Violence is everywhere: Tash Aw on Edouard Louis in the LRB

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EVENT: we’re delighted to be welcoming Edouard Louis back to Bloomsbury in June, to discuss his latest novel A History of Violence with his former tutor Didier Eribon (whose memoir Returning to Reims is also reissued by Allen Lane in June). Book tickets here. Louis’ last visit to the Bookshop, discussing his powerful debut The End of Eddy, kept a full house enthralled, and the conversation around A History of Violence promises to be every bit as compelling. To whet your appetites, we’ve excerpted below fellow resident of Picardy Tash Aw’s terrific review of both books in the LRB.

A chance encounter on Christmas Eve ends with Edouard Louis, a student at the École Normale Supérieure, taking a stranger back to his apartment. Louis has struggled with the decision to invite the man to share his home and his body, and now, poised on the brink of terrible physical and emotional violence that will have long-standing consequences for both of them, the young men have choices to make. Both have a chance to end the sequence of events that led them to this point: in other words, to flee. But neither does. ‘I believe that each decision made that evening,’ Louis writes in Histoire de la violence, ‘on my part as well as his, rendered all other decisions impossible the very moment afterwards; that each choice destroyed all other possible choices, and that the more he chose, the less free he became.’

This sense of being trapped – by society, class, family, one’s own body and desires, even by seemingly free choice itself – permeates Louis’s work. His pair of heavily autobiographical novels – both huge bestsellers in France – are built on the conflict between the urge to break free of social and emotional shackles and the inability to do so. Violence is everywhere, manifesting itself both in physical brutality and in the long-standing cycles of oppression and deprivation that render the principal players in Louis’s story powerless to change their fate. Everyone – the young Louis himself, his family and the inhabitants of his childhood village, and, much later, his assailant in Paris, and even the bigoted police officers who interview him after his ordeal – is merely fulfilling a predestined role.

In a brief interlude in Histoire de la violence, Louis reflects on his reading of Faulkner’s Sanctuary, and notes Temple Drake’s inability to escape from the people who raped and abducted her, even when the opportunity presents itself. She has no clear understanding of her actions, and is incapable of resisting bad choices. The interlude takes place at a point of high drama in Louis’s novel – he will soon be strangled and raped at gunpoint by the man he has picked up – but even at that moment he is aware of the alternative choices available to him. He does not take them.

Read the full review online at lrb.co.uk. Edouard Louis and Didier Eribon will be in conversation at St George’s Church, round the corner from the Bookshop, on Wednesday 13 June. Book tickets here.

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