Edouard Louis: life with his brothers in arms and in spirit

The success of Edouard Louis, author of En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (The End of Eddy), owes a lot to his deep friendship with the sociologists Didier Eribon and Geoffroy de Lagasnerie. Inseparable, the trio form one of the most virulent voices of the radical left.

On February 9 2010, in a packed amphitheatre of the University of Picardie, a young man has a life-changing moment. Having come to listen to a Parisian intellectual tell the story of his childhood and his homosexual adolescence in a working class family — the rejection and the shame, the flight and the exile, the return, finally, in his despised town of Reims — he is overwhelmed by these words, which resonate with his own experience. At the end of the lecture, like other students, he approaches the man to tell him how much he moved him. Didier Eribon, the man in question, agrees to give his email address to this tall blond-haired boy and says to him: “Here, we’re going to have a drink with some of the teachers, come with us.”

Edouard Louis, Berlin, 4 June.

“Without friendship, not a single line”

Eight years later, Eddy Bellegueule has become Edouard Louis and, at only 25 years of age, he is one of the most read novelists of his country. A success transformed into a phenomenon, amplified by translations (in around twenty languages), but also by theatrical adaptations, university studies on his work, lecturing tours across the world and more…

On the evening of the 3 June, he is in Berlin at the first adaptation of his second text, Histoire de la violence (History of Violence), published in 2016, by the German director Thomas Ostermeier, at the Schaubühne, one of the most prestigious theatres in Europe. A few hours before the performance, in the leafy courtyard of his hotel, he confides: “I would never have written one line without friendship, not a single line. Friendship is what pushed me to write.” This friendship is the one that binds him to Didier Eribon, but also to Geoffroy de Lagasnerie. They are there, as always, by his side.

Didier Eribon, the professor

The first of these friends, 65 years of age, was close to Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu and is a sociologist, known in France and abroad for his public coming out Retour à Reims (Returning to Reims). The second, 37 years of age, is a philosopher and sociologist with a more smaller notoriety. It has been eight years since these three have been inseparable. Literally. Not a single day they have not spent together or exchanged hundreds of texts.

The sociologist Didier Eribon was close to Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. And the professor of Edouard Louis at the university of Amiens.

The trio soon became evident. In 2010, after their first meeting, Edouard Louis enrolled in Didier Eribon’s classes in Amiens. In all his courses, even those of the doctoral school whilst he was only in his second year of his bachelor’s degree. Some nights, the two dined together.

The professor is amazed by this boy, his talent and his desire to learn. “As soon as I quoted a book, he had read it by the following week.” Eribon, who finds him “over talented” for the university in Amiens, advises him to try his luck in Paris. The Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) is recruiting undergraduate students. He wrote him a letter of recommendation, as did two other professors, the sociologist Frédéric Lebaron and the anthropologist Tiphaine Barthélémy. He is accepted. In the summer of 2011, he moved to Paris.

“I felt alone with my anger. And had the feeling that I could never have friends who had not defected class”

The meeting between Geoffroy de Lagasnerie and Didier Eribon had taken place ten years earlier. The scenes resemble each other. At the age of 20, the student attended the professor’s seminar on the sociology of homosexualities at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS). They became inseparable. And when, in Autumn 2011, Didier presented him this student from Amiens which he had spoken so much of, Geoffroy adopted him immediately. Every day, they went to the gym together before joining Didier for lunch. With the passing each day, the bonds between them strengthened.

With both De Lagasnerie and Eribon, Edouard Louis discovers the works of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault, making him feel part of a community of friendship and intellect, but also a community of anger. In Paris, the children of the bourgeoisie which he rubs shoulders with at the ENS find him too excessive, too vehement, he only speaks of social violence and class domination. “I felt alone with my anger. And had the feeling that I could never have friends who had not defected class” he remembers. “When I met Geoffroy, what struck me straight away was that he has this anger in him.”

De Lagasnerie, the bourgeois

Unlike Eribon and Louis, De Lagasnerie is not a child of the proletariat, but of the Parisian bourgeoisie. During the interview, while Louis speaks in a mischievous way, even of serious things, and Eribon, behind his smoked glasses, often answers for three, De Lagasnerie remains silent, regularly taking notes on small pieces of paper with a narrowed handwriting. He speaks little of himself — “people who are from the bourgeoisie cannot talk about it without being a little happy about their wealth and dominance; I have not yet found an alternative way to talk about it yet” -, he comes from a cultured Catholic family, his father is an engineer, his stepfather is a banker, and has had a first class education completing his secondary studies at the Lycée Janson de Sailly before following a traditional French elite pathway: hypokhâgne, khâgne and Normale-Sup.

What, in this journey, explains his radicalness? He retorts: “It’s those on the right you have to ask: how can they have so little anger? How can they adhere to the social order as it is without having a feeling of revolt?”

“I think that what I have learnt from them is that a (Parisian) intellectual friendship is a never-ending conversation“ Michael Lucey, American translator of Eribon and Louis

Friendship for the three is not just a long conversation about structuralism. It’s being together at Christmas, New Year’s Day and birthdays. Going to the opera, a passion that Didier Eribon passed on to his two friends. Singing Petula Clark, Jules Massenet, Giuseppe Verdi, Celine Dion, Shirley Bassey, Leo Ferré, Tina Turner, Britney Spears as loud as possible. Making soup for the one with a cold. Adopting the same routine: getting up late, going to bed late. Spending the holidays together. Like these three weeks of summer in Valencia, Spain. “The happiest memory of my life” highlights De Lagasnerie. The hottest days were spent on the terrasse of cafés. “We have a lot of trouble visiting places because we talk too much.”

Michael Lucey can attest to this. The American translator of Eribon and Louis has got into the habit, at every of his stays in Paris, to share long dinners with the three. “I think that what I have learnt from them is that a (Parisian) intellectual friendship is a never-ending conversation. After the last drink, we go home and we send yet another text or email to clarify an observation or to specify a text to read. And we retake the conversation where we left it off the last time in another restaurant, perhaps another town, but it is the same conversation.”

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie is a philosopher and sociologist.

‘Gay relations’

It’s a unique friendship which unites them. A relationship which seems to fit neither the family image — “I am not looking for the sons that I have never had and they are not looking for a father other to the one they have” affirms Eribon — nor that of a mentor and his disciples. “It’s not love, it’s not only friendship” explains De Lagasnerie. It’s something else, a “friendship as a way of life”, to use the phrase of Michel Foucault, a shared destiny.

One of Didier Eribon’s most important work’s, Réflexions sur la question gay (Reflections on the Gay Question), opens with this sentence: “In the beginning there was insult.” The End of Eddy, Edouard Louis’ first novel, also begins on a homophobic remark which makes him feel shame. Eribon explains: “our friendship joins a long tradition of what one could call ‘gay relations’. Circles of friendship bound by an affinity which rests on a common sexuality — and thus on a type of shared experience, a common rapport with the world and with others — without there necessarily being sexual relations between those who constitute the circle — as this affinity is friendly, emotional and intellectual.”

The oath never to betray each other

Although they do not live together, Louis and De Lagasnerie form a couple — they are in a civil partnership since 2003 and hope to get married one day. To clear any misunderstanding, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie clarifies that he has never had a relation amoureuse with Edouard Louis, but they say and write to each other “Je t’aime” all the time. They have also vowed never to betray each other. A true solemn oath. “The oath of the Midi Vin [a former restaurant on the Rue du Cherche-Midi] is the promise that is the foundation of our friendship” reveals Geoffroy de Lagasnerie.

When he first arrived in Paris, Edouard Louis was an usher at the Théâtre de l’Odéon to make ends meet. He also held a small book stall. That’s where he met Isabelle Creusot, an attachée de presse of the Éditions du Seuil, who organised philosophical gatherings. It’s her who recommended he send his first manuscript to the publishing house, as Edouard Louis wanted to do the same as Geoffroy de Lagasnerie and Didier Eribon: write.

To his two young friends, Eribon congratulates himself on having slipped the same piece of advice: “If you want to be a writer, be Thomas Bernhard or Elfriede Jelinek. If you want to be a philosopher, be Michel Foucault or Theodor Adorno. After, one succeeds more or less well at equalling the models one gives oneself, but the importance is to have a level of expectation.

It’s at Le Select in Montparnasse, a grande brasserie of Paris, that one afternoon, around an omelette, Edouard announced he no longer wants to be called Bellegueule. The three begin the search for a name.

With them he has a generous friendship. He introduced them to his old friends, an entourage which counts lawyers, intellectuals, artists, journalists, etc., among which the lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat, the writers Mathieu Lindon and Annie Ernaux, the intellectuals Daniel Borrillo and Judith Butler. His Parisian geography became theirs: Café Beaubourg, not far from the bookstore run by their great friend Colette Kerber; the Assemblée nationale, where his friend Sergio Coronado sat as a Green MP and with whom they followed the debates on same-sex marriage; the Place de la Bastille, for Gay Pride, which they never miss; La Closerie des Lilas, a tourist café where artists and intellectuals once flocked. And, especially, Le Select.

“When I met Didier and Geoffroy, I had the impression that I was immediately joining a history of friendship” remembers Edouard. “In her memoirs, Simone de Beauvoir tells of how she met up with Sartre or her friends at Le Select. Didier told me of his dinners with Hervé Guibert at Le Select. There is a life like that which was being presented to me and I wanted to belong to that life”.

It’s in this grande brasserie of Montparnasse, that one afternoon, around an omelette, Edouard announced he no longer wants to be called Bellegueule. He no longer wants this past which he had not chosen, he no longer wants to see this surname on his carte d’identité. The three begin the search for a name. ‘Sorel’ is mentioned, the name of a neighbouring village of his native Hallencourt and patronym of the ambitious hero of Stendhal, a choice thankfully swept aside. “I asked Didier: what’s your middle name? He replied: ‘Louis. Didier Louis Eribon.’ I said to myself ‘Louis’! That’s perfect, it’s also the first name of the main character of Juste la fin du monde [It’s Only the End of the World — a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce]. The confluence of litterature and friendship!” Three years before, Eddy had already announced that he would henceforth call himself Edouard and his friends instantly understood. “One said: Edouard, can you pass me the water? And they never again called me Eddy.”

Intellectual excellence as a driving force

‘De Lagasnerie”, with such a name, Geoffroy also knows the weight of surnames. On social media, he is occasionally mocked for his aristocratic particule and his ‘rébellion de salon’, as if one had to be poor to be in revolt. Of the trio, he is perhaps the one who attracts the most controversy. After having made himself known for his intransigent criticism of university conformism, he went on to pass, on the 19 June at the Sorbonne, his habilitation universitaire. “To maintain an antiacademic tradition at university” he declared. In the room that day, there was the journalist Augustin Trapenard, Assa Traoré, the sister of Adama, who had become one of his friends (Geoffroy de Lagasnerie and Edouard Louis are highly involved with the Adama Committee, named after the young man deceased in 2016 following his police interrogation in Beaumont-sur-Oise), and Claire Chazal, who accompanied her son François, student in philosophy and admirer of De Lagasnerie.

When Edouard Louis met him in 2011, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie had already published three works, at only 30 years old. His publications were on university and intellectuals, on political philosophy or on critical theory. “I found a form of strength and demand in the work of Didier and Geoffroy which pushed me to create”, stated the young writer.

Edouard Louis and Didier Eribon.

At the end of 2012, Louis completed The End of Eddy, the account of his childhood in the village of Hallencourt and of the homophobic bullying he suffered. His two friends read it, of course. But Eribon corrects nothing and suggests nothing, by fear of paralysing his protégé. Nor does he recommend him an publisher. “So that we cannot pretend that it is me who allowed him to publish.” Louis sends his manuscript to the Seuil, as well as the publishing houses of Minuit, Verdier, Gallimard and P.O.L. “He had read my books and had thought that I would identify with the text”, remembers René de Ceccatty, who became his editor at the Seuil.

A veritable phenomenon

The first print run had weak results, which is the norm for a first novel. But, from its release, at the end of January 2014, René de Ceccatty notices that “a veritable phenomenon, similar to that of Françoise Sagan” was being produced. No one expected it. Neither the editor, nor his friends, nor even Edouard Louis, who had kept his small job at the Odéon. Didier Eribon remembers the faces of these women of the 6e arrondissement who, having seen him on television and finding him usher at the theatre, exclaimed: “But what are you doing here?” when they saw him. The small group experienced this swift success with “astound and delight”. “Edouard is not alone and it is that which protects him” observes Stanislas Nordey, for whom Edouard Louis wrote his last book, Qui a tué mon père (Who Killed My Father). The director thinks he owes his “incredible rise” to this unique fraternité.

What has this success changed? The private circle has become public, transforming their personal affinity into a common approach, an common intellectual and political project” describes Eribon. All three participate in the same symposiums, publish each other in the collections they direct. As soon as one is in residence at a European or American university abroad, the other two are invited. None will publish a text which has not been reread sans complaisance by the other two.

Naturally, their mutual friendship networks have become intertwined. Students of Geoffroy, researchers of Didier mingle with the friends of Edouard. Edouard presented them to Sophie Calle, Xavier Dolan, the writers Ocean Vuong and Tash Aw. The philosopher Judith Butler invited Geoffroy de Lagasnerie to the University of California Berkeley, Ostermeier adapted one of Edouard Louis’ text’s after having staged one by Didier Eribon. “I do not feel jealous in any way” assures Eribon. “On the contrary. Friendship produces new friendships and artistic creations.” Louis agrees: “The great moments of collective creation are historically moments of friendship — Sartre, Beauvoir, Genet, Leduc…”

This friendship is highly orchestrated on social media. Edouard travelling the globe and meeting people, Didier in conference in Vienna, Geoffroy doing sport, the three at the opera or at a restaurant, Edouard and Geoffroy in the protests against police violence and it goes on. They have been criticised for this easy extravagance whilst saying at the same time that they wish to reinvent the left and social struggles. But there is a theory to their omnipresence. “On Instagram, we seek to produce a different aesthetic of intellectuals: more real and more exciting” explains De Lagasnerie. “The theory should produce the same type of effects as a Kendrick Lamar concert: that people feel excited by the theory, and that they feel how powerful it is. A procession headed by Edouard Louis, Assa Traoré and the family of Lamine Dieng (deceased in 2007 in a police van] produces an aesthetic of the left which is very different to a procession with François Ruffin or the CGT.”

‘The New French Intellectuals’

Edouard Louis and Geoffroy de Lagasnerie organised themselves with their editors so that their respective works Histoire de la violence and Juger are published at the same time like a theoretical-literary diptych, and they plan to write a book together. They also regularly co-sign political opinion columns. A militant activity which Didier Eribon passes on, but in which he participates little: “I am not always in agreement on the opportunity of these interventions. I aspire to calm — a political article is two months of insults and controversies. One cannot be on all fronts. I’m engaged in my own writing projects and conferences in Amsterdam, Berlin, Harvard…”

In the United States, they are presented as a continuation of the French Theory. Harvard University welcomed the trio for a conference entitled: ‘Fifty Years Later: The New French Intellectuals’; Louis and Eribon were named fellows of Dartmouth College in the framework of the Montgomery Fellowship, a prestigious programme which counts Philip Roth, Michel Foucault, Salman Rushdie and Joan Didion; all three are touring American universities for conferences.

There are countless people who have had the feeling of facing a three-headed hydra for daring to criticise their works. Alone against all, as if they felt the need to make enemies

In the German press, these last months, numerous articles have hailed an “intellectual triad” (Junge Welt), “a sensational community” (Die Zeit), a “trio of stars of French intellectuals” (Der Spiegel). Their texts are translated in Latin America. Their success abroad owes a lot to the international recognition Eribon enjoys since the publication of his biography of Foucault in 1989 and, more recently, of Retour à Reims. “This morning again, I was looking at the ranking of Retour à Reims on Datalib [best book sales of the last seven days]” exclaims the sociologist. “It is one of the rare books of the ranking, with those of Plato and Simone de Beauvoir, to not have appeared these last months !”

For eight years, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, Edouard Louis and Didier Eribon (above, 4 June) have been inseparable.

In France, however, the trio are a source of irritation as much as they are one of fascination. A controversy has left a mark on the public imagination: in 2014, De Lagasnerie and Louis published a call to boycott the rendez-vous de l’histoire festival in Blois to protest against the presence of Marcel Gauchet, judged conservative, sexist and homophobic. Some, such as the political specialist Philippe Corcuff, appreciated the gesture: “As there is, in the end, little debate, it’s as if they were forcing the tone to provoke it, to shake up ideas”. Others regretted their methods. “The drift towards insult prohibits any debate” observed the sociologist Frédéric Lebaron. Close to Bourdieu, he highlighted that, if they are seeking to perpetuate the radical action of Bourdieu and Foucault, “there is no inheritance of insubordination: radicalness does not proclaim itself. All that counts is the relevance of the work and questions asked”. “It’s not to offend them that I say they do not have a very good character” pursued the philosopher Mathieu Potte-Bonneville. “Their relationship with universities and the community of knowledge in France is quite tense.”

“ Social media is an important terrain in the shaping of opinion and in the diffusion of ideas and reputations: there is no reason to abandon it to the adversary “ Geoffroy De Lagasnerie

There are countless people who have had the feeling of facing a three-headed hydra for daring to criticise their works. Alone against all, as if they felt the need to make enemies. “They can give the impression of a certain virulence, but they have above all a very generous friendship” assures their friend Sergio Coronado. In fact, the harshest blows they brought out targeted those who had the unfortunate idea of criticising one of their own. In order to not have to face their retaliation online, many of their adversaries prefer to speak off the record.

Because they are fierce critics. Recently, the publication of several articles showing a lack of enthusiasm of Edouard Louis’ last book revealed the solidarity of the trio, who fought back on social media as if they were one person. “Social media is an important terrain in the shaping of opinion and in the diffusion of ideas and reputations: there is no reason to abandon it to the adversary” defends De Lagasnerie. We can also do harm if harm is done to us, and take revenge”. In this mindset, a journalist was called an embittered old woman, another unjustly suspected of antisemitism. The three are not spared either: their enemies reserve many acerbic sobriquets (“Bouvard et Pécuchet de la sociologie”, “méta-Rastignac”) and sometimes homophobic remarks (“trouple du genre”, “Eribon’s boys”).

But, confident through their glory, they only want to see in their opponents a bunch of frustrated and embittered wretches, dry fruits that languish in their universities envying their respective international careers. That is all. “In a certain way, I would say that we are dominent intellectuals, in other words the ones which everyone attacks” judges Eribon. And the group is united, pursues De Lagasnerie, who analyses this hostility in their regard as a consequence of the radicalness of their positions: “In his lesson at the Collège de France on Manet, Bourdieu notes that the avant-garde can only be collective. Because we face powerful and established forces, we must be strong and united.”

A History of Violence

Their friendship was only broken once, at the most terrible moment of the existence of Edouard Louis, a rape which he tells in his second novel, Histoire de la violence (History of Violence). It was 2012, Christmas Eve. He writes that after making love to him, Réda, a young Kabyle he met in the street, threatened him the next day with a revolver before raping him — the latter, who denies the facts, has pursued judicial proceedings against the writer and his publisher for “undermining the presumption of innocence” and “invasion of privacy”.

The day after this evening of December 2012, despite the trauma, Louis does not want to press charges. The writer refuses to send someone to prison. But his friends insist. It must be done, Réda could repeat his acts. “I highly regret” admits De Lagasnerie, “the violence that has been exerted on him in a certain way … is one of the most negatively intense moments of our friendship. I still think a lot about this moment at Le Select.” He is silent. Eribon continues. He was less remorseful: “I was so upset to see what condition he was in, he still bore the marks of the aggression, that purple neck … I pushed him to press charges. And I must say that I do not regret it.” At the mention of this memory, Edouard Louis takes refuge, in silence, under his blue hood.