Making It

A Woman's Battles and Transformations by Édouard louis, translated from french by tash aw. new york: farrar, straus and giroux. 112 pages. $20.

The cover of A Woman's Battles and Transformations

MUST A NOVEL ENGAGE with contemporary life? One still finds the call, as tenacious as cliché, for novels that “speak to the moment we are in,” “work out society,” or otherwise “interpret the now,” insisted upon regularly in marketing copy and pieces of criticism, not to mention on Twitter. A better question to ask is whether a novel can do anything but react to—or reflect—contemporary life. This one is characteristic of a certain kind of Marxist criticism, which seems at times to make a point of noting that novels engage with the “now” regardless of their authors’, or readers’, intentions. And so György Lukács could remark that the historical novels of petty aristocrat Walter Scott were not conservative escapism, but the truest expression of a new, radical conception of history; and Julia Kristeva could find the rarefied, at times inscrutable, poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé to be no elitist retreat into formalism, but a break with capitalist production, and the irruption of repressed proletarian desire.

The work of Édouard Louis has found itself increasingly susceptible to such contrasting interpretations. Eight years and four books since the publication, at twenty-one, of The End of Eddy, his harrowing first account of childhood and adolescence in northern France, Louis is firmly established at the forefront of French autofiction. But if his novels are widely celebrated for their courageous portrayal of post-industrial Picardy—its poverty and pervasive homophobia, misogyny, and racism—rumblings of a wholly opposite reading are not so easily avoided. In the past year or so, I have come across quite a few people (all connected one way or another to French academia) who, when Louis was mentioned in conversation, took exception to what they saw as his abject representation of homosexuality, or the utter powerlessness of the women he portrays. Others echo the words of Christophe Guilluy, who explained in an interview that Louis’s success is owed to his depiction of the French working class as “mainly violent, racist, homophobic alcoholics,” a portrayal wholly aligned with “every metropolitan prejudice.” This line of thought has no doubt been exacerbated by the legal proceedings that followed History of Violence: the man Louis accused of rape in that book was arrested days after its publication in 2016, and found to be undocumented. He was detained for eleven months prior to a trial whose final verdict, delivered earlier this year, was not guilty.

In return, Louis’s recent output has seen him devote more time to self-justification. Responding to the charge of “prolophobia” in an interview translated for Jacobin earlier this year, Louis emphasized the need to portray the working class in all its variety, part of his commitment to a writing that thinks “about reality” rather than “mythologies.” These kinds of comments are present throughout the two books he published last year in France. A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, the first of these to be translated into English (the second, Changer: Méthode, is due early 2024), tells us early on that Louis wants to “write against literature.” Against, he says, an idea of the literary as something meant merely to illustrate life, not to explain it, and against a literature that eschews displays of emotion or political claims. These last he considers crucial to his quest for truth, a careful combing of reality: “digging hole after hole in it until all that is hidden begins to seep out.”

This passage also justifies—as Louis has done previously in at least one novel—why he wants to “write only the same story again and again.” Indeed, even a reader only casually acquainted with Louis’s work will recognize A Woman’s main narrative components: his mother Monique, the drudgery and daily humiliations of her life in a village in northern France, her eventual escape to Paris and relative happiness. We caught glimpses of her in The End of Eddy, History of Violence, and Who Killed My Father (she also returns in Changer), yet here her story is approached more sympathetically. “Everything started with a photo,” Louis opens: a picture of his mother as a young woman, whose sight pushes him to imagine the lives she could have led, had not twenty years been ruined by “society, masculinity, my father.” These are the two decades Monique spent with Louis’s father, whom she met at the age of twenty-three, two children already in her care after a first, tumultuous teenage relationship. They end when she leaves him, an action considered many times before, and occasionally urged by Louis; she would meet another man a few months later and eventually join him in Paris. Away from their village, Louis finds her transformed, happy, free. “She wore makeup, her hair was colored. She wore jewelry.” Monique confirms: “I’m a real Parisienne now.”

That this story largely parallels Louis’s own, as an escape from rural poverty, depression, and prejudice, is unsurprising. Louis is by now aware, as his readers ought to be, that the angle by which he interprets his life, and that of anyone close to him, largely depends on his state of mind at the time of writing. The anger and disgust that marked his depiction of his family in the first book, for which he comes close to apologizing in both A Woman and Changer, has given way to compassion and pity. As he had shown previously in writing about his father, Louis no longer needs to fight to impose as much distance as he can between himself and his roots. There is guilt, now, when he describes how ashamed he was of his mother, how mean to her, after he became the first in his family to attend high school. There is sympathy, too, for those traits of hers that he once branded ridiculous or despicable—that Monique was always talking about herself, for example, even repeating herself, is now seen as a coping mechanism for the life she had to live. Then there is her liberation, which is modeled after his. Follows his, in fact: Monique made it to Paris after he did, and his involvement is never long in doubt. The book ends on the memory of a teacher telling his mother that Louis, six years old, had abnormal ambitions for children his age. “I spoke of becoming the king or president of the republic; . . . I swore that as soon as I grew up, I’d take my mother far away from my father and that I’d buy her a château.” A final sentence informs us that this book is the château.

Édouard Louis. Jean-François Robert.
Édouard Louis. Jean-François Robert.

TAKEN AS A WHOLE, it may be that Louis’s oeuvre offers the narrative not so much of his life but of his ongoing efforts at understanding it. One story, five books: more Durrell than Duras in their schematics (a question of point of view, rather than mere retelling), with the added poignancy of real time, since every new publication is the latest development in Louis’s interpretation of himself. Even History of Violence, in many ways the odd one out, given its apparent focus on a specific, and horrific, event, adheres to this logic. Framed by his sister’s monologue, the narration is peppered with asides about her relationship to her brother, their childhood, and the like. Here and there Louis catches discrepancies between her account and his, as indeed a reader might from one of his books to the next, but that may well be the point. The most eloquent passages of History of Violence see Louis admit to being incapable of pushing past certain contradictions—truth and untruth, for one, the latter often cast as a means of survival and, paradoxically, of revealing the former.

Of the more dramatic developments brought about by Louis’s constant unearthing of new layers to his life, or to the narrative of that life—no longer as forthright as it once was—has been his retreat from the straightforwardly political. Despite the renewed assertion, in A Woman, that his writing is a “political manifesto,” where each sentence is sharpened like “the blade of a knife,” we are far from the direct accusations of Who Killed My Father. Here was a book that ended with Louis directly naming, and shaming, the French politicians responsible for his father’s hardships (not unsurprisingly for Louis, this passage was particularly successful on stage; in the theatrical adaptation, Louis names the politicians while tossing exploding caps at their pictures: there is anger in his denunciations, but also, crucially, a touching helplessness). Two books later, and the attacks are replaced by vague mentions of power, masculinity, and society, alongside the occasional sociological abstraction. His is a different kind of introspection, these days: less certain of itself in its ability to challenge contemporary life, more restrained in focus, and increasingly satisfied with ambiguity. One is hard-pressed to find a consistent critique behind it; if this was a manifesto, you would be forgiven for wondering whether it called for the government’s overthrow or a Great National Debate.

The larger progression of Louis’s work finds a culmination, of sorts, in Changer. Published mere months after A Woman, the book marks a return to Louis’s life as sole concern. His escape from home is now interpreted through his incessant need for change—or to change, rather, since many pages are devoted to Louis’s successive reinventions, first in high school, then Amiens, Paris, and the world. The book openly embraces the contradictions it creates with earlier works—“two phenomena of the same life,” as Louis puts it. Suspicions are raised in the very first chapter, a spirited summary of his accomplishments: Louis tells us he slept with the mega-rich, dined with aristocracy, traveled the five continents, and wrote a great many books, all before the age of twenty-five. When hurdles or hardships do make appearances, they are overcome by supreme acts of agency, occasionally counterbalanced by the kindness of a few, specific strangers (and, even then, he remarks that these people helped him because of what they saw in him). What is true of Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, whose strident positivity the critic Frank Guan once defined as “mask[ing] an essential incoherence” (alternatively, “a vast and horrifying void”), is also of Changer. To attend a prestigious university, write books, befriend leading intellectuals, and achieve a certain fame—these are all things Louis desired. One longs to hear how these exploits might have affected his project, diluted, challenged, if not reinforced his efforts as a writer engagé. Vanished, however, is the wealth of introspection and self-criticism afforded to his childhood. His motives, in the moment, are always excusable, if not virtuous; his authorial position is unassailable, much as it was in his first book. However disillusioned he might be, in truth, with his successes, let alone his actions in general, he seems unable to do anything but embrace them. 

Such traits can of course be found in all of Louis’s books—one thinks of the implied, but largely unexplored, hollowness of Monique’s escape in A Woman, for example, or his father’s horrifying fate. Only Changer offers no meaningful qualification. Without one, Louis leaves open the question of what reality he is trying to understand, what truth, other than his own. Hints, again, of contrasting interpretations: while Louis certainly still speaks to the moment, he might not like what he is saying. 

Simon Leser is a writer and translator currently working on his Ph.D. at New York University.