Reading Edouard Louis’ The End of Eddy (translated by Michael Lucey) I was somehow reminded of the anti-Kailyard Scottish novel, The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown. Both writers came from poverty (Brown’s father was a farmer who never acknowledged him, his mother a servant); both went on to university (after graduating with a First in Classics from Glasgow, Brown studied at Oxford). Brown’s (only) novel, also set in a small rural community, differs in its focus on a relatively wealthy family, the successful businessman, Gourlay, who struggles in the face of competition, but Gourlay’s treatment of his son, John, whose lack of masculine attributes sees him defined as weak and sickly, resonated with the way the narrator of The End of Eddy is perceived
I mention this because The House with the Green Shutters was published in 1901, over a hundred years ago. The End of Eddy was published in 2014 and is set in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Eddy’s father was born in the same year as I was. And yet Eddy’s childhood is no better than John’s:
“From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all of those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system.”
Eddy is also born in a rural village – in the North of France – into a society where gender roles are distinct and inflexible. For men, the most important characteristic is ‘toughness’:
“The village tough guys, who embodied all the much-touted masculine values, refused to conform to school discipline and it was important to him that he had been a tough guy. When my father would say of one of my brothers or cousins that he was tough, I could hear the admiration in his voice.”
Toughness is therefore in opposition to education and requires leaving school to work in the local factory, a job which will ruin Eddy’s father’s health to the point he can no longer work. Toughness must also be passed on to the following generation (there is, after all, nothing else to pass on): “A father reinforced his own masculine identity through his sons.” Eddy, however, lacks even the basics needed to fake it:
“All too soon I shattered the hopes and dreams of my father… When I began to express myself, when I learned to speak, spontaneously my voice took on feminine inflections. It was higher pitched than most other boys. Every time I spoke my hands waved frenetically every which way, twisting about, stirring up the air.”
Eddy attempts to fit in – playing football, for example – but cannot sustain an interest. This isn’t to say he is immediately vilified, simply regarded as “a little weird” or even congratulated on being “well brought up.” School, however, is a different matter, and the novel opens with a scene of bullying which will continue daily for years. Eddy also tries to fit in sexually. At school he writes persistently to a girl until she agrees to go out with him, arranging to meet in the playground:
“Laura was waiting for me. She wasn’t alone. People had heard, so others were there to witness the scene. They wanted to see me kiss a girl.”
This goes on for days and when eventually he begins to feel an erection he believes for a moment that “my body was giving into my will.” Laura, however, tries of being the girlfriend of a ‘homo’. On another occasion, his sister arranges for him to date an older girl, Sabrina, eventually plotting for them to spend the night together, but Eddy cannot become aroused, no matter what fantasies he calls on.
The story of Eddy coming to terms with his sexuality is important but, if anything, the tensions created by his class are even more threatening. When he eventually escapes school, and his parents (earlier he speaks of “the impossibility of really changing while I was still in the world of my parents, of school”) he wonders ironically whether he is not, in fact, gay but simply “had a bourgeois body that was trapped in the world of my childhood.”
Though it is clear by the end that he has left his childhood behind, this is not quite Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Its main focus is the world of his youth, which is viewed with an anthropological intensity. The racist, homophobic attitudes are perhaps less of a surprise now than they were in 2014, but quite how “nasty, brutish and short” the lives of those around him are will hopefully still shock. The sadness of this novel is not Eddy’s story, but the story of all those left behind.