April 2019

Noted

‘Who Killed My Father’ by Édouard Louis (trans. Lorin Stein)

By Emma Fajgenbaum
‘Who Killed My Father’ by Édouard Louis (trans. Lorin Stein)
Political rage fuels the French author’s account of a fraught father–son relationship

At just 26 years old, Édouard Louis is France’s foremost writer of post-industrial despair. His extraordinarily successful debut, The End of Eddy, was a coming-of-age memoir that shocked French readers with its portrait of grinding poverty in the northern rustbelt of Louis’ childhood. Who Killed My Father is something of a coda to that book, though the perspective shifts to now tell the story of the parent: once the homophobe antagonist that inspired the son’s flight from home, he is now the fallen patriarch, depicted with a mix of resentment and pity. At age 50, with his body savaged by a factory accident that precipitated a rapid decline, he can barely walk and needs an apparatus to breathe. Yet he’s been “incentivized” back to work as a streetsweeper after losing his disability benefits.

Louis’ book seeks to make sense of the life that was, but he finds little to detail. Instead, in spare, distilled prose that recalls the early works of Marguerite Duras, Louis draws our attention to the emptiness that constitutes this wisp of a book: “You were born into a family of six or seven children. Your father worked in a factory. Your mother didn’t work. Poverty was all they knew. I have almost nothing more to say about your early childhood.”

Like Duras, who also escaped her childhood, Louis likes to home in on brute experience. He returns to the pain of being the effeminate son of a rejecting, homophobic father. Louis’ lean prose registers the pain of these encounters (“I cried all morning”) but includes an exacting, sociological gaze. He considers the corrosiveness of his father’s masculinity as a broader social inheritance, handed down through generations. “Masculine insanity” from his own father had wrought domestic violence. “Masculine pride” had demanded he drop out of school as soon as possible, setting him up for the lowest ­paying work. “It was the rule in the world you lived in: be a man, don’t act like a girl, don’t be a faggot.” In the book’s path from the personal to the political, such forms of circumscribed masculinity become another form of social exclusion, a false ideology: “As far as I can tell, constructing your masculinity meant depriving yourself of any other life, any other future, any other prospect that school might have opened up.”

For all its reckoning with the father–son relationship, what really drives this book is a political rage that few of Louis’ contemporaries can harness. The book ends with a virulent j’accuse aimed at a string of politicians whose decisions have pushed Louis’ father closer to death through callous economic rationalisation, falling hardest on the poor. “Jacques Chirac … destroyed your intestines.” “Sarkozy [was] breaking your back.” “Macron is taking the bread from your mouth.” What Who Killed My Father refuses to deny is the ravaging force these political figures exert. “Why do we never name these names in a biography?”

 

Harvill Secker; $24.99

Emma Fajgenbaum

Emma Fajgenbaum is an editor at Jacobin.

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