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All about my mother: Édouard Louis’s latest family saga

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

A Woman’s Battles and Transformations Édouard Louis, translated by Tash Aw

Harvill Secker, pp.128, 12.99

Shunned by his father and his peers because of his homosexuality, Édouard Louis (born Eddy Bellegueule in 1992) left his village in rural Normandy and moved to Paris, becoming the first member of his family to attend university. By his mid-twenties he had published three well-received autobiographical novels: about working-class machismo (The End of Eddy), his experience of sexual assault (A History of Violence) and the condition of the French welfare state (Who Killed My Father). In his latest book he turns the spotlight on his mother, revisiting ‘the succession of accidents that made up her life’. Monique Bellegueule had ambitions to train as a chef, but was derailed by teenage pregnancies and terrible relationships. Having had two children by the age of 20, she left one abusive partner only to shack up with another, Louis’s father, with whom she stayed for 20 years.

A Woman’s Battles and Transformations revolves around shame: the author’s boorish dad is ashamed of his son’s effeminacy; Louis in turn is ashamed of his parents’ coarse mannerisms. When Monique gets a job bathing elderly people, she’s at pains to stress: ‘I’m not a cleaning lady, mind you, I’m a carer. It’s almost like being a nurse.’ In one of the most poignant passages, she is enthusiastically befriended by a bourgeois woman in the throes of a midlife crisis who discards her as soon as she’s feeling better about herself. When pressed as to why she cut contact, she explains that ‘she could no longer stand our family, our table manners… the constant obsessive presence of the TV’. But it’s not all pathos. Monique eventually leaves her husband and rocks up in Paris, where she reconnects with her son and finally gets to live a little.

The key to Louis’s literary appeal is that he engages with complex themes while keeping things relatively simple. His elegant concision – his books are less than 200 pages long – ensures that candour never lapses into self-indulgence. On the down side, he is prone to certain faddish turns of phrase, such as the lazy (and slightly pretentious) characterisation of oppressive social mores as ‘violence’, and using ‘bodies’ as a synonym for ‘people’. (Reflecting on his own absorption into a bourgeois milieu, he wonders: ‘Had I become one of those bodies I’d hated?’) That said, his wry description of his younger brother’s gaming addiction as ‘a radically contemporary kind of life’ is pleasingly withering.

There’s a vaguely Oedipal charge to this story. Louis feels his sexuality gives him common cause with his mother as a fellow victim of macho aggression (‘the person that I am was never a man, and [this] draws me close to her’) and admits he ‘wanted to use my new life as revenge against my childhood’. In his previous book, he blamed his father’s illness and death on the French state. An industrial accident had forced him to quit his job and the resultant economic hardship, exacerbated by brutal benefit cuts, accelerated his demise. But here it’s mainly attributed to his boozing and ‘masculine’ stubbornness, which is a conspicuous shift in emphasis.

For all the tenderness in these pages, there’s also a sense of smug triumphalism: a hard-edged, unforgiving energy, indicative of lingering psychic wounds. And who could blame Louis? The book ends with a revealing anecdote. As a child, he told his teacher he dreamed of ‘becoming the king or the president of the republic… I’d take my mother far away from my father… I’d buy her a château’.

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