A pointed reflection on class injustice and toxic masculinity from the young French author of ‘The End of Eddy’
It is more common for novels and memoirs (of which this book is both) to be more interested in psychological than sociological insights. The integration of sociological critique with creative writing is one of the aspects of Édouard Louis’ work which is so exciting. Who Killed My Father (the lack of a question mark is significant) is Louis’ third book all of which engage with his youth, relationships with his family (particularly his father) experience of poverty and discrimination and exclusion due to social class and sexuality. This book is focused on Louis’ father and the social structural factors, social policies, economics and symbolic violence which killed him.
It is the story of a man (through the eyes of his son) who epitomises the kind of poor working class, rural masculinity characterised by hard work, heavy drinking, patriarchal domination and homophobia. Although his father is not let off lightly and his brutality is made clear (as it is in Louis’s first book The End of Eddy) it is nevertheless tremendously effective at revealing the multiple ways in which a working-class man is physically and psychologically broken over many years.
Louis’ father worked for much of his life in a factory in the rural village where he grew up until he sustained a crippling back injury in an accident at work. He was never able to return to work and from that point on the family survived on benefits, a lower paid job sweeping streets and his wife’s income. For a man whose personality was structured around traditional patriarchal ideals this was devastating. With no work (or at least none which could provide him with a strong sense of identity) he filled his time with TV, smoking, drinking pastis with his friends and demonstrating his masculinity through anger and physical aggression. But Louis makes it clear that as devastating as his father’s injury was he had always lived “on the outskirts of [his] life”, he had always lived a life that wasn’t his own because he had felt trapped and controlled by economic and social structures. Even if he had never suffered his tragedy he would still have been marginalised and maligned. The injury just led to him falling into one of the worst social categories for Nicholas Sarkozy who he called les assistés:
those who, according to him, are stealing money from French society because they don’t work […] What he was telling you was that if you didn’t work you didn’t belong, you were a thief, you were a deadbeat, you were what Simone De Beauvoir would have called a useless mouth […] This kind of humiliation by the ruling class broke your back all over again
Louis’ father is beaten down repeatedly by his lack of opportunities, the repetitive work in the factory (leading to his use of the ventilator later in life), the accident which mangled his back, the years of bending over a broom to sweep the streets and the succession of punitive social policies targeted at him and others like him.
But Louis’ father is no working-class hero but a node for the convergence of poverty and toxic masculinity. This is exemplified in an event Louis recounts as evidence that even he, as an emotionally abused child, wasn’t innocent in his father’s demise. After a homophobic rant from his mother Louis used the information he had accidentally stumbled upon that his mother was secretly supplying his older brother with money against his father’s wishes to exact revenge upon her. Knowing that revealing this information would stoke his father’s rage Louis revealed this to him while the family were eating dinner and so incited a violent fight between the men which the brother got the better of. Although this fight didn’t end in death it was so violent that the young Louis, and seemingly his mother too, genuinely believed it could. Louis recalls the moment of his revelation and the nastiness of his motivations:
I want her to suffer,
and I know that starting a fight between my brother and my father is the best way to make her suffer. My eyes meet hers, she says, You really are a rotten little shit. She doesn’t try to lie. She looked ready to vomit with disgust. I bow my head. I start to feel ashamed of what I’ve just done, but for now the pleasure of revenge is uppermost in my mind (later, shame will be all that’s left).
In context this anecdote reveals how lack of money, homophobia, resentment at underprivilege and class-based stigmatisation flow through individuals and manifest as petty, violent and destructive emotions and behaviours. This story highlights both the simmering rage implicit in his father’s version of working-class masculinity and their proximity to injury or death. While Louis and his family are presented as complicit in one another’s suffering we are left in doubt as to who the real culprits are in his father’s death.
They are Jacques Chirac and his health minister Xavier Bertrand; Nicolas Sarkozy, Martin Hirsch for the unemployment benefit reforms supposed to incentivise work; Francois Hollande, his Labour minister and prime minister who revised employment law enabling the overworking of men like Louis’ father; Emmanuel Macron and his reduction in housing subsidies (while introducing tax cuts for the wealthiest). For Louis these “are murderers who are never named for their murders”.
These “murderers” do, however, sometimes bring joy but only because the expectations of the excluded have been ground down so low. When the French government’s “back-to-school subsidy” was granted a small increase Louis’ father was overjoyed they took a celebratory family trip to the beach.
Among those who have everything, I have never seen a family go to the seaside just to celebrate a political decision, because for them politics changes almost nothing […] Politics never changes their lives, at least not much. What’s strange, too, is that they are the ones who engage in politics has almost no effect on their lives. The ruling class in general, politics is a question of aesthetics: a way of seeing themselves, seeing the world, constructing a personality. For us it was a life or death.
In this book Louis is able to reveal explicitly what his father knew intuitively, that decisions made by politicians for strategic, moralistic or flippant reasons mould the lives, emotions, personalities and bodies of the people. What’s more it is the poorest and most marginalised who feel the biggest force from the swings of their political hammers but they can only take so much before they or their bodies give up.
Who Killed My Father, by Édouard Louis, translated by Lorin Stein, Harvill Secker, RRP£8.99, 96 pages