Pauline Hall writes: Of all the different places (including Bologna, Buffalo, Kinsale), where I’ve lived, the one I would have thought least likely to become a site of literary pilgrimage and media interest is Hallencourt in the département of the Somme in northern France. But the succès de scandale of En Finir avec Eddy Bellegueule by Édouard Louis put his glum untidy village on the map. The bestselling French novel of 2014, it is autobiographical, an unsparing account of how a weedy gay boy first tried to camouflage, then celebrated, his difference from the hyper-masculinity of his deprived family and community. The English translation, The End of Eddy, was published by Harvill Secker in February this year. Eddy’s awareness of his gay identity calls into question the values that shape the men and boys around him. “I didn’t know where whatever it was that made me different had come from, and not knowing hurt.” Feeling rejected, he rejects in turn.
At twenty-one, Eddy Bellegueule published his novel under the name Édouard Louis. He wanted to signal his separation from the names his father gave him. “Eddy” suggests an American tough guy, and Bellegueule translates as “pretty mug”. In my novel of growing up, Grounds, published by Brandon in 1983, I gave the fictionalised Margaret Hogan many of my experiences, including a stay in northern France in the late 1950s. Grounds was written twenty-odd years after the events that inspired it, so the details are both precise and transformed.
One chapter finds Margaret in the unidentified chateau near the unidentified village that is based on Hallencourt. She is there under a relaxed arrangement to help Madame’s youngest daughter, Lucienne, with her English. Rereading the chapter, I can only smile at how captivated by her romance of France the sixteen-year-old Margaret is. It begins: “‘The wood around here is called Compiègne,’ they said, and for Margaret the name held the very essence of France: The Hundred Years War, the Armistice signed, twice, in a railway carriage, and Joan of Arc taken.’ This “essence of France” is distilled from the stories in school history books. The actual place is, like most places, quite ordinary. It is also ‑ like most places ‑ full of surprises, when set against her mild Dublin milieu. Margaret inhales enough of the essence to infuse the chapter with an enthusiasm that survives her homesickness, chateau snobbishness (about both background and appearance) and the longueurs of a rural winter.
This, the third chapter, marks a shift at the centre of the novel, as her sojourn prompts the bookish Margaret to more clearly define, by opposition, her future path as a woman. The stakes for her are not as high as for Eddy, but the place spurs each to contest a ready-made future and choose for themselves. Eddy’s struggle against violent bullying and ridicule amounts to survival. He is expected to enact masculine values by leaving school early for a factory job and settling down with a pregnant girlfriend. Margaret is considered unfeminine because she doesn’t plan be an air hostess before getting married. Both Eddy and Margaret see the way out through education, though the path for him is a steeper one.
The landscape of Grounds, “flat plain countryside, a river, mist-coiled, locked immobile between its banks, poplars outlining the road” is spacious, but also (this is deep country after all) savage, as the girl from the Dublin suburbs sees a young man she fancies “in the act of wringing the neck of a duck whose outstretched wings were clamped one under each of his knees”. Reminders of the recent (1939-45) war ‑ in which Madame’s husband died in mysterious circumstances and the one before it (1914-18), in which Margaret’s teenage Dublin Fusilier uncle was killed ‑ gain a sharper edge from the background of a current war, in Algeria. This regularly brings news of the loss of young men to both chateau and village. Those who do return from Algeria rarely move away again, and this also applies to the young males of the village in Eddy, who are in a hurry to get their driving licence, yet afterwards confine their dancing, drinking and fighting to the immediate neighbourhood.
Margaret spends a year in Hallencourt, yet sunshine is rarely mentioned: instead, sullen days “when the rain turned the fine clays into mud”. Eddy too describes how mud-clotted boots contribute to the unkempt state of his home. He concedes “I think it’s fair to say that there were many things that people associate with a country childhood that I enjoyed”: listing the warm milk fresh from the farm, the open fires, and the walks in the woods. These unchanged details brought me back to Grounds ‑ Margaret likes the walks and the fires, also, but not the milk.
Margaret skirts the frontier between two worlds, the chateau and the village, which stand in almost fairytale contrast, separated as they are by deep woods and unlit roads. The young women of the chateau family are “radiant in cashmere jumpers and silk headscarves”. Gifted cooks, their English is excellent, they are “readers of Dostoevsky and Faulkner” and take piano lessons. Yet they share with the ill-favoured and brutalised village women (and here Eddy’s Hallencourt of the 2000s shows little change from Margaret’s of the 1950s) a destiny ‑ to go straight from school to marriage ‑ and marriage to someone they already know. Madame’s daughters will bring to their lives as wives and mothers many accomplishments. Yet for now, Margaret notices that they “have to steal their mother’s purse to buy her a birthday present”. Conscious of her foothold back in Ireland, Margaret eventually shrugs off Lucienne’s teasing. She comes to enjoy how any encounter with other households is followed by close and bitchy analysis of the meals, the grooming and who might be pregnant.
The family find it bizarre that Margaret gives little thought to a future marriage for herself. Here is a significant juncture in Grounds. At first, seduced by the ceremony and flair of chateau life, she sketches an improbable future ‑ seeing herself “now soignée, setting out herbs to dry and apples to ripen on boards in an outhouse, sorting fragrant sheets in deep drawers, checking the returns from timber and sugar-beet, and oiling and waxing fine oak floors”. The layered rituals, the meals, the good form, the automatic presumption of entitlement all enlarge Margaret’s views. Attention to propriety in dress is a corrective to offhand Irish ways. As unfamiliar as intense discussions of food, French hypochondria is also fascinating: never before has she heard anyone as much as mention their liver.
There is a pattern of traffic between the two worlds as Margaret accompanies Lucienne on evening walks to the village. Light relief from the English and French lessons, these excursions rank as an enjoyable part of the day for Margaret, when “even the iron cold and blackness could be thrilling in contrast to a kitchen lit and heated by oil, where in the smelly golden warmth, a child sat doing homework in a squared copy book”. Eddy too mentions homework at the kitchen table in his characteristically plain unsentimental language that contrasts to the lyricism of Grounds. His parents set no store by schooling. His father would prefer if he was a tearaway, like all the males of the family, while his mother urges Eddy to watch TV instead of studying. She pushes him to finish up quickly so that she can use the table to gut the fish her husband caught in the local pond, their only source of food in the last week of the month.
The chateau in Grounds is no longer an employer, but still exercises an influence on the local village, rooted in traditions of noblesse oblige. Margaret and Lucienne visit the home of Josette and Robert with a message from Madame about the catechism class. To Margaret, the squalor seems almost exotic.
“Josette’s blue overall was skimpy over her huge body.” Margaret “rarely followed what she said; her delivery was chesty and she used the Picard dialect.” Eddy suffers from asthma, but his mother insists on smoking (“that doesn’t make any difference, it’s the fumes from the factory that do the damage”) and at times the family speak Picard. Robert “lifted his stained cap only to scratch his head, cut slices from a vast cake of bread he held again his blue overalls. Their house stank of stale wine and there were times that Josette had to take refuge at the chateau when Robert’s mood turned violent. She could claim this sanctuary as a right. She was Madame’s neighbour, like the village children who came to the chateau every Thursday for a catechism lesson on their free day from school.” The chateau telephone and cars could, if need be, serve the villagers. In Eddy, the battered wives eventually file a complaint with social services, but then continue to stand by their men.
Eddy’s father’s calling is, essentially, to assert his masculinity. There are crises, like the back injury that costs him his job in the factory where his grandfather and great grandfather worked in their time. It is in any case, about to close. He conforms to an unquestioned pattern: abandons ‑ or is abandoned by ‑ school, goes straight to work. At home, he forbids conversation when the TV is on ‑ which is most of the time. Though Eddy’s mother is also defended against regret, she occasionally shows awareness of how her prospects were stunted by the pattern she also fitted into ‑ quitting school early, falling pregnant in her teens, and (with her husband’s reluctant consent) working part-time at a checkout or in an old folks’ home. In Grounds, we read of Josette’s daughter’s pregnancy that “her adolescence had been brief, and now it was over”.
Away from home for the first time, Margaret notices the difference from the deeply Catholic Ireland she knows. “Most people there were anti-clerical: that is to say they rarely went to Mass, with the exception of a varying number of newly bereaved families and youths home from National Service in Algeria. They differed little in other ways from the believers of earlier centuries, fearing the State as they had once feared the Church. For them, the postman who brought the children’s allowances was what the cure had been: the representative of remote and incomprehensible authority.” In Eddy, similar attitudes to the government persist, but tinged with less resignation, more resentment, and there is no reference to religion, let alone catechism classes.
As in many fairytales, the golden princess is drawn to a poor boy, and Lucienne claims to be a rebel against the marriage which Madame will arrange for her. Walks to the village, therefore have the pretext of catching sight of Roger, whom Lucienne insists she loves. The sound and beam of a passing moped often leads them, filled with hope, to stand in by the hedge to wait, though he never shows up. Margaret reckons the Roger story is a fantasy and wonders if he really exists.
Chateau life runs on the assumption that things will not change, but of course they have: the real chateau is now a hotel. On the basis of Eddy’s book, however, village ways have changed little, despite cars, TVs and more outspokenness about sex. If anything, jobs are scarcer, poverty more disfiguring, people less equipped to gain control over their lives. Eddy’s family cleave to their hurt cynicism: “no-one takes their side”. They refuse to abide by the values of the “big people, who run the world”, and take a stand against anything PC: “There are more important things in life than tooth-brushing” and “no point in dying of hunger, being fat’s not the worst thing that could happen to you”. The family often goes hungry, with only milk for supper. Eddy’s father has no time for books, doctors or vegetables. He batters new-born kittens and drinks blood from fresh-killed pigs with relish. He repairs four TV sets retrieved from skips, so they have one in each room of the small house, but patches a broken window with a sheet of cardboard.
Margaret is seduced by the food at the chateau, with so much that she had never tasted at home: coffee, roast beef cooked rare, a variety of cheeses, yogurt. Even more striking is the attentiveness with which a simple meal ‑ say, cream soup or a bowl of salad ‑ is prepared and served. One of the documents I used as a source for Grounds was a copybook full of chateau recipes, painstakingly transcribed. Many became staples, enjoyed up to the present, but there were others whose scale and style belong to another era–elaborate feasts to celebrate marriages and baptisms.
The chateau also has in common with the village a fear and hatred of Arabs. “It was a time of rumour and panic, when all through the spring housewives bought up stocks of coffee and tinned food, as hysterical gangs of Algérie française youths demonstrated in Oran.” If the family planned a trip to Amiens (a welcome diversion for Margaret), it was seen as a foray into hostile territory. “‘Never stand beside an Algerian in a bus,’ Lucienne warned. ‘They shoot a drug into you and you wake up as a white slave.’ Margaret shivered if she saw an Algerian peddling a pile of carpets in the street, of if they passed one of the tiny harshly-lit cafés from which Arab music floated at every hour.” Eddy too is spooked by his father’s warning about his plan to attend college in Amiens. “‘It’s full of black people, Ayrabs … you go there and it’s like being in Africa.’” Both parents shout back at the TV. ‘Damn towel-heads, that’s all we see on the news, dirty Arabs. It’s like we’re not even in France any more, we’re in Africa.’
The chapter ends with an exchange of news after Margaret has returned to Ireland. She is entering university with a scholarship. And Lucienne has got engaged to a young man of good family, already connected to her family by a cousin’s marriage.
In a recent interview, Eddy predicted that at the presidential election, if his family and village voted at all, it would be for Le Pen. In April/May, he was proved right: she polled strongly all through that region.