‘Our past is still there in our present. So we remake ourselves, we recreate ourselves (a task that is never finished, always needing to be taken up again), but we do not make ourselves, we do not create ourselves.’
Edouard Louis, the young French writer who has written – controversially in France, at least – about sexuality and class, has often cited Didier Eribon’s ’Returning to Reims’ as akin to ‘reading the story of my life‘. Given my praise of Louis books ‘The End of Eddy‘ and ‘History of Violence‘, Eribon’s book seemed like a must.
Didier Eribon is Professor of Sociology at the University of Amiens. He grew up in an impoverished working class part of Reims, an intelligent, gay outsider who – once he had the means and ambition – left a painful past behind him, only returning when his father was terminally ill. He returns to find an alienated working class whose neglect has pushed many further away from his own left-leaning beliefs and politics (which he sees as the natural home of the working classes) into far right territory. This book is an attempt to understand the reasons for his escape, the reasons why he felt shame at his working class origins and how his homosexuality energised his thirst for ‘freedom’ together with the causes an implications of the shifting experience of working class life.
There is a lot to admire in this book. It is interesting to hear his intentions to come to terms with the shame he felt at his working class origins, about how he has ‘had such an intense experience of forms of shame related to class, shame in relation to the milieu in which I grew up…’ but this intent sometimes comes across as an academic exercise rather than a heartfelt desire. Whilst reading the novels of Edouard Louis I wondered why – considering the clear autobiographical nature of the books – he had chosen fiction as a method of publishing his story. Unfortunately, ‘Returning to Reims’ shows just why that might be: in comparison this book is filled with dull academic speak and sentences, paragraphs which achieve only one thing: migraine. Perhaps, I thought, this stodginess could lay at the translator’s door. Camille Paglia, for example, when discussing the translation of French philosophers:
‘Most American academics are totally lost when trying to read French polemic. They have no idea that in French you can form sentences that are virtually content free, that are merely rhetorical flourishes echoing, reversing, or sabotaging prior French sentences’
However, Eribon actually shares the same translator – Micheal Lucey – as Louis’ ‘The End of Eddy’. So, it would appear, the faults are Eribon’s own, including the stinking snobbishness and aloofness which returns time and again to betray Eribon’s noble intentions:
‘The Grandfather I knew was a window washer’ (why use this strange phrase when the more dignified ‘window cleaner’ is just as appropriate)
‘All my life I have been well positioned to notice what an extent normality and abnormality are realities that are not only relative, but also relational, mobile, contextual…’ (Hmm, so Miss sets herself above the rest of us does she?)
‘My subconscious had kept it hidden,’ she said, making odd use of some psychanalytic lingo she must have heard on television.‘ (Because – silly me – the only source of instruction for working class people is television? And exactly why is the phrase so ‘odd’? It seems perfectly fine to me)
Sometimes, there is a clear, lucid mind at work, commenting on how modern politics (both left and right) often doesn’t pay attention to the reality of people’s situations and lives, preferring neat little boxes and simple definitions to the messy reality…and a system which ends up blaming those people for not conforming to those constructions; of how those very people he writes about are unlikely to read the book that writing produces; the ‘linguistic inventiveness’ of the working class (which I have also written about here); and how ‘artistic and literary objects’ inject into an individual a sense of self-worth, ‘a gap between yourself and others – those from an ‘inferior’ or ‘uncultured’ class’, often displayed in galleries where that feeling of superiority ‘can be read in the discreet smile which never leaves their lips , or the way on which they hold themselves, the way they talk knowingly as connoisseurs , the way they display how at ease they are in these circumstances.’ – something which is often unavailable to the working classes (Again, something I have also written about).
I can perfectly understand the conundrum of being balanced between two worlds, viewing a dichotomy which seems impossible to bridge, but to do so needs a brutal honesty both about oneself and those across the divide. It strikes me that what Eribon lacks in self awareness he more than makes up for in disdain he shows to the working class he left behind. Take, for example, his remembrance of an incident in his childhood when he witnessed his mother being abuse by the woman who employed her:
‘Even today, remembering that scene – and that horrible tone of voice! – what disgust I feel for a world in which insulting people comes as easily as breathing, what hatred has remained with me over the years for those kinds of power relations, those hierarchical structures!’
And yet, Eribon is part of that hierarchy – a part considerably higher than the place he left behind – but nowhere does he clearly acknowledge this. Sure, he implies and circles around the point but brutal honesty is the only way to deal with the possibility that a reader may get a whiff (or rather more than a whiff) of hypocrisy and romance.
Occasionally, Eribon can be bold in his assertions. When talking about democracy he confesses that be believes the notion of everyone being equal is a nonsense: not everyone has the skills, knowledge or ability to become a leader – and there is some truth in this, however uncomfortable it may be to those who believe in equality for all. But then he goes and shoots himself in the foot by implying that the overriding notion of ‘competence’ should also be based upon and person’s beliefs: so are we really to accept a form of democracy which precludes certain people from an elected office because of their opinions or beliefs? Really?
…I would not want my mother or my brothers to have their lot drawn…in order to take part in ruling the city in the name of their ‘competence’. The choices they would make would be no different from those they express in the way they vote…’ (my boldness)
Thinking back across his childhood, Eribon also realises that his sexuality played a role his escape: through books and politics, the young boy receives glimpses of a different life, seeing the ‘intellectual’ world as a means to escape the homophobic bullying, as a place where he might finally fit in. But, rather than provide this as a simple statement of fact (and one which many LGBT people may recognise), Eribon feels the need to puff it up until he appears be casting pearls to swine, telling us something new and revolutionary:
‘…it is not…that homosexuality is a way out that someone invents in order to avoid suffocating. It is rather that someone’s homosexuality obliges them to find away out in order to avoid suffocating.’
Of course, sometimes such obviousness does need to be reiterated for, as we all know amongst all the sloganeering and posturing of LGBT politics the truth, the bitter reality is often lost.
‘It is never enough… to have turned the stigma around, to have reappropriated the insult and changed its meaning; to do so does not do away with its capacity to hurt us. We walk a tightrope between the wounding meaning contained within the insulting word and the prideful reappropriation we might have made of it.’
As you can probably guess I found Eribon’s book is a frustrating read: simple truths wrapped up in back breaking verbal gymnastics; a failure to analyse his own position within his journey and, most importantly the failure to address his terrible snobbishness which threatens to capsize the whole undertaking…and yet, there are moments of insight and thoughtfulness which makes me think there was a great book waiting to escape these pages. Unfortunately for Eribon, it took Edouard Louis to write it.