The Literature of Violence and its Politics

Cain and Abel, Titian


On the political significance and power of The End of Eddy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), I don’t think I could add to what has been said in the two years since its English translation. Yet it is curious to me that what is at best an averagely written book has drawn almost no criticism.

In the first paragraph Édouard Louis issues himself a literary mandate: “suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system.” Is it an impossible task? From Eddy alone, it’s unclear. To create his Literature of Violence, Louis dispenses with elegance, metaphor and almost everything else. He has a horror of everything that complicates or clouds the events of his book. His writing is specific, blunt, simple. Violence in our world, especially homophobic violence, is not complex or subtle. It’s the blunt stone of the stupid and evil. And so, Louis dispenses with complexity and subtlety. He rejects the imagined worlds and characters of fiction. He writes autobiographically, not allegorically: he says writing fiction would make him ashamed. To say it was ‘necessary’ to write this way to express these horrific events would belittle Louis. It is clear to anyone that the book might have been written a hundred other ways. But no, he chose this mode because any other would have felt insincere, cowardly and lacked the revolutionary feeling he desired.

Suffering is the sinkhole at the centre of this novel, sucking everything down into oblivion that isn’t itself. Yet there are moments when something escapes. A line describing the cardboard he attached to his bike to imitate the sound of a motorcycle: a little scrap of childhood pleasure. But what he has already said is: “From my childhood I have no happy memories.” Then, again, at the end of the third chapter, a hurried collage of Louis’s affection for Hallencourt: “the peaceful silence of the small streets, the old lady who gave us sweets”, etc. In the end violence won’t consume everything. The steady voice with its measured fury gives way, evaporates momentarily. This adds, rather than detracts, as perhaps Louis feared. Hallencourt – until now a black crater of misery and violence – returns to itself, and we find it to be composed of “apple trees”, “warm milk fresh from the farm” and an “explosion of autumnal colours”. That a place might be both this calm, indifferent chamber of beauty, and the host of a violence which floods it, is a more horrifying reflection I think.

If you’re going to employ a style powerful because of its spareness you must respect its limitations. One in this instance is that the lyrical and the poetic often have no place. Transitions to the lyrical metaphor (“the smell of my father’s groan hung in the air of the bedroom”, “sound of a heartbeat, then a hammer; the two together combine in an infernal symphony”) have no meaning in this world which otherwise Louis wants us to accept as a straightforward report of the truth. He explains people to us sociologically and describes incidents plainly. The scientific is meant to convince us of his objectivity; the plainness is meant to give the events believability. Both are tools therefore for creating a sense of ‘objective truth’. Yet consider this passage: “By saying it they inscribed it on me permanently like stigmata, those marks that the Greeks would carve with a red-hot iron or a knife into the bodies of deviant individuals…Impossible to rid myself of this.”

In the world of Eddy language cannot pretend to this permanent kind of power. Things are what they are. A gob of spit is not, for instance, a wet yellow cannonball, but just a gob of spit, and is only analogical if it is like the (literally identical) mucus of an old person’s throat. The gob drips down the cheek, it does not rush or hurtle; it is not anthropomorphised as an imaginative display. Louis has wonderful restraint. Nothing is lyricised, nothing is beautified, hardly anything is allegorised in case it loses its hard power. The perfume of Romanticism is not allowed to settle for a moment. It is very much like a friend describing something awful which happened to him, and not at all like a novel. The explanations offered are sometimes banal to the point of tears (“we are always playing roles and there is a certain truth to masks”) and sometimes insightful (“a desperate, continual, constantly renewed effort to place some people on a level below you, not to be on the lowest rung of the social ladder”). But the point is they do not employ language for much more than it is used in everyday life. Thus moments like the one above jar. The permanent stigmata is precisely the kind of hyperbole Eddy rejects. It is art’s theatricalization of the truth. But Eddy’s whole effort is to show that language is a temporary social construct waiting to be torn down.

Structurally, there’s nothing to see here. The book is split into two parts, and then into chapters which are non-chronological and arranged mostly at random. There is a vague sense that time has passed as we get towards the later chapters. But this is frequently betrayed by leaps back into the past. The only true structural tool is a narrative loop which leads back repeatedly to the corridor where Eddy is bullied by two other boys. Through this recurrence we receive an increasing sense of horror: the reliable, expected abuse; the steady evolution in humiliation and violence; finally, the masochistic disappointment of its disappearance. Otherwise, structure and narrative are destroyed so that the violent episodes can ambush us. There’s no way of anticipating their occurrence or nature. It’s disorientating and brutal. Inside the chapters, the prose is no more obedient. It regularly wanders off from its line of thought on a loosely related tangent. We might get the first sentence or two of a story Eddy’s mother used to tell him, before being diverted for two pages toward the nature of his mother’s language, finally returning to finish the story. The impression is of being told a story by a friend: intimate and conversational. Yet it is also chaotic, it is not clear that the storyteller is a particularly good one; he is naïve, telling painful stories for the first time, having to justify everything along the way, explaining it to himself and repeatedly going back to fill in gaps. It’s not that the details of these discursions are unwelcome or unnecessary, as if they were somehow ‘distracting from the real thing’. It is that the order and manner of their delivery has not been considered. Perhaps the intention was to create the chaotic, meandering voice of a bad and childish storyteller to reflect the difficulty of reconstructing these memories. Anyway, the occasional payoff is that the voice can return from these tangents and deliver a sudden, disturbing sentence which grates against the intimacy accumulated by the voice along the way: “He just fell into the toilet.” He being a miscarried child.

It is interesting to note that John Burnside, on the back of the book, thinks it is ‘carefully crafted’. The book is clearly a revolt against craft and construction. This is why we get asides like: “(I didn’t say it exactly like that, but some days…I’m too worn out to try to reconstruct the language that I spoke back then)”. A bit of deconstruction; a splodge of anti-literature. Louis’s power is in his attentive recreation of the brutal language which composed his youth. It’s a strange, self-defeating move to then deny his book this power. At other times, the asides are touching and display his vulnerability: “and now I’m crying as I write these lines.”

Anger has focused and limited this work. There can be no catharsis, reconciliation, beauty, pleasure – all these things are swallowed up in the Literature of Violence. Defenders will say this is his achievement; that this is the ‘realistic’ portrayal of violent experience. Yet is it true that in life these things are denied to us? Does violence colonise everything? It doesn’t matter. The question the reader must answer is should it do so within literature.


One of the powers of the writer is, with language, to cleave open paths of thinking and feeling previously overgrown by silence. This is the achievement of Louis’s work. He fills what may have remained shameful silence with language. With words, he has armoured the unprotected who live amongst the poor, rural French: the homosexual, the effeminate, the intellectual – all those who shrink too far from the repulsive ideal of this brand of masculinity. Louis’s literary project is primarily a (successful) political one. Hence the language he and his admirers use to stir up zeal: revolution, coup, resistance, objective truth. Yet it does not automatically follow that it is successful in some artistic senses. On the place of the political in art a long discussion would be needed. Louis himself thinks all art is political and that dissenters think otherwise because of a bourgeois detachment from politics and life. It’s probably true that there is no such thing as art which is non-political. And if there were such a thing as a culture whose art had become non-political, perhaps concerning itself instead purely with the entertainment of its public, then we would feel such artists had degraded themselves. Yet it is also the case that art is not, or needn’t be, primarily political. There are details which do not register on any party line in all great novels. The move Louis is making in all his media comments about art and politics is a political one itself. It is (hypocritically) a riposte against those he feels have silenced him for so long: in creating a space in literature for the politically oppressed, he oppresses others right back. Politics is necessarily division, and it is impossible to ever be neutral, to ever truly be free of this need to put another group down and feel your own to be on top. Thankfully, art need not play this game, and those who have come to literature from places of oppression and silence should be the greatest protectors of this fact. For Louis, he has the habit of identifying the socio-political in every line of prose. It is one which detracts from his art because these connections must be sought out where none exist or, worse, where they are so obvious that the novel gains nothing by including them.

Politically, I am not far from Louis. He is a liberal, though a radical one; and I find many of his sociological interpretations reasonable, though he is also a determinist and his disagreeable habit of explaining everything via the socio-political I find patronising. However, I recognise this habit as a symptom of curiosity and a resistance to obscurantism: both things I am fundamentally committed to. Politics, I am sure Louis would agree, is a system of language and thought denied to the powerless precisely because it is an instrument for gaining power. Curiosity, which does battle with ignorance, lies, exhaustion or apathy, is thus inseparable from political struggle and the aspiration for egalitarianism and acceptance. Yet for all this agreeableness I cannot say I recognise an aesthetic merit in Eddy which rivals my political sympathy for its author. And the question of enjoyment, something else we might hope for in the books we admire, doesn’t come into it. There isn’t a page written that could, in the absence of masochism, be enjoyed. Readers do well to resist the mistaken belief that art which is politically powerful cannot be enjoyable or aesthetically pleasing.

“I just think it would be indecent these days for writers to talk of anything else but violence.” Unsurprisingly, Louis is the cliché literary partisan. There is a long history of Realists defending the sanctity of Realism, Romanticists defending Romanticism, and so on. It is a young writer’s faith that his own literary ideas happen to be the correct ones. But clearly literature would be a miserable, boring business if everyone followed Louis’s advice. What is perhaps most surprising is that a man so fresh to the cosy literary elite he scorns should have adopted their ideas. What he calls for is merely another species of elitism and literary exclusivity. How interesting that the maxim of a ‘literary revolution’ (a term which strictly means nothing) should be just as or more restrictive than the ‘literary establishment’ it opposes. Part of me wonders if Louis simply suffers from the classic French weakness for pithy and morally pompous statements (Sartre, Camus, Zola, et al.). A condition I am not immune to, by the way. Elsewhere, without irony, he refers to his own writings as “spaces of objective truth”. All writers need this wonderful optimism in their projects if they are to spend the long, laborious hours required to write something. Equally, they need to understand the confused and conceited thought which awards their own ideas objective truth yet denies it to others who, coincidentally, disagree with them. This is especially true of a writer whose ‘objective truth’ is a bag of skeletal sociological interpretations. There is truth in art, there is truth in Eddy, yet truth disappears when it, as Damian Grant writes, “unseasonably asserts itself to be so”. Grant goes on: “The appeal to the inferior, demonstrable truth,” – the autobiographical, the sociological, the objectivity all prized by Louis – “is a distraction, a self-injury; it is the writer asking to have himself taken at a lower valuation.”

Since Eddy, Louis has published two books and continues to be an urgent and celebrated voice. Perhaps it is revealing of where our global literature stands that its critics and readers will happily ignore the prose if the political line is drawn in the correct place. For liberals it’s a reaction to the homogeny they sense and for conservatives it’s nervousness over saying anything embarrassingly reactionary. When reading Eddy I would suggest everyone attempt, at least for a moment, the improbable: separate your political sentiment from your artistic one.