Change: A Method by Edouard Louis (Translated from French by John Lambert) - review by James Cahill

James Cahill

Portrait of the Auteur as a Young Man

Change: A Method

By

Harvill Secker 288pp £18.99
 

When Edouard Louis arrived in Paris as an eighteen-year-old, he wrote down a programme for his life: ‘Change my name (go to court?), Change my face, Change my skin (tattoo?)’, and so on, ending with a sweeping dictate, ‘Change my life (become someone).’ These ambitions, and the pain of trying to fulfil them, are the subject of Change, a sharply candid memoir in the guise of a novel. 

Change is the story of the ‘infinite despair and limitless hope’ Louis experienced as he sought to become someone new. Louis’s 26-year-old self (he is thirty-one in real life) looks back with brutal detachment on the events of his childhood and teenage years. The first of the book’s two prologues sketches the childhood of Eddy Bellegueule in a northern French village, where ‘deprivation, precarity, quitting school at fourteen or fifteen, life in the factory’ were the norm. We learn of the young Eddy’s determination to avenge himself of all this: by his mid-twenties, he had changed his name and accent and become an acclaimed writer. 

But Change is less a story of triumph over adversity than a study of the inescapability of the past. ‘When I was twenty-one,’ Louis writes, ‘it was already too late, I’d already lived too much.’ Certainly, his own past has been the near-obsessive focus of his writing. Change is his third work of autofiction: The End of Eddy (2017) told the story of growing up gay in a destitute town, while History of Violence (2018) confronted the trauma of a rape. Two works of memoir, Who Killed My Father (2019) and A Woman’s Battles and Transformations (2022), set the lives of each of his parents against portraits of wider society.

As the narrator traces his impoverished childhood and his escape from it – entering a lycée in Amiens aged fourteen, gaining a place at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, beginning to write – it’s hard to know what qualifies Change as a novel. This is life, not fiction, down to the sporadic photographs of the author’s younger, dandified self and childhood home, although the framing of the story as a sequence of ‘apostrophes’ (epistolary addresses to people from his past) lifts it outside the conventions of autobiography. Louis directs the first extended section to his father; a later one consists of a one-way conversation with a friend from the lycée, Elena. It was Elena whose intellectual leanings inspired Louis to transform himself, resulting in a Dorian Gray-style remoulding.

The second-person mode is subtly affecting, and yet one is increasingly conscious of the remoteness – the unknowability – of the people Louis is addressing. He discloses little of his father’s character or conscience, leaving us with the spectre of a boorish homophobe who watches TV all day. As for Elena, we learn how her habits and family life inspired Louis to cultivate a new persona (‘Elena’s presence colonised everything I did and said’), but she fails to come to life as an individual. This may be the point. For Louis’s younger self, other people seem to have been of interest only in so far as they might aid his ascension to a more urbane, cultured existence. For a time, Elena and her family connoted enlightenment, down to the small bronze statues that decorated the dining-room table, just as his own family stood for atavism and bigotry. The unimportance of other people as people reflects the fact that he was, he says, ‘learning my life the way you learn a role in the theatre’. 

Entering his younger head, Louis writes, ‘He thinks that continuing to see his family will prevent him from going through with his transformation.’ It’s one of many points where his metamorphosis into an urban sophisticate appears less than attractive. What redeems the book is Louis’s awareness, in retrospect, of his egotism. A powerful note of self-scepticism – the older Louis looking askance at his striving younger self – runs through the story, such as when he recalls with acerbic distaste a phase of sybaritic living in the company of an older man. Elsewhere, Louis pens a remonstrative poem in the voice of Elena – questioning why their friendship had to end – before confessing his own presumptuousness in doing so: ‘it’s my own pain, regrets and nostalgia that I’m putting into words I imagine coming from her.’ Perhaps, then, the framing of the book as a work of fiction has to do with the inevitable distortions that memory performs.

John Lambert’s translation captures the brisk, unadorned nature of Louis’s writing. Episodes or entire blocks of time are conveyed with minimal ado: Louis doesn’t dramatise or even much describe. While this affords his prose a steely directness, his account can feel recitative and functionary, giving rise to a sense that Louis is skimming the surface of his own life story. That said, certain events and feelings impress themselves with startling force, such as his visit as a teenage escort to the apartment of an unattractive older man or the moment when a stranger called out to him on a street at night: ‘Even before I turned round I knew I’d love him and lust after him, and could already hear his beauty in his voice.’

Change is about change from as much as change into – and about the poses one adopts in order to live. In the end, Louis’s performance of self is only a more extreme version of what everyone does. And in realising this, the young initiate of this story becomes like one of the disillusioned heroes of existentialist literature: ‘he’s understood that there is nothing else but roles.’

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