Arts & Culture

French novelist examines literature’s power

26-year-old writer explains “confrontational” novels, role of shame in galvanizing social change

Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2018

Édouard Louis’ autobiographical works aim to challenge his readers to reject complacency regarding social, economic and political issues.

“I want to use literature in order to spread shame on the world,” Édouard Louis said at a talk hosted by the Department of French Studies at Rochambeau House last Wednesday. In his lecture, the 26-year-old French writer discussed what literature can do to create social change and how critics have reacted to his books.

“Shame should be that feeling that precedes each work written. Shame can be a tool to build another world, a better world,” Louis said. He charged writers with the task of asking themselves: “Who is not here, and who is placed and removed so far from my eyes that I can’t think of her or him as absent?”

For Louis, writing autobiographical novels enabled him to “drag our bodies as far as possible from absence.” By authoring “confrontational literature,” Louis said he hopes to find “a literary form that would prevent the readers from turning their head, from laughing.”

In his first novel, “The End of Eddy,” a bestseller translated into multiple languages, Louis recounts growing up as a gay man within a poor, working-class family in the predominantly homophobic blue-collar village of Hallencourt in northern France. In his second novel, “History of Violence,” Louis details the trauma of being sexually assaulted at gunpoint and coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. His third novel, “Who Killed My Father,” expected next year, attacks France’s class system and indifference toward the working class.

“He’s been inspired by mostly non-French writers, which makes him special. His favorites so far have been Toni Morrison, William Faulkner and a French favorite, Marguerite Duras,” said Sophie Brunau-Zaragoza GS, a second-year graduate student in the Department of French Studies and Louis’ friend from high school.

In his lecture, Louis spoke of Jean-Paul Sartre’s twentieth-century notion that the writer’s choice to focus on one issue “(unveils) a certain reality and not the other,” so that the reader faces a choice “to do something, or to do nothing.” But today, in the twenty-first century, this is not enough for Louis. “Our society makes so many strategies, so many ways of not being confronted to reality,” that people can ignore any discomfort, he said. “People around us are constantly turning their head in order not to be challenged by what is being unveiled by the writer, the artist or the activist.”

According to Louis, some literary critics have discounted the power of his novels, either for “exaggerating” or for simply being literature. “Exaggeration is one of the historically most efficient tools of conservatism against reality,” Louis said. “As they would say … ‘Let’s not talk about what he’s saying. Let’s talk about literature. Let’s not talk about homophobia, racism, male domination.’” But with regard to the style and content of his novels, Louis tries to illuminate this problem of social complacency.

Louis admits he doesn’t like politics. “I hate it,” he said, adding that he is only political because of those who act against him. “They are political against me, against what I am, against what I represent.”

Professor of French Studies and Comparative Literature David Wills praised Louis for his “force of language” and his ability to “(find) a fresh message” to address frequently discussed issues like sexual identity and socioeconomic class. “I often think, if I were a writer, where would I start?” Wills said. “He just wrote what was most obvious to him, about this experience, and it resonated so extraordinarily.”

Louis will leave campus next Thursday after a two-week visit.

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