A 21st CENTURY ‘J’ACCUSE’: ‘Qui a tué mon père’ by Édouard Louis

At the age of just 26, Édouard Louis (born Eddy Bellegueule) has published three novels which have been translated into over twenty languages, becoming one of France’s most-read writers in the process. Like many intellectuels engagés who operated between the 1930s and the 1970s, when, according to historian Michel Leymarie (2001), political engagement was key to the role of the intellectual, Louis works to challenge public thinking on the most important socio-political issues of our time, often with direct critiques of the ruling class, or, as he calls them, les dominants.

Louis’s latest work, Qui a tué mon père (Seuil, 2018), tells the story of his father’s deteriorating health through a recent history of French politics, detailing how specific laws and reforms, from the presidency of Jacques Chirac onwards, have directly affected his father’s wellbeing.

On 17 May 2018, shortly after the publication of Qui a tué mon père, Louis appeared on France 5 literary TV program La Grande Librairie to discuss the novel. The interview raises many issues central to Louis’s role as a writer, as well as offering a space to speak emotively about an innately intimate subject.

The interview begins with François Busnel, presenter of the show, noting the glaring absence of a question mark in the novel’s title:

“ce n’est pas une question (…) c’est peut-être une accusation ?”

(it’s not a question (…) might this be an accusation?)

This idea has already been raised elsewhere in the media, and illustrates the capacity of the interview format to pose critical ideas. One critic to draw a comparison with Émile Zola’s ground-breaking 1898 article J’accuse was Nelly Kaprièlian in Les Inrockuptibles:

Qui a tué mon père n’est pas une question – c’est une réponse  (…)  en forme de “J’accuse” hyper contemporain’ (Kaprièlan, 1/5/18).

(‘Who Killed My Father’ isn’t a question – it’s a response (…) in the form of a very contemporary ‘J’accuse’)

Louis concurs with Busnel’s suggestion, and goes on to explain his accusation in a very personal and emotive manner, with the example of current president Emmanuel Macron’s government cutting welfare benefits for France’s poorest citizens by €5 a month (on 22 July 2017, it was announced that from October of the same year, the APL (personal housing allowance) would be reduced). The writer states that, often, as a child, there were days when his family had nothing left to eat, and that €5 would be the difference between eating or not eating:

“Le gouvernement a dit que 5 € c’est rien, mais justement c’est des gens qui sont pas exposés à la politique, qui savent pas ce qui est la politique, ce que ça veut dire pour un corps” (sic)

(The government said that €5 is nothing, but that’s precisely because these people aren’t exposed to the effects of politics, who don’t know what politics is, what that means for a human body)

The simple language and messages that Louis uses here is key in distinguishing him from the typical French intellectual who would often seem at pains to explain highly complex ideas in the interview form. Claude Lévi-Strauss once stated: “The basic weakness of the interview form is that it lures you into restating very badly something you took great pains to express a little better in writing” (cited in Johnson, 2003).

Louis’s style of response in the interview reflects the simplistic language used in his novel which has been criticised by certain critics, such as Olivia de Lamberterie and Jean-Claude Raspiengeas. However, in this way, the personal and condensed nature of the interview format particularly suits Louis. His emotional yet measured response clearly captivates his audience including fellow studio guest, writer Geneviève Brisac (below), who is visibly moved by Louis’s words.

The likely audience of La Grande Librairie, would be, for the most part, those educated, privileged people that Louis says have very little conscience of the real effects of politics on the French working-class. As such, the writer can attempt to challenge the standpoint of the dominants through the interview by representing a discourse which is often underrepresented. In Louis’s own words on La Grande Librairie:

“Il y a des vies qui sont beaucoup moins racontées que les autres”

(There are some lives which aren’t told nearly as much as others)

Unlike the television interview of the past, Louis’s words will reach further than the show’s studio and home audiences. Perhaps the widest reaching reproduction of such interviews in today’s context will be short clips consumed on social media, allowing Louis to reach a different audience who may not normally watch La Grande Librairie.

In a separate TV interview with chain La Première, Louis tells the aforementioned story relating to the welfare cuts – an excerpt of the interview was posted on Twitter by a personal account, and now has over 2,500 retweets and 3,500 ‘likes’. In a society that is becoming increasingly more focused on consuming more brief and concise information, or ‘news-snacking’, as defined by Meijer and Kormelink (2015) in their work on the changing patterns of news consumption, the modern intellectual has to condense their ideas to fit the time and space. This information fast-food has also allowed for a greater possibility of reaching the masses, including sectors of the French working-class who, according to Louis’s novel, often turn to the often racist discourse of populists.

However, in his position as an established writer on La Grande Librairie, does Édouard Louis form part of those very dominants he so criticises? After all, his first novel En finir avec Eddy Belleguele (Seuil, 2014) was criticised for being untruthful by many people from his home village, including his own mother.

When Busnel questions whether Louis’s social status has shifted from dominé to dominant, the author agrees and cites Jean-Paul Sartre, which the presenter then refutes as an impersonal response that doesn’t tell of Louis’s personal experiences. The following response that Louis gives, with a wry smile, offers insight into how he considers his role:

“Je crois pas beaucoup à l’écart entre la théorie et l’expérience, et donc quand je cite Jean-Paul Sartre je parle d’une expérience aussi personnelle (…) la littérature c’est de fait un instrument des dominants (…) et il y a cette question de comment dire quelque chose sur les dominés, avec les instruments des dominants” (sic)

(I don’t believe in a difference between theory and experience, and so when I cite Jean-Paul Sartre I’m also speaking about a personal experience (…) literature is de facto an instrument of the dominating-classes (…) and there’s this question of how can we say something about the working-classes, with the instruments of the dominating-classes)

Louis implies here that he does not see a contradiction between his newfound social standing and his harsh critique of the very sector of society he is now part of. Given he has personally lived the issues being discussed, the lack of distinction between theory and experience means he can use the instruments at his disposal as a dominant to challenge the spectator’s view, whether that be the educated La Grande Librairie viewer, the French working-class he addresses in his novel, or anyone in between.

 

CLIP STUDIED:
‘« Qui a tué mon père », le nouveau livre d’Édouard Louis’ La Grande Librairie, 18/05/2018 retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7fZJMcUvI0

All uncredited images are stills from the above YouTube clip.

Full show available at: https://www.france.tv/france-5/la-grande-librairie/saison-10/497203-la-grande-librairie.html

FURTHER READING:

Primary sources:

Dryef, Zinab: ‘Edouard Louis : la vie avec ses frères d’armes et d’esprit’, Le Monde, 10/08/2018, retrieved from: https://www.lemonde.fr/m-actu/article/2018/08/10/edouard-louis-la-vie-avec-ses-freres-d-armes-et-d-esprit_5341064_4497186.html

Greenwell, Garth: ‘Get Out of Town’, The New Yorker, 08/05/2017, retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/08/growing-up-poor-and-queer-in-a-french-village

Kaprièlian, Nelly: ‘Edouard Louis : “La politique est une question de meurtre”, Les Inrockuptibles, 01/05/2018, retrieved from: https://www.lesinrocks.com/2018/05/01/livres/edouard-louis-la-politique-est-une-question-de-meurtre-111077398/

Leyris, Raphaëlle: ‘Edouard Louis : “Empêcher le lecteur de détourner le regard”’, Le Monde, 11/05/2018, retrieved from: https://www.lemonde.fr/livres/article/2018/05/10/edouard-louis-empecher-le-lecteur-de-detourner-le-regard_5297104_3260.html

Louis, Édouard: ‘Qui a tué mon père’ (Seuil, Paris, 2018)

Rédaction France Inter: ‘”Qui a tué mon père” : que vaut le “J’accuse” d’Edouard Louis ?’, France Inter, 17/05/2018, retrieved from: https://www.franceinter.fr/livres/qui-a-tue-mon-pere-que-vaut-le-j-accuse-d-edouard-louis

Rédaction le HuffPost avec AFP: ‘Les APL vont baisser de 5 euros par mois dès le 1er octobre, annonce le gouvernement’, Huffington Post France, 22/07/2017, retrieved from: https://www.huffingtonpost.fr/2017/07/22/les-apl-vont-baisser-de-5-euros-par-mois-des-le-1er-octobre-ann_a_23042652/

Rédaction Le Parisien: ‘Le village d’Eddy Bellegueule a la gueule de bois’, Le Parisien, 13/04/2014, retrieved from: http://www.leparisien.fr/espace-premium/culture-loisirs/le-village-d-eddy-bellegueule-a-la-gueule-de-bois-13-04-2014-3763971.php

Secondary sources:

Johnson, Christopher: ‘Lévi-Strauss in his Interviews’ in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 42 No. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 33-47, retrieved from: https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/pdfplus/10.3366/nfs.2003.004

Kritzman, Laurence. D: ‘The Intellectual’ in Laurence D. Kritzman, ed., The Columbia History of French Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)

Leymarie, Michel: ‘Les intellectuels et la politique en France’, Que sais-je ?,  (Presses Universitaires de France, 2001)

Meijer, Irene Costera & Kormelink, Tim Groot: ‘Checking, Sharing, Clicking and Linking’, Digital Journalism, 3:5, 664-679, 2015, DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2014.937149, retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2014.937149
Nugara, Silvia: ‘Reacting to social domination: class, sex and politics in Didier Éribon and Édouard Louis’s autobiographies’ in The Political Imaginary: Commitment, Resistance, Ideology, Vol. 5, No, 10 (2015) ISSN 2039-6597. Available at: http://ojs.unica.it/index.php/between/article/view/1546 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13125/2039-6597/1546.

 

 

 

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