Édouard Louis’s first novel, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, was published in France in 2014, when Louis was 22 years old, and translated into English last year as The End of Eddy. It is a short but powerful autobiographical novel about Louis’s adolescence and young manhood as an effeminate, book-loving son of working class parents in an impoverished village in northern France.
In that novel Louis wrote about how he had to keep his identity as a gay man hidden in a community of hostile, violent and often drunken bigots. In his second autobiographical novel, published in France in 2016 and now released in English as History of Violence, Louis continues the story.
In 2011 Louis moved to Paris to attend university (the first in his family to do so). In Paris, on Christmas Eve, 2012, while walking home alone after dinner with friends, Louis met a young man of Algerian background and invited him up to his apartment where they had sex. When he discovered that while leaving, the man was stealing his phone and iPad, the encounter turned violent and the man strangled Louis almost to death and then raped him at gunpoint.
History of Violence is the story of that terrible evening and the long lasting effects it had on Louis. The story is “fictionalized” not in the sense that facts have been changed, but in the sense of the literary choices Louis makes in telling it.
In the novel Édouard (as the character is called) has returned to his native village a year after the rape and is staying with his sister, Clara, and her husband.
Much of the book is narrated by Clara as she tells her unnamed truck driver husband what Édouard has told her about the attack, while Édouard eavesdrops from the next room.
Clara, although sympathetic to her brother, has many of the biases and small-mindedness that Édouard has been trying to escape from and she puts her own spin on the story. Édouard meanwhile offers corrections or reveals things to the reader that he didn’t share with Clara. This layering of the story works well.
Other perspectives and interpretations are also introduced: from the police to whom Édouard reports the crime, from the doctors who examine him and also from his close circle of gay intellectual friends in Paris with whom he shares his story.
Horrified by what they hear, Édouard’s friends convince him to report the attack to the police. He finds the encounter with the police humiliating and infuriating. Their racism comes as a jolt.
He describes his attacker and “immediately the officer on duty cut me off: ‘Oh, you mean he was an Arab.’ He was triumphant, delighted would be an exaggeration, but he did smile, he crowed; it was as if I’d given him the confession he’d wanted to hear since I walked in the door, as if I’d given him proof that he was in the right all along; he kept repeating it, ‘the Arab male, the Arab male,’ every other sentence involved ‘the Arab male.'”
Ironically, Édouard knows that his attacker, who gave his name as Reda, is actually a French born son of Algerian Berbers who himself hates Arabs and used racial slurs against them. But to the police all North Africans are “Arabs.”
Then there is their not so subtle blaming of Édouard himself for the situation: “He asked me: ‘Wait— you brought a stranger up to your apartment, in the middle of the night?’ I answered: ‘But everybody does that…,’ and in an ironic, mocking, sarcastic voice, he asked, ‘Everybody?’ It wasn’t a question. Obviously, he wasn’t asking me whether or not everybody did that, he was saying nobody did that. Or at least, not everybody. So finally I answered, ‘What I mean is, people like me…’”
Louis’s descriptions of the attack and the rape itself are harrowing but the impersonal and often brutally physical medical exam that Édouard undergoes makes for equally difficult reading.
The subject of rape and the victimization of women who report being raped has been covered often in fiction. The subject of male rape is less well travelled territory.
There are similarities but as Louis shows there is also the added issue of confused feelings around learned ideas of masculinity. By filtering his story through the voice of Clara, who represents the homophobic mindset of his childhood home, Louis allows Édouard to reflect on his own sense of shame and helplessness.
He also has the chance in his own comments on Clara’s narrative to explore both his own attraction to danger and his contradictory feelings of protectiveness toward Reda.
Édouard knows that he could simply have let Reda leave with his stolen goods but chose confrontation instead (the “masculine” response). In retrospect he tries to find ways to explain away Reda’s actions while still hating him.
I found History of Violence to be a complex, many layered narrative that explores a difficult subject with courage and humility. Its subject matter is at times hard to stare down but Louis’s honesty and bravery make it compelling without being voyeuristic.
By the way, one final odd (and purely accidental) layer is that the novel is sensitively translated by Lorin Stein, the former editor-in-chief of The Paris Review, who was famously forced to resign last year after he faced multiple accusations of sexual impropriety on the job.
History of Violence by Édouard Louis (translated by Lorin Stein) Farrar, Straus and Giroux (US and Canada) Harvill Secker (UK) 224pp.