Review: May Ngoon Édouard Louis

Sharpening Sentences

The first time I saw Édouard Louis was years ago, when I was living in Paris and he was doing a reading in my local hipster bookshop. By that time, I had been living in the City of Lights for several years and had developed complicated feelings towards Paris – its cultural superiority complex, the belief that it has the best food, art, literature, language; the way the clothes you wear and the cafes you go to are inextricably tied to class; the overhang of colonialism, the way that left intellectuals would say that colonialism wasn’t all bad, and monuments still stand commemorating the ‘sacrifice’ of Indochinese men who fought for France; the incredibly complex and racist bureaucratic system that I came into contact with as I went through the citizenship process, which for me as an Australian passport holder was still much, much easier than it is for many others, especially those from Africa and the Middle East. All of this made my disillusion with Paris complete; made me feel like I had to survive and endure the city rather than enjoy it, which people back home often assumed I was doing. (It’s Paris, after all!) 

At the time Louis was 23-years old and reading from his first book En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (translated in English to The End of Eddy). The book was a memoir of his childhood growing up poor and gay in a small, working-class village in Northern France. I remember how I felt after that reading – as if an electric charge had just shot through me.

Louis’ reading blew me away, not because his book was documenting or witnessing sorrow and misery—unlike his late contemporary Joseph Ponthus who wrote a book about his year in a factory that felt like he was writing to others like himself (middle-class, literary) to give them a vicarious experience of what suffering is like, of what being working-class might be like. Louis, if he was addressing the literary class at all, it was to castigate them, to hold them accountable. ‘Look at this’ he seemed to be saying to the left literary establishment – don’t look away. You are complicit in this. 

And he does this because he has skin in the game – that’s what makes the difference. In that first book and in Louis’ later books he writes about his working-class white family and village, a community who for the most part would vote for the National Front because they feel that only neo-fascists are acknowledging their suffering. Without excusing the racist and xenophobic views or the brutal homophobia that marked his childhood, Louis’ writing allows us to understand the real grievances that people have. Because people are suffering. Because the elite does ignore lives like these, except perhaps when it comes to election time. And I understood because I also grew up watching my immigrant parents’ bodies buckle and break under physical labour in order to live the ‘Australian dream’. Because it reminded me of my own childhood when I didn’t have a dollar to buy a sausage at the school fete. Because it is rare, exceptional and nearly a miracle to hear someone articulate these things in the literary world. And even if Louis, by becoming an international best-selling author has ostensibly left his class background, he knows, as I do, that you never really leave.

Although it can be viewed as a companion to an earlier book about his father, Qui a tué mon père (translated into English as Who Killed My Father), A Woman’s Battles and Transformations —translated aptly by novelist Tash Aw in crisp, clear prose — is focused squarely on his mother. We get a brief overview of her family background, followed by fragments from different stages of her life, starting with when she falls pregnant as a teenager to Louis’ older brother. It moves between Louis recounting his mother’s memories in third person, to directly addressing her in the text, to including his own first-person memories of her. These different points of view give the reader both some distance, as if watching scenes in a movie, and a sense of intimacy as we see Louis’ mother through her son’s eyes.

The book begins with Louis finding an old photograph of his mother at the age of twenty, young and smiling, and such a contrast from the mother he knows that it triggers the realisation that perhaps ‘things could have been otherwise’. Could her life, and therefore his, have been otherwise if the conditions around them had been different? This is one of the major questions that fires this book, related to the evergreen question of agency versus structure. Louis’ attempt to grapple with the force and impact of structure on his family (impact in its fullest dimension – physically, emotionally, financially) is perhaps the most compelling thing about this book. In taking both an expansive view of an individual’s life—always interconnected to a family, a village, a nation—and a focus on the material reality of their existence—in his mother’s case, housework, cooking, childcare, and then later her work as a cleaner—we see more clearly the points at which external forces and wider structures can bear down on a life. Families like Louis’ live precariously with multiple points of vulnerability, where an accident at the factory or a change in welfare policy overturns whole lives. It is also to paint a picture of interlocking chains of inheritances and indebtedness that are passed on from generation to generation: alcoholism, misogyny, homophobia and poverty.  

In this way, although Louis’ work is autobiographical, I am reminded of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. We can see, over the span of a lifetime, how structure, society and other social forces, as well as fate and luck, intervene in the lives of the two main characters Elena and Lila; rendering the notion of agency not a lie, but one that can never be seen as untainted by external forces on the self. This is the power of life histories, whether fictional or autobiographical; they can zoom out and in to make visible the invisible forces that shape a life. And like the female characters in Ferrante’s Neapolitan books, Louis’ mother has to doubly submit both to economic and patriarchal structures: when pregnant with twins, her husband forbids her from aborting them even though the family struggles financially and his mother, exhausted, does not want to have them: ‘He decided, she ceded.’

But perhaps it is wrong to frame all this as a conflict between agency versus structure. Perhaps it is more accurate to conceive it as luck versus structure, or what Louis’ mother terms as ‘accidents’ for the bad incidents that occurs in her life. In lives like Louis’ parents, (good) luck is seen as the only force able to counter the weight of ‘accidents’ and external structures beyond their control. There is a heartbreaking scene in the book where Louis and his mother receive a scam letter saying that if they send back five euros, they will win hundreds of thousands of euros, they do so only to receive another letter asking for more money; and it’s only by the fourth or fifth letter that they understand they’ve been scammed. This hope in luck to pull you out of your situation reminds me of my parents, who played the lottery every week and bought scratchies regularly, as well as going to the casino in Mounties. Playing with luck, and gambling more generally, is an addiction to hope – the hope that in one fell swoop you are guaranteed a better life. 

Perhaps it is understandable why people maintain a hope in luck. It does hold a promise for a life that could become otherwise, in a way that is not dependent on a person’s own efforts to achieve it. It’s therefore particularly attractive for those for whom making changes may be near impossible, whose challenges are insurmountable, where agency exists only in coping and managing these two forces of luck and structure; in other words, in enduring and surviving. 

It is in contrast to the prevailing right-wing capitalist ideology that hard work and a strong work ethic translates to success and that those who don’t succeed are lacking in both. Meritocracy is central to the idea of social mobility inherent in both the American and Australian dream and is echoed in the model minority myth for migrants.   

But then again, A Woman’s Battles and Transformations is about an individual change – it is ultimately about Louis’ mother’s agency in finally leaving her husband and moving to Paris for a new life, one in which she is able to experience things that she never could before as a woman from her class (for example, going to a posh hotel bar in Paris). Yet at the same time, the way his mother was able to leave—through being dependent again on another man whom she moves in with—means that if the relationship doesn’t work out she will again be in a difficult situation, not least financially; for all intents and purposes his mother is still in a precarious position. The other question that pervades the book is asked by Louis directly: ‘Is a change still a change when it is circumscribed to this extent by class violence?’

So, agency is complicated, and herein lies the power of autobiographical writing like this – it is able to layout the complexity of the mitigated agency that people actually have, as Louis himself notes in an interview:

People also always suspect autobiography of being nombriliste or self-centered, but I think it’s the absolute opposite. When you write autobiography you write about the life that you didn’t choose, you write about contexts you didn’t choose, a family that you didn’t choose, a name that you didn’t choose. Not like in fiction where you choose everything.

The question of agency is a thread woven into the autobiographical form itself, a thread that Louis is willing to pull in order to lay bare all the mechanisms and forces that surround the violence and abuse he grew up with, instead of seeing his mother’s suffering or his own as isolated and disconnected from its wider context. This is what is so admirable about the excavation work he does in his autobiography –it is hard to miss the work’s intentionality in its attempts to show and tell us this. 

And it is perhaps in the writing and editing of his mother’s past and her memories, that a form of agency is able to be exerted that has eluded her in real life: ‘…and that for her, as it would be for me many years later, the telling of her life’s story was the best remedy she could think of to help her bear the weight of her existence.’ In writing about the hopes, dreams and disappointments of lives not often seen in literature, he is also doing something rare for the literary world – he acknowledges their consciousness. Literature is often focused on consciousness as an entity separate from material concerns and reality, or at least assumes a material reality comfortable enough that it does not impinge on psychological states. In Louis’ portrait of his father, and now of his mother, he shows not only the structures that people must submit to in their lives, but also how those who must live within it are feeling, thinking, struggling beings, capable of complexity and contradictions. 

How profound to write about the consciousness of people who are affected by material reality, writing them as the main character rather than just as mere side characters or using tropes/stereotypes. In Louis’ case, he not only focuses on consciousness, but also on bodies. Throughout the book, we are aware of his mother’s body, as she does the housework, or as a cleaner. We are aware of his father’s broken body. We are aware of the wealthier bodies that Louis notices when he moves to a high school in the city: ‘I hated their bodies, their freedom, their money, their ease of movement…’

In other words, class is embodied, it is incarnated in body and mind. It is so much more than about money; it’s about how you get to move through this world and how this affects your sense of self, sense of reality – encompasses your very sense of being. Which is why Louis’ own social mobility as a writer astounds and scares his parents; perhaps as much, if not more, than his being gay. 

One of the animating forces beneath Louis’ class consciousness and interest in writing about his family is this tension between social mobility and the impact it has on his relations with his family. I recognise this animating force within my own obsession with class. This nuanced anguish is encapsulated in the book when, after Louis has become something of a literary superstar, his mother asks him if she can clean his apartment to earn some money: ‘If that day you asked to become my cleaning lady, does it mean that I had become one of those bodies?’

What is Louis attempting to do not only with A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, but with the all of his oeuvre? What are the stakes he is outlining? He is doing nothing less than trying to wrench class politics from the Right. Perhaps even more radically, he is also pointing out the literary establishment’s complicity in this. In a way their complicity makes sense, the literary field is inherently middle and upper class so therefore its class allegiance will always align with the elite. But as someone who was working class and yet has become a writer—a small miracle in itself that makes him a unicorn; what it cost him to make it in the literary world that others take as their entitlement—Louis is writing against this complicity: 

Because I know now that what is called literature has been constructed against lives and bodies like my mothers’. Because I know, from here on, that to write about her, and to write about her life, is to write against literature.

The question of whether literature is or should be political seems to rear its head every now and then in literary circles. But Louis’ response, in his work and also in interviews, is an emphatic yes.

Which makes it even more dissonant to read in A Woman’s Battles and Transformations quotes by the controversial 2019 Nobel literature laureate Peter Handke, an Austrian writer who denies the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Srebenica by Serbian forces, and who delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Slobodan Milošević, also known as ‘the butcher of the Balkans.’ The Nobel committee chair, in defence of their controversial decision to award Handke, stated that ‘the ambition is to celebrate his extraordinary literary work, not the person.’ Louis’ use of quotes from Handke’s writing in A Woman’s Battles and Transformations might be relevant and interesting, but to quote him without addressing the controversy surrounding Handke, as if literature didn’t matter outside of itself, feels so contrary to Louis’ own position about the role of literature and politics that it feels like a glaring, discordant omission.

This is my one main critique of the book: that Louis doesn’t apply his principle of literature as politics to the use of literature in his own book. It is not to say that he can’t quote Handke, but that he doesn’t address the political controversy when quoting him seems to undermine Louis’ own position that literature is political and has political consequences.

I’ve been told that literature should never resemble a political manifesto but already I’m sharpening each of my sentences the way I’d sharpen the blade of a knife.

Louis takes class-based politics seriously because he understands what is at stake to wrestle class politics back from the far-right.  In France, strikes are occurring again, Italy has recently elected a Prime Minister whose far-right party has neo-fascist roots, and more alt-right groups in Europe continue to gain visibility and power as people become disillusioned with mainstream politics. It sometimes feels like there are only two viable political choices in Europe and beyond: a far-right populism or a pro-free market neoliberalism. As someone who is from both a migrant and working-class background, it perplexes me that I agree with far-right populists in terms of an opposition to the privatisation of public services, protectionism and a rhetoric of support for struggling families; however, obviously I can’t support their outright racist anti-immigration, anti-women and anti-LGBQT stances. On the other hand, the only other viable options are centrist-left parties who seemingly engage in less racist politics (on the surface), yet who adopt a free-market position that works to dismantle social welfare and labour policies that will directly hurt families like mine. 

Why have we been left with only these two options? How and when did our political imagination become so impoverished and limited? Especially when those of the ethnic majority who are suffering economically – the working class and the poor – have far, far more in common with migrants and other marginalised minorities than they believe. For one thing, the ideology of meritocracy affects both migrants and the white working class: in the model minority myth and in the rhetoric that the poor only have themselves to blame. 

How do we move beyond this impasse – how do we retain the potential of populist protest, that cries out against a class system which can be unjust and unfair to so many people, while at the same time refusing to descend into a racist, ethnonationalist politics?

I don’t know the answer, but I think we will need more writers like Louis who can wield words like a knife to explore these questions. Writers who are not afraid of literature as politics. Writers who can write from their experiences, who are able to fashion a deep cry into words for others to consume. There is anger in this, but there is also a tenderness. Because politics for Louis, and for many others like him and the world he writes about, is not abstract, is not an intellectual exercise or inconsequential; it is about the very stuff of life and death. 

Seeing the photo reminded me that those twenty years of devastation were not anything natural but were the result of external forces – society, masculinity, my father – and that things could have been otherwise.

Published February 13, 2023
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
May Ngo

May Ngo is a Teochew Chinese Cambodian Australian who currently lives in Prague. She...

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