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Review: A memoirist ‘phenomene’ is France’s answer to Knausgaard — minus the narcissism

Man in blue sweater posses as he leans against a pillar
Édouard Louis’ fourth novel in his acclaimed French series of autofiction is “A Woman’s Battles and Transformations.”
(John Foley / Opale / Leemage)

On the Shelf

A Woman's Battles and Transformations

By Édouard Louis
FSG: 112 pages, $20

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In his incandescent autofiction, Édouard Louis has remade his painful youth as literature, and in doing so has become one of his country’s most famous literary exports. His debut, “The End of Eddy,” was a hardscrabble portrait of growing up gay and poor in northern France. He has explored this milieu in three subsequent volumes, including “A Woman’s Battles and Transformations,” now available in Tash Aw’s English version.

Like his European confrère Karl Ove Knausgaard, Louis has turned to the novel as a way to process traumatic personal history, finding a sympathetic global audience in the process. But while Knausgaard’s “struggle” takes place largely on interior planes, Louis describes his personal and familial travails in terms of political forces. This has paved the way for his rising renown — he became a prominent commentator in English-language outlets during the French anti-government protests in 2018-19. Much of his work has been adapted for the stage, and a fifth book has already been published in French. Louis, not yet 30, is un phénomène.

The reasons he has charmed readers are obvious. Louis writes simply and clearly. He’s disarmingly frank and earnest in a way that makes it difficult to stop looking — like a child who won’t break eye contact. His second novel, “History of Violence,” a devastating record of a sexual assault Louis experienced as a younger man, was the work of a writer for whom no subject was off limits. He’s also a beguiling, photogenic interviewee and a committed ambassador for both his work and his politics. Earlier this year he performed in a one-man play in Brooklyn based on his third novel, “Who Killed My Father?,” donning a makeshift superhero costume for the show’s finale to make a series of dramatic accusations against French politicians. Watching Louis speak and act, it’s clear that he needs his message to connect.

“A Woman’s Battles” is Louis’ most hopeful book to date. It completes a parental double portrait that began with “Who Killed My Father?,” this time describing changes in the life of Louis’ mom after she leaves his dad. Following two exhausting decades of domestic misery, Louis’ mother is finally happier, speaking of her life “in the future tense,” living in Paris and willing for the first time to be called in print by her real name: Monique Bellegueule.

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In ‘The Morning Star,’ Knausgaard’s first major novel since his semi-fictional ‘My Struggle,’ psychodramas are outshined by a cosmic disturbance.

“Sometimes she said, laughing: Monica Bellucci is the Italian translation of Monique Bellegueule. Monique Bellegueule, Monica Bellucci. I am the French Monica Bellucci. She would toss her hair back as she said it, just like a movie star.” That laughter must have had a bitter edge; modeling and Hollywood stardom never beckoned for Monique. And unlike Bellucci in Italian, “Bellegueule,” the surname Louis dropped as part of his own reinvention, is regrettably comical in French (“Prettymug”).

Marriage wasn’t kind to her. In “The End of Eddy,” we see her first husband “dead from cirrhosis of the liver and found only many days later, lying on the floor with his body half decomposed and crawling with worms.” Her second, with whom she’d have Eddy/Édouard, seemed different initially, “But very quickly he became someone else — which is to say, he became just like all the others.”

book cover for "A Woman's Battles and Transformations" by Edouard Louis, translated by Tash Aw
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A drinker. A bully. “Often he refused to speak to her for several days at a time, for no reason.” Once at a village fête, in front of everyone, he called her a “fat cow.” He discouraged her from learning to drive and wearing makeup. She did what she was permitted: cooking, cleaning, smoking, watching TV. Once in a while she’d play the only CD she owned.

While Eddy was still a child, Monique became pregnant with twins and resolved to get an abortion, concerned the family budget wouldn’t stretch. Eddy’s father “got upset, strangely — he who’d always been disgusted by religion, who’d always associated Religion with Power just as he connected School and the State — and said to my mother, You’re crazy! We’re not going to kill our children! Abortion is murder.” The patriarchal gavel had come down. “He decided, she ceded.”

It’s not until two decades have passed, by which time Eddy has become Édouard, that Monique cracks. The sudden separation paves the way for a rapprochement between mother and son. She finds a new house and then, through a friend, meets a man who doesn’t push her around and moves in with him in Paris. In one particularly touching moment, following an offhand comment made by Louis on a film set he’d been invited to observe, the actress Catherine Deneuve pays Monique a surprise visit and smokes a cigarette with her. Here, it’s a shame the translation tones down the punctuation from the original: “Catherine Deneuve!!!!”

As in previous books, Louis commingles the personal and the political. He tackles head on the homophobia, racism, chauvinism and class hatred rampant back home. But again, he’s quick to assert that responsibility lies not with the individual but with systems of self-reproducing masculine and class violence. Looking at a rediscovered photo of his mother as a young woman reminds Louis “that those twenty years of devastation were not anything natural but were the result of external forces — society, masculinity, my father — and that things could have been otherwise.”

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In a recent interview, Louis stated this more starkly: “I don’t believe in individual responsibility. I believe in society, I believe in social class, I believe in structures, I believe in domination. But I don’t believe in people making a choice to be violent.” This book, he said, is “not about me or about my mother — it’s about the world we live in.”

Read this way, the book may appear, in seeming to remove their agency, to absolve Louis’ parents of their cruel behavior (“Can’t you be a bit normal from time to time?”) Being victims of broader societal forces, they are, it follows, powerless to do more than pass on their misery. Perhaps framing it this way is what has allowed Louis to write so compassionately about them, with a lack of vindictiveness readers might otherwise find miraculous. But though such a posture risks reducing his powerful human drama to a simple political message, Louis mostly sidesteps it by holding a steady gaze on behavioral nuance. Forgiven but not forgotten.

Louis has said that his next book will be a portrait of his older brother, who died this year. Readers hoping for something radically different from him may, then, have to hold their breath. But they may also be missing the point. Each new book, though retreading familiar ground, reveals new layers to Louis’ redemptive insight and vision. And just as raking over the same ground throws up different stones, so Louis will continue (for now) to mine his past to understand the wider world in powerful new ways.

Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.

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