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Monday, November 4, 2019

What’s in a Name: When Eddy Became Édouard Louis

Photo: Sarah Walker

By Violaine Huisman

Édouard Louis was sitting very straight, looking deliberately into the interviewer’s eyes. I was sitting next to him, on the other side of a two-tone couch—part grey, part red. We were on the set of La Grande Librairie, a talk show about books, broadcast live in hundreds of thousands of French homes weekly.

The show had brought together five writers with books loosely about family. The other three authors were across a coffee table from Édouard and me, flanking the presenter, in a club chair. The seating arrangement forced us to lean in each time it was our turn to speak. There was a live audience, too, though it wasn’t the participatory kind. (If you’re tempted to watch, the show is available on YouTube, in French.)

The interview focused on Édouard Louis’ latest publication, Who Killed My Father, a scathing attack on the French state’s neglect of the poor and contempt of the working class. In a prose both passionate and clinical, he writes: “You belong to the category of humans whom politics consigns to an early death.”

Édouard Louis’ birth name is that of the protagonist of his first novel: Eddy Bellegueule. Like most anglophone names in France, often borrowed from American pop culture, Eddy sounds déclassé; Bellegueule literally means “pretty face.” In fact, Édouard Louis is very good looking: fine features, a slender gait, piercing blue eyes. The name Édouard is as posh in French as it is in English. The End of Eddy, about growing up poor and queer in a depressed rural town, overwhelmingly racist and homophobic, tells the story of the abuse he suffered as a child and his escape from his soul-crushing milieu. His journey started with acting, with theater and more broadly with literature as a portal to reinvention. Eddy went on to attend the most prestigious schools in France, to join the cultural elite; he went from role-playing to becoming Édouard.

Édouard explained to the interviewer that in Who Killed My Father, he wanted to describe the impact of politics in a tangible way, through his father’s story. A former factory worker, his father was forced to return to work as a street cleaner after his health collapsed. In this vitriolic, pamphlet-like volume, Édouard Louis blames the state for instituting an inhumane political system, unjust and blind to workers’ physical suffering. He blames French politicians—calling them out by name—for destroying his father’s body. He also comes to his father’s defense, after having decried in stark, uncompromising language, how ashamed and resentful he was of his upbringing in The End of Eddy.

The TV presenter, alternately reading from his teleprompter and going off script, raised an obvious contradiction: How is it to write about the working class when you have become a bourgeois yourself? Well, it’s complicated, said Édouard, more or less. He invoked Jean-Paul Sartre: In The Words, the philosopher writes about the impossibility of speaking on behalf of the voiceless, and the moral obligation to have their voice be heard. We understand you’ve read Sartre, said the TV presenter, but I’m asking you to speak from the heart. How do you, Édouard Louis, feel, deep down, about this inner conflict? Well, said Édouard, politely, deep down, I feel the books I’ve read help me make sense of questions I find no simple answers to.

As the words hung in the air, I turned to the audience, noticing a woman I knew. We exchanged smiles. A camera mounted on tracks moved past us.

Becoming Édouard, for Eddy, has meant contending with different versions of himself: whether it is the tortured child he once was, the public figure he now is, or the stage adaptation of his character. It takes courage and audacity to tells one’s story. It takes generosity to let others own it, too.

The End of Eddy will be at BAM Nov 14—21.

Violaine Huisman is a writer, translator, and independent curator based in Brooklyn. She is the co-founder of The Floor, a space which merges wellness with arts and civic engagement.

© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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