History of Violence – Édouard Louis

A History of Violence by Edouard Louis

  1. His previous book was a 2017 favourite of the bookgroup.
  2. As before there was some discussion/dislike of the form of Louis writing (autofiction) and whether one could believe in the veracity of his narrative. Moreover, there was some questioning over the value, and certainly the pleasure of a narrative so unrelentingly bleak.
  3. Some questions over the meaning of the title.
  4. Some readers found the narrative structure (Louis listening to his sister recount the story of his rape to her husband) to be unrealistic and the voices of these characters to be impossible to distinguish. Other readers did not agree with this assertion and found the sister to have a distinct voice, and that her provincial view on her brother’s assimilation into Paris provided one of the few parts of humour in the novel.  It was argued that this narrative device was perhaps necessary in order for the author to transmute the trauma of his experience into a narrative: a way for him to view the experience from the outside.  It was also felt that the gaps between the sister’s narration and the narrator/author’s recollection of it was a dramatic device to highlight the fallacy of memory.
  5. Some readers felt that the book was a political discourse and that it engaged with Foucault and Baudrillard in trying to ‘voice the margins’. Perhaps what the novel is concerned with is power and the abuses of it.
  6. It was felt that the scenes with the police were moving and that one could imagine the character’s suffering and humiliation at having to relive the experience.
  7. It was noted that the physicality of Reda is not really delineated although there were no real conclusions as to why this was so.
  8. Overall, many readers felt it was ‘unrelentingly claustrophobic’, humourless and self-obsessed and most readers said they would not choose to read it again.

As we know from The End of Eddy, Édouard has criminal elements in his own impoverished family; he feels both frightened by and sympathetic towards Reda, with a deep ambivalence towards the man who nearly murdered him.

It is about the tension between desire and danger, between passion and destruction, and about how individuals heal from trauma without allowing themselves to remain perpetual victims.

The opening is very visceral.

We get the usual long paragraphs, e.g. 4 pages at the end of chapter 6.

Quotations:

On days when I felt calmer I would imagine myself picking out someone I didn’t know in some public place, on the sidewalk or in the aisle of a supermarket, and telling them my whole story, everything that had happened. In these visions, I would walk up to this unknown person, who would shrink back, and I would just start talking, as casually and routinely as if we had known each other forever, without telling them my name, and what I would say to this person was so horrible that there was nothing they could do but stand there and listen until I was done; they’d listen and I would watch their face. I’d spend my time fantasizing about scenes in which I’d do this. I didn’t tell Clara, but this fantasy of shamelessness and self-display kept me going for weeks.

The fact is that I was unable to stop talking about it. I had told what had happened to most of my friends during the week after Christmas, but not only to them; I had also told people to whom I was much less close, acquaintances, or people I had only ever spoken to once or twice, sometimes only on Facebook. I would become annoyed when people tried to respond, when they would show too much empathy or offer some kind of analysis of what had happened, as when Didier and Geoffroy speculated that Reda wasn’t really his name. I wanted everyone to know but I wanted to be the only one among them who could see the truth of it, and the more times I spoke about it, the more I said, the stronger my feeling was that I was the only one who really knew, I was unique, in stark contrast to what I considered to be the laughable naïveté of everyone else. It didn’t matter what the conversation was about, I would find a way to bring Reda into it, to have him appear, to bring it all back to him, as if any topic of conversation had logically to lead back to my memory of him.

The first week of February—barely a month after Christmas—I went out to meet an author who had written to me and proposed that we have lunch together. I didn’t know him, but I said yes, and I knew why I had done that. He wanted me to write a piece for a special issue of a literary journal he was editing (a few days later, I sent him a really poorly written text, for obvious reasons), and I behaved in exactly the same way with him. This was a period in which I really wasn’t in touch with the words I spoke. The author arrived at the restaurant where I was waiting for him, where I was already quivering in my seat obsessively playing with the eraser on the pencil that happened to be in my pocket; he sat down, he took off his flannel jacket, he shook my hand and was barely settling into his seat, yet already my lips were burning to speak to him about Christmas. I thought to myself: No, you can’t speak about that right now. Wait a bit. Not right away. Be polite. Wait a bit. At least pretend to talk about something else. The reflection of the gray-blue sky outside could be seen on the walls of the buildings, something I remember not because the sky interests me, but because I wasn’t listening and instead gazed out the window, distracted and uninterested, whenever I wasn’t the one who was talking.

“This was something else I went on apologizing for, why I had told him everything, why him, someone I barely knew, how could I have behaved so inappropriately, as I knew I had, how could I have been so rude.”

We had exchanged a few sentences and for about ten minutes I held my breath, barely able to contain myself; I could feel Reda’s name on my lips. I held back, pretended to engage in the usual kind of conversation for a meeting like this, I played my role, got him to talk about his work, his books, his projects, but I didn’t listen to anything he said. I replied to his questions on the same topics but I no more listened to my answers than to his; making myself stay calm was all the more difficult in that everything he said and everything he got me to say with his questions, any observations he made, felt like an indirect invitation to speak about Christmas. What I mean is that I found connections everywhere, that everything I perceived and therefore my entire view of reality was conditioned by Reda. So I spoke fearing that the words Reda or Christmas might slip out, too early, against my will.

Then I did speak. It felt to me that the time had come, and I thought Now I’ve held back for long enough, now you’ve earned the right to speak and I did what I’d been waiting to do since he arrived at the restaurant: I monopolized the conversation, only I spoke for the rest of our lunch, and he barely got in a few brief comments between two mouthfuls of food: “That’s terrible, how horrible, oh my God, etc.,” which only added to my exultation. At the end of the meal I begged him not to repeat anything I’d said; on top of all that I couldn’t figure out why, and I said I was sorry for this too, this was something else I went on apologizing for, why I had told him everything, why him, someone I barely knew, how could I have behaved so inappropriately, as I knew I had, how could I have been so rude. It’s along those lines that I existed, that I spoke, that I acted during the weeks that followed the assault.

This mad flood of speech had begun at the hospital. It was only an hour or two after Reda had left, and I had run to the emergency room close to where I live to get a postexposure prophylaxis against HIV. The hospital was nearly empty on Christmas morning; a homeless man was walking up and down in the waiting room. He wasn’t waiting but simply wanted to be inside out of the cold. He said, “A very Merry Christmas to you” when I sat down a few feet away. That A very Merry Christmas to you, so odd, so improbable in these surroundings and after what had just happened, made me laugh. An uncontrollable burst of laughter took hold of me, a laugh that was loud and full and that resonated in the empty waiting room, as I remember it, a horrible laugh that bounced off the walls, as I bent forward, holding my stomach with both hands, unable to breathe, and replied between two bursts of laughing, all out of breath, “Thanks very much, thanks, and a very Merry Christmas to you too.”

I waited. No one appeared. I went on sitting there. I had the feeling I was playing a role in a story that wasn’t my own. I applied myself relentlessly to remembering in order to stop myself from thinking, not that nothing had happened—how could I have thought that?—but that it had happened to someone else, to a different person, and that I had watched it all from the outside; I thought to myself: That’s where your obsession comes from. That’s why you are always obsessively asking yourself what the child you used to be would have thought of the adult that you’ve become. I thought: Because you’ve always felt like this, that your life is taking place outside yourself, in spite of yourself, that you’ve watched from the sidelines as it’s been constructed and that it’s not at all suited to you. Today’s not the first time. When you were little and your parents took you to the supermarket you would watch the people go by with their shopping carts. You’d stare at them, a strange habit you’d acquired from who knows where. You’d take in their clothes, their way of walking, and you’d say to yourself: I hope I end up like that, I hope I don’t end up like that. And you’d never have imagined becoming what you are today. Never. You’d never even have thought of not wanting to turn out this way.

If you don’t cry he won’t believe you, I thought to myself, you need to cry.

I craned my neck to try to see through the little windows all around the waiting room; it was a way of passing the time. Time slowed to a snail’s pace. I was waiting for one of the security doors to open, I was waiting for a doctor to appear, I coughed, sniffed, I pressed the red button of a little buzzer that was on the reception desk, and a nurse arrived, twenty or thirty minutes later. That’s when the torrent of words began. Its first manifestation, let’s say. I had already had to restrain myself from talking to the homeless man, who was obviously drunk, once he had said Merry Christmas, from replying to him that what he had said to me seemed a bit ironic given that here it was December 25, and I was at the hospital, which is to say at a moment when I should have been somewhere else, just like him, I had to restrain myself from beginning to tell him everything that had led up to my being there, in the emergency room. But this time I didn’t hold back, and so I told everything to the nurse, who only wanted to know which department to send me to—although thinking about it, he probably wasn’t a nurse, but maybe an attendant, or a receptionist, or a switchboard operator. I didn’t hold back my tears. I didn’t even try to hold them back, since I was convinced that if I didn’t cry he wouldn’t believe me. My tears weren’t fake; the pain was real. But I knew that I had to play the role well if I wanted anyone to believe me.

Obviously, all this anxiety only went on getting worse in the days that followed. Later, in a different hospital, despite my determination to move the doctor so that he would understand and believe me, my voice remained stuck in a metallic monotone, I spoke coldly and with distance, my eyes stayed dry. I had cried too much already, I had no tears left to offer. If you don’t cry he won’t believe you, I thought to myself, you need to cry. But my eyes seemed now to belong to a stranger. I made a huge effort. I tried to force the tears to come, concentrating on images of Reda, his face, the gun, so that the tears would flow, but there was nothing to be done, the tears wouldn’t come, my efforts were all to no avail, no tears welled up at the corners of my eyes, my eyes stayed resolutely dry, I was still as calm as I had been when I first arrived and the doctor nodded his head behind his glasses, which were slipping down his nose.

I turned to other scenes from my life for help. I brought back to mind other painful memories, the saddest and most painful I had, in order to produce some tears. I thought back to hearing the news of Dimitri’s death.

Didier had phoned me in the middle of the night to tell me Dimitri had died, on a night when I was out walking, alone in the dark night when the telephone first buzzed and vibrated in my pocket. It was Didier sending me a text asking: “Can I call you?”; and I feared the worst since normally he didn’t ask if he could call before calling, I was afraid something serious might have happened to Geoffroy, I was imagining an accident of some kind. I forbade myself to think of his body lying on a stretcher, but the image still appeared, and I wrote back: “Of course,” already trembling, my fingers unsteady on the screen.

My cell phone rang for a second time, and I hesitated, and then Didier announced, in a voice that was both controlled and shaking, shaking precisely with a calmness that was too overdone, too artificial, that Dimitri, who had been traveling for an important meeting far from Paris, and to whom I had spoken a few hours earlier on the phone, was dead.

I was doing my best to provoke a bout of crying so I could convince the doctor of what I was saying, but it was too far in the past, it didn’t affect me any longer. I was compelling myself to cry and he, on his side of things, was holding on to his skepticism, and I felt that these two opposing forces meeting in the same moment could allow us to establish or rather to reestablish the truth of the matter, that the truth was to be found in this meeting, and that it would be born out of this tension. I did everything I could to cry but I didn’t succeed.

So there I was standing in front of the nurse in the first hospital, and on that night I was crying with no problem at all. He was trying to reassure me: “Someone will come take care of you, there’s not much I can do personally,” and it was all I could do not to scream: “I don’t think you understand.” In the end a nurse arrived. When she came up to me and asked me why I was here, I spoke, and went on speaking and speaking.

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.”

“[H]e wanted to be the image of freedom at its most spectacular. It wasn’t a matter of responding to some kind of conflict. He would make the conflict himself, he would produce it, he would invent it.”

I met Reda on Christmas Eve 2012. I was going home after a meal with friends, at around four in the morning. He approached me in the street, and finally I invited him up to my apartment. He told me the story of his childhood and how his father had come to France, having fled Algeria.

“I never read, my parents wished I was good at school, but it wasn’t my thing, I was always clowning around.”

“one of the sentences around which I tried, later, to imagine Reda’s life, to construct meaning and explanations where there was only silence.”

We spent the rest of the night together, talking, laughing. At around 6 o’clock, he pulled out a gun and said he was going to kill me. He insulted me, strangled and raped me. The next day, the medical and legal proceedings began.

“I did what I could to muffle any groans of actual pain, letting him hear only the groans I faked…I struggled harder to give him pleasure, more pleasure, and so to end it sooner. I controlled everything, I measured everything—at least that’s what I wanted, and what I told myself to do.”

“That night I simply ignored anything that seemed bad about Reda…only later did it strike me how much reality I set aside in order to keep what I liked”

“injected fear into his body”

“The individual I had become … dressed as badly as he could, thinking, I want to look the way I feel, I want to be as repulsive as the thing that happened to me.”

“my pillow was Reda, the pitch darkness was Reda, the sheets were Reda”.

“Reda would find me after he got out of prison…he would hunt me down and take revenge.”

“He’s not a murderer. You don’t just run into murderers on the street. Murderers aren’t skinny Kabyles. They’re menacing and you don’t just happen to meet them by chance.”

“made me describe my night with Reda differently than I’d have chosen, and in the form that they imposed on my account, I no longer recognized the outlines of my own experience.”

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 leave her, still you’re ashamed. You know that coming to see her means facing your own cruelty.

“A medical team at the FEU could tell precisely whether I had been the victim of an attack or of attempted murder when I was being strangled, which would change everything . . . as for the forced penetration, they said that, too, would have to be proven: scientifically ….”

I see you’ve come for this medication once before.” It was true. I had taken a preventive medication for AIDS two years before. The moment after she said it, she winced, “There’s nothing wrong with that, of course”—and her nothing wrong with that meant that something was indeed wrong with me.

“They say we can never leave language behind; they say language is the essence of being human and that it conditions everything…they say we don’t think first and then organize our thoughts into language later on, for language is what allows us to think… but if language is the essence of being human, then for those fifty seconds when he was killing me, I don’t know what was…”

“That’s what saved me—my ability to deny the facts”

I told Clara, giving in to my weakness for grandiosity — is both the best and the worst news for humanity, since it means all you have to change is the world and then people will change themselves, or at least most people, and (Clara wasn’t listening) there’s no need to change them person by person, which would take forever; people adapt, they don’t endure, they adapt.

 

He was on top of me, but he materialised in everything around me; I gather this is a recurring motif in accounts of rape: everything became an extension of Reda, my pillow was Reda, the pitch darkness was Reda, the sheets were Reda.

now I realised that the doctor had been there from the very beginning; since the moment I stepped into that phantom hospital she’d been sitting here in this office, across the hallway from the room with the graffiti, just a few metres away; she was playing solitaire on her computer while, inside my body, with every passing second, the AIDS was prob­ably germinating and had begun to wreak its pitiless destruction on my immune cells.

Arendt writes: `In other words, the deliberate denial of factual truth ­the ability to lie — and the capacity to change facts — the ability to act — are interconnected; they owe their exist­ence to the same source: imagination. It is by no means a matter of course that we can say, “The sun shines,” when it actually is raining . . . ; rather, it indicates that while we are well equipped for the world, sensually as well as mentally, we are not fitted or embedded into it as one of its inalienable parts. We are free to change the world and to start something new in it.’ That’s what saved me — my ability to deny the facts.

I had become racist. Suddenly I was full of racism ­the one thing I had always considered most alien, most `other’ to my mind. Now I became one of those others. I became exactly the thing I had always rejected becoming — because you don’t become anything with­out excluding other possibilities, and now one of those possibilities had reared up from my past.

A second person took over my body; he thought for me, he spoke for me, he trembled for me, he was afraid for me, he inflicted his fear on me, he made me tremble over terrors of his own. On the bus or the metro I lowered my eyes if a man who was black or Arab or pos­sibly Kabyle came anywhere near me — because it was always men, and this was another absurd feature of the racist fantasy that colonised my being: the danger always came in the shape of a man. I would lower my eyes or turn my head and silently beg, Don’t attack me, don’t attack me. I never bowed my head if the man was blond or red-headed, or if he had very pale skin.

It turned out that I don’t write in order to seek pleasure; on the contrary, it turned out that by writing I am seeking pain, the most acute possible, well-nigh intolerable pain, most likely because pain is truth, and as to what constitutes truth, I wrote, the answer is so simple: truth is what consumes you, I wrote. Imre Kertesz, Kaddish for an Unborn Child

 

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