Louis tells us, that she is “transformed.” Louis is careful to point out that, materially, she “still relies on the man she lives with,” “she doesn’t earn any money,” “she continues to buy food at low-cost supermarkets.” But it is through her access to culture that we see signs of her transformation.

Now in close contact with her son, she updates him regularly on her movements throughout the city: “I went for a stroll in the Luxembourg Garden today,” she tells him. “I had a coffee on the terrasse at the café near my place.” She brings a novel along with her, instead of staying home and watching TV. Louis remarks that this access to culture, including literature, should not be taken for granted: “The mere possibility of saying these sentences was a revolution in itself.”

“These were sentences that I had, on my arrival in Paris, associated with the world of intellectuals and the bourgeoisie,” he writes, “with the privileged, with Simone de Beauvoir’s Mémoires — and therefore with the complete opposite of what [my mother] had been.” Taking his mother out to a nice restaurant one evening, he notes “her thrill at living this moment, in this temple of luxury, stealing a life that should not have been hers.” He concludes that “in her own way, [his mother] became a political subject” through her access to culture that was previously inaccessible to her.

Near the end of A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, Louis repurposes a passage from Roland Barthes’s autobiography, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, switching out the author’s preferred third-person masculine pronoun “his” for “her” to refer to his mother:

[Her] (admissible?) dream would be to transport into a socialist society certain charms . . . of the bourgeois art of living. What rises up against this dream is the specter of Totality, which demands that the bourgeois phenomenon be condemned entire, and that any leak of the Signifier be punished.

The choice of this passage is revealing: Whether or not Louis shares his mother’s “dream” of a socialist society with certain bourgeois “charms,” he betrays an anxiety over whether or not this dream is “admissible” when he condemns literature “entire” as a bourgeois phenomenon “constructed against lives and bodies like [his] mother’s.”

But even if we accept the shaky premise that literature is necessarily bourgeois, is it not at least one of those bourgeois charms that should be made available to all, rather than altogether condemned? Moreover, could the charm of literature not allow people like Louis’s mother to see what has been made inaccessible to them — perhaps even make them “political subjects”?

There is a real pleasure, a charm, to reading Louis’s writing — his sentences and scenes — that is entirely apart from his political convictions. And there is a reason that more people read novels and memoirs than works of sociology and politics. The danger of privileging political considerations over aesthetic considerations — of rejecting “standards of literature” and allowing a text to “explain itself,” to “resemble a manifesto” — is that the text may lose its charm and alienate readers who do not already share the author’s politics; it may give readers the impression that they are being lectured, or worse, scolded.

The risk is that, if critics no longer accuse Louis of being a class traitor — of talking down to those who raised him — then they might accuse him of being an ideologue — of talking down to his readers, including members of all social classes. This would be a shame, as Louis is by now one of the most prominent chroniclers of working-class lives in contemporary literature.

Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that his sociological and political diagnoses can sometimes be heavy-handed, as when he condemns literature altogether — the thing which may give him the best chance of creating future political subjects.