History of Violence is international bestselling French author Edouard Louis’s autobiographical novel about surviving a shocking sexual assault and coping with the post-traumatic stress disorder of its aftermath.
On Christmas Eve 2012, in Paris, the novelist Édouard Louis was raped and almost murdered by a man he had just met. This act of violence left Louis shattered; its aftermath made him a stranger to himself and sent him back to the village, the family, and the past he had sworn to leave behind.
A bestseller in France, History of Violence is a short nonfiction novel in the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but with the victim as its subject. Moving seamlessly and hypnotically between past and present, between Louis’s voice and the voice of an imagined narrator, History of Violence has the exactness of a police report and the searching, unflinching curiosity of memoir at its best. It records not only the casual racism and homophobia of French society but also their subtle effects on lovers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. It represents a great step forward for a young writer whose acuity, skill, and depth are unmatched by any novelist of his generation, in French or English.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Édouard Louis is the author of the international bestsellers The End of Eddy and History of Violence, and the editor of a scholarly work on the social scientist Pierre Bourdieu. Compared to Jean Genet by The Paris Review, his work deals with sexuality, class, and violence. Louis was born Eddy Bellegeule in the working-class village of Hallencourt in northern France, and he attended the École Normale Supérieure and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.
Lorin Stein is a critic, translator, and former editor of The Paris Review.
Read an Excerpt
I am hidden on the other side of the door, I listen, and she says that several hours after what the copy of the report I keep twice-folded in my drawer calls the attempted homicide, and which I call the same thing for lack of a better word, since no other term is more appropriate for what happened, which means I always have the anxious nagging feeling that my story, whether told by me or whomever else, begins with a falsehood, I left my apartment and went downstairs.
I crossed the street in the rain so I could wash my sheets on the hot setting at the laundromat down the block, just fifty meters from the door to my building, I was bent double, the laundry bag was so big and heavy my legs trembled under its weight.
It wasn't yet light out. The street was empty. I was alone and as I stumbled along, though I had such a short way to go, I found myself counting in my haste: Just fifty more steps, keep going, just twenty more steps and you're there. I hurried faster. In my impatience for the future, which would, somehow or other, dispatch, consign, reduce this scene to the past, I found myself thinking: In a week you'll say, It's been a whole week since it happened, keep going, and in a year you'll say, It's been a whole year since it happened. The drops of freezing rain weren't beating down but fell in a thin, clammy drizzle that soaked through the canvas of my shoes, the water oozed its way through my insoles and the fabric of my socks. I was cold — and I thought: He could come back, he's bound to come back, now I can never go home, he's driven me from my home. The manager of the laundromat was on duty, his blocky chest and head looming up across the rows of machines. He asked how it was going, I said Bad, in the hardest voice I could muster. I waited for him to say something. I wanted him to say something. But he let it go, he shrugged, he turned and disappeared into the little office of his, tucked away behind the dryers, and I hated him for not asking what I meant.
I went back with the clean sheets. I climbed the stairs in a sweat. I remade the bed, but still it smelled like Reda, so I lit candles, I burned incense; it wasn't enough; I took air freshener, deodorant, bottles of cologne that I'd been given for my last birthday, aftershave, and I sprayed the sheets, I soaked the pillowcases, even though I'd just washed them, until the material foamed with thick clustering suds. I washed the wooden chairs with soap and water, took a damp sponge to the books he'd handled, rubbed the doorknobs with antiseptic wipes, dusted the wooden blinds slat by slat, moved and rearranged the stacks of books on the floor, polished the metal bed frame, scoured the smooth white refrigerator door with lemon-scented detergent; I couldn't stop, I was possessed by an almost manic energy. I thought: Better crazy than dead. I scrubbed the shower he'd used, dumped several liters of bleach into the toilet and sink (it was two liters at least — a bottle and a half), scrubbed the entire bathroom, it was absurd, I even cleaned the mirror where he'd observed, or really admired, his reflection the night before, and I threw away the clothes he'd touched, washing them wasn't good enough; I don't know why it was good enough for the sheets but not the clothes. I got down on my hands and knees and scrubbed the floor, the steaming water scalded my fingers, the rag tore the tender skin away in little oblong strips. The bits of skin curled up on themselves. I paused, I took deep breaths, the truth is I was sniffing like an animal, I had become an animal, sniffing after the scent that seemed never to disappear, no matter what I did, his smell wouldn't go away, so I decided it must be on me, not on the sheets or the furniture. I was the problem. I got in the shower, I washed myself once, twice, three times, and so on. I lathered my body with soap, shampoo, conditioner to perfume it as best I could, it was as if his smell were encrusted inside me, between the flesh and the epidermis, and I scraped at every inch of my body with my nails, I sanded away in a fury, trying to reach the inner layers of my skin and get rid of his smell, I swore out loud, "Fuck," and the longer the smell persisted, the sicker and dizzier I felt. Then I realized: The smell is inside my nose. You're smelling the inside of your nose. The smell is stuck in my nose. I left the bathroom, came back with saline, and squirted it into my nostrils; I exhaled as if I were blowing my nose so that — this was the effect I wanted to produce — the saline would get to the entire inner surface of my nostrils; it didn't do any good; I left the windows open and went to go see Henri, the only friend I had who was awake that December 25 at nine or ten in the morning.
My sister is the one describing this scene to her husband. I still recognize her voice even after my years away, her voice compounded, as always, of fury, resentment, irony too, and resignation:
"But that's the thing, it didn't surprise me at all and that's exactly what got me so mad, because when he told me — and he was sitting right there where you are now, and here I was listening, he always goes on about how nobody listens to him, which I mean, please, that's not the problem, the problem is he never wants anyone else to talk, only him and he never stops, but as I was saying, when he told me how he left the hospital that day and it hit me how he never called me the day it happened, I said to myself: Of course not — but I kept my mouth shut, and at first I just sat there and dealt with it. I dealt with it. I was proud of the way I dealt with it, actually. I patted myself on the back. And I told myself, You knew who you were dealing with, did you really think he'd pick up the phone or, heaven forbid, come to visit (here it comes). I'm not saying he should have called me before he called everybody else or told me everything in detail right then and there, it's not like I want to be the first person he calls, I'm not saying call and spend three hours on the phone, or three days, not at all. All I'm saying is call.
"But so I let him talk. I dig my nails into my hands, deep, to keep from bawling him out. I could see the big veins come up on my hands while he went on talking, I was clenching them so hard, they looked like beets, and all that time, the whole entire time, I was swallowing my spit to swallow the words I felt rising up in my throat, and I just kept telling myself: Hold it together, Clara. Hold it together.
"And finally I told him. Édouard, I mean. I told all this to my mother yesterday, he says he doesn't want to see her but so what, that's between them, it's not my problem. Let them fight (that's not true, she's lying to him, in fact she has tried desperately to make peace between you, she's done everything she could think of, everything, just the way your mother would try to make peace in her own family, as if the role had been passed down from one to the other). I called her to tell her how he's doing, and I told her, I said, Oh my, you should have seen how it all came out, it just came out all by itself while Édouard was talking — it really is stronger than I am, I told her, but Maman, you know how I am, I've always had to say what's on my mind, and it's too late to change now, I'm too old, I've been around for a quarter of a century, and that's not the way I do things, it just isn't, I don't care if he wants to harp on bad memories, that doesn't mean I have to shut up, no way, I won't put up with that kind of blackmail. I'm sorry, I told her, but no, because if you give in to that kind of blackmail then you don't say anything, and that means you stop ever talking about anything and you're always biting your tongue about something and that's no way to live, so I told my mother what I said to Édouard: You could at least have tried, it wouldn't have been that hard, for Christ sake, you could have done it, you could have called me that day. It's not exactly complicated, is it, it's not like you're a righty with two left hands, you do know how to work a goddamn phone. To think it's been almost a year since it happened and he only told me this week. That for a whole year I didn't know anything about it, not until this week.
"And I didn't even mention that she asked him while he was there at the hospital. The nurse, I mean. I know this for a fact. She leaned toward him — she was good at her job and knew what to do, she was a good person, he told me so himself. She leaned toward him and she said, Do you want to contact your family? Do you have any family somewhere you ought to contact? — and what does he say, all calm like it's nothing: No, no, thank you, that's okay. And so he was sitting there yesterday right where you're sitting now. He was practically in the same position and then he imitated himself the way he told the nurse: No, no, thank you, that's okay, and that's why I gave him a dirty look, because I wanted him to know how I felt. And then I thought: I'm more than a quarter century old. We're practically the same age. I've known him for almost a quarter of a century and he hasn't changed a bit (but also, as soon as you arrived she started talking, nonstop, without listening to anything you said, telling you all the trivial gossip of the village, describing all the weddings and funerals of people whose names you don't even remember, as if that way she could give herself the illusion, and give you the illusion, that you'd never left, that thesestories still concerned you and that she was picking up a conversation that the two of you had only just abandoned, a day or an hour before. And so you decided to take your revenge)."
* * *
I SHOWED UP at her house four days ago. I'd told myself, naïvely, that time in the country was what I needed in order to get over the weariness and passivity that had consumed my life, but no sooner had I walked through the door, thrown my bag down on the bed, and opened the bedroom window, with its view of the woods and the factory in the next village, than I knew it was a mistake and that I'd go home feeling even worse than before, even more depressed by my own inertia.
It's been two years since my last visit. When she complains about how long I've been away, I mumble some empty cliché like "I need to make a life of my own" and try to sound as if I mean it, as if it were her fault, not mine.
But really I have no idea what I'm doing here. The last time I came, she picked me up in the same car, with the same sickening smell of old tobacco, and as I watched the same fields roll by on the other side of the door — the corn and rapeseed, the same reeking acres of sugar beets, the rows of brick houses, the loathsome National Front posters, the grim little churches, the abandoned gas stations, the rusted-out, falling-down supermarkets surrounded by pasture, the depressing landscape of northern France — I was overcome by a wave of nausea. I'd realized that it would make me lonely. By the time I left, I told myself I hated the country and I swore I'd never come back. And now here I am again. And there's another reason you stayed away. Not just because you always start fighting the minute you show up, I thought when I arrived, when I was in her car, when I was singing so we wouldn't have to talk, not just because you experience everything about her — how she acts, the things she does, the way she thinks — as a personal attack, as an affront. You've also stayed away because you've discovered how easy it is to cut her loose, how little you actually miss her, and sometimes you rub her face in it because you want her help, because you want her to help you leave. Now she knows. She knows how cold you can be and you're ashamed. Even if there's no reason to be ashamed, even if you have every right to cut her loose, still you're ashamed. You know that coming to see her means facing your own cruelty, what in your shame you call your cruelty. To see her is to see a side of yourself you don't like, and that makes you resent her. You can't help it.
Since my last visit, all I've sent is a few text messages and a few perfunctory postcards, pictures chosen at random out of some vague sense of familial obligation. She's stuck them to her fridge with magnets, each postcard hastily scribbled from a park bench or a table in some café ("Kisses from Barcelona, See you soon, Édouard" or "Thinking of you in Rome, beautiful weather"), maybe less to keep up our connection — which is what I tell myself — than to remind her of the distance between us, to make her understand we'll never be close again.
* * *
HER HUSBAND IS HOME FROM WORK. From where I'm standing, I can just see his feet. He and Clara are in the parlor, I'm in the next room. With the door ajar, I can hear whatever they say, but they can't see me hiding here rigid behind the door. I can't see them either — except for his feet — but my ears tell me she's sitting in the chair across the room. He listens, motionless, and she speaks.
"He told me straight out he hardly knew a thing about the man, except his first name was Reda."
Didier and Geoffroy say he was lying, they say he gave me a made-up name. For all I know, they're right. But I refuse to believe it, each time the thought occurs to me I bat it away. I focus on something else, as if, after all he took away, I want him to leave me that much, as if my knowing those four letters could bring a kind of revenge or, if revenge is too strong a word, at least a kind of power over him, a power derived from knowledge. I don't want to lose that, too. Whenever I tell this story and I hear someone say that, obviously, he didn't give me his real name, when I'm told it's textbook to use a fake name in a case like this, in this kind of situation, it always touches a nerve, I can't help getting angry, I can't stand to hear it, I want to shout the person down, to shut them up, to shake them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "History of Violence"
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