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By the time young gay French author Edouard Louis' first novel "The End of Eddy" was translated into English and published in the U.S. last year, all of our friends who still read books had read it and were urging us to dive right in.
Let's take a second to celebrate those of us who still read novels, short stories, nonfiction and essays collected in book form, who do not need to be stimulated by screens and their own solipsism 24/7. OK, now back to the review.
"The End of Eddy" is an autobiographical account of growing up gay, poor and bullied in a provincial village in Northern France. As a child, Eddy Bellegueule (Louis is a pseudonym) was precocious, effeminate and already in touch with his homosexual desires. In a small-town, working-class, adolescent world, that made him a prime target.
"Words like affected or effeminate could always be heard in the mouths of adults around me: not just at school. They were like razor blades that would cut me for hours, for days, when I heard them, words I picked up and repeated to myself. I told myself over and over again that they were right. I wished I could change. But my body would never obey me, and so the insults would start up again."
Now "The End of Eddy," in a translation by UC/Berkeley professor of French literature Michael Lucey, has been published in paperback (Picador, $16) so more readers can find it. The occasion is the U.S. publication of Louis' second novel, "History of Violence," in a translation by Lorin Stein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25). If "Eddy" was a tough read because of its unflinching look at bullying and torment, "History" is no walk in the wine country either. It's another autobiographically based tale, this time the story of when Louis was raped and almost murdered by a man he picked up in the street on Christmas Eve 2012, in Paris.
"He was Kabyle. When I repeated this, and explained that his being Kabyle had profoundly affected the course of the evening, the officer interrupted and said, 'So Arabs are your thing?' They waited for me to answer, and I didn't say anything at first, then, in the idiotic way one does, I answered - as if the question had been a real question, as if it had been appropriate, as if it were acceptable - that he wasn't an Arab but a Kabyle, that I had studied that part of the world, and that thanks to my studies I was familiar with certain elements of Kabyle culture."
"History of Violence" has been likened to Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," another so-called "nonfiction novel" centering on a horrible crime. But Louis has more on his mind than explicating his victimhood. He is a born novelist interested in the forms and structures of fiction. Point of view shifts; long sections are monologues voiced by Louis' sister as she tries to make sense of the crime. Louis knows that stories have power over us according to who is telling them, and even filing a police report takes the power of narration, in effect, away from its protagonist.
"I knew that once I went forward with the story, according to their cues and directions, I couldn't take it back, and I'd have lost what I wanted to say; ...I felt that whenever I spoke a word in front of the police, other words became impossible, now and forever."
This type of discourse fits squarely in the tradition of French letters, where the philosophy and interior monologues of the author are as important to the novel's impact as are any particulars of the narrative. But Louis' novels are not overly intellectualized; they are fully grounded in the visceral and the violent, in the brutal realities he's had to endure. The following passage is from "End of Eddy":
"I felt his penis hard against my buttocks and then inside me. He gave me directions. Spread them, lift your butt a little. I obeyed his orders with the sense that I was in the process of turning into what I had always been."
The early admirers of Louis' work Out There mentioned above had access to advance readers' copies and prior editions published abroad. But with his first two novels now out in English and available from a major press, there's no reason not to make the acquaintance.
RIP Tab Hunter, 86, Hollywood heartthrob, then gay icon.