For reasons I cannot quite discern, the reception to French author, Édouard Louis’ new book Who Killed My Father, out March 26th from New Directions, has been rapturous, but almost entirely insubstantial. The book—a straightforward memoir as opposed to his previous novels which, though broadly autobiographical, were still treated as novels—speaks love and rage directly to his father, sifting through the past to both vindicate and vilify him. It is a book that likely comes as no surprise to those who have known Louis since he penned his first book, or read his explosive op-ed in 2017 in the New York Times about why he understood that his father voted for the racist, far-right French politician Marine Le Pen. He described racism and homophobia, but also something else. “What those elections really meant for my father,” he wrote, “was a chance to fight his sense of invisibility…Across Europe, left-wing parties no longer spoke of social class, injustice and poverty, of suffering, pain and exhaustion.” Since as long as Louis has been known to the literary landscape, he has made his relation to his father clear through the language of politics: his father was a man who thought gay people deserved the death penalty, his homophobia irreparably damaged Louis’ emergence as a gay man, but at the same time, his father was a man who voted for Le Pen as a vote for racism, yes, but also because “the left has stopped speaking about poverty, misery and exclusion.”
In other words, Louis is dedicated to doing something analogous to what many are doing in the days of the Trump administration: trying to understand why it is that so many people found such a bilious candidate viable, by using the language of radical leftism. “Every line I write,” Louis has said, “is intended as a reminder to the dominant class, not to forget that for most individuals like my parents, like refugees, politics is still a question of life and death.” It’s a tremendously moral argument in favor of the literary polemic, and he more than holds up to his own standard—but the question the reader may pose to Who Killed My Father is not one that doubts Louis’ veracity or moral integrity, but simply the question: “OK. What’s new?”
One shouldn’t underestimate how important this question is for any aspiring firebrand, political young writer. Here’s an emblematic story: early on, Louis recounts that as a child, he staged a “pretend concert” of Aqua (a dance group all millennials will recall) at a gathering of his parents’ friends with three other boys. He played the female lead singer. The story draws out over many pages. His father refuses to look, Louis went on “begging, Look, Dad, look.” It’s clear what is happening—deep shame for an effeminate son, probably obvious even to the reader who has never read Louis’ previous work. Some pages later, he returns to the concert. His father excuses himself to go outside to smoke, and Louis wonders, “did I hurt your feelings because I chose to play the singer—the girl?” And the reader, especially one who, like me, relates to it to a T, is indeed devastated. Sad for the child he has painted countless times, sad for the child forced to enact the rule: “be a man…don’t be a faggot.” Many pages later, Louis returns to the concert again, asking if what his father felt was shame. It’s a curious choice for the writer of social justice, the one who makes himself known from the first page, quoting scholar Ruth Gilmore, “racism is the exposure of certain populations to premature death” and immediately expanding the definition to those who suffer homophobia, the domination of class, “to social and political oppressions of all kinds.” Curious in the way that if one rolls a word around one’s tongue enough times, it begins to lose meaning. In the way a reader might think: “Yes, thank you, we got it the first time.”
Of course, one may object that Louis’ polemic is important precisely because it is blunt and uncompromising. And such an objection is perfectly valid. This is certainly important ground, not self-important. Louis’ radical anger is indeed refreshing in the world of literary fiction where critiques of class and reckoning with the misery of poverty are still missing. The English-language literary world in particular is not, one intuits, collectively working towards socialist revolution. That is probably why Louis is so obdurate and persistent—he takes us through the effect Sarkozy to Hollande to Macron have had on the working class, each as vile as the next, but Louis is not the sort to self-reflexively provide the disclaimer, “but of course, they’re better than Le Pen!” the way the American left has gotten used to doing since 8th November 2016. From the point of view of the radical left, such a rhetorical feint is pointless and more than a little irritating. Far more interesting is what happens when the homophobic father softens after the concert. “I’m sorry Dad,” he said, and “you took me in your arms and said, It’s nothing. Forget it, it’s nothing.” Louis argues, reasonably, that literary, personal, and political conflict is where the incompatible meet: what is the truth of the matter? Is it the father of the effeminate child who proclaims in a public café that he “wished [he’d] had another son instead of me”? Or is it the father who, when drunk, would “lower his eyes and say that no matter what [he] loved me, that [he] didn’t know why [he was] so violent the rest of the time”?
In other words, like any intelligent writer, Louis teases out confounding contradiction. But then, Louis remains committed to conclusions as well; confident proclamations about the nature of his father. “Your existence was, against your will, a negative existence,” Louis concludes. “You didn’t have money, you couldn’t finish school, you couldn’t travel, you couldn’t realize your dreams.” Yes, we know: his father voted for Le Pen as “a desperate attempt to exist in the eyes of others.” We knew that already. When his father’s back was crushed in the factory where he worked, we remember The End of Eddy where Louis first recounted the tale. And then we hear it again. As well as: “Let’s be clear. The pain never went away.” His father, permanently injured, saw Jacques Chirac make essential medicine suddenly unaffordable, and was then harassed by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to work, as a manual laborer and a street sweeper. Indeed, Louis’ father’s forced indignity at the hands of the French state is at the very heart of the devastation in this book. But ultimately, his father is voiceless, as Louis admits he is, and Louis’ words are woefully insufficient. The question it all raises is: at what point does the French wunderkind Édouard Louis—whose politics I relate to more than any other contemporary writer, perhaps they are so easily discernable—realize that he’s walking in circles around the story of his father, drawing the same shapes over and over? Kirkus Review says of Who Killed My Father that “As this poignant book shows, there are still walls—within families, between leaders and citizens—that need to be torn down.” It’s such a dull verdict, I feel the need to correct it: No! I say. Walls, shmalls. He’s trying to convince you that only a truly radical leftist vision can counteract the misery and poverty that neoliberalism has wrought. The problem is: I don’t believe Louis actually does convince anyone except someone like me, someone who already agrees. I wish dearly for him not to sound so trite, but there it is.
A blurb on the book jacket by the Financial Times claims that “After Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, it’s difficult to find a literary sensation that has transfixed so many readers.” This is a tough pill to swallow. Even comparing Louis to his French peers, it’s doubtful he has does enough to stand with the best, partly because he’s so bent on waging a war with ambiguity. Mathias Énard has constructed whole new, radical systems of philosophy to assess European culture. Marie NDiaye has given us a panoply of versions of the immigrant that sit uncomfortably with politics across the spectrum, a radically creative endeavor. And Leila Slimani has unveiled a radically provocative, even grotesque, version of womanhood, and insisted on its worth. Louis, like the filmmaker Xavier Dolan to whom Who Killed My Father is dedicated, has our attention. But like Dolan, whose highly-anticipated, semi-autobiographical film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan was critically panned at the Toronto Film Festival, one senses he still has some ways to go.
But one must applaud Édouard Louis’ vital moral fiber and self-awareness. Early in the book he writes: “I am not afraid of repeating myself because what I am writing, what I am saying, does not answer to the standards of literature, but to those of necessity and desperation, to standards of fire.” Whether he likes it or not, his books will always be held to standards of literature—but let’s take from his work the lesson that it is indeed a literary duty to speak truth to the dominant class, to provide some radical activism. To learn to love people like his father.
Publication Date: March 26th, 2019
Publisher: New Directions
By Kamil Ahsan