Book Review: A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, by Édouard Louis

Readers of Louis, who is 29 — he has published five best-selling novels in France, this his fourth — know his mix of tenderness and rage, sentiment and intellection, and above all formal ingenuity: Each of his books is different from the last in how it makes its narrative way. The first, “The End of Eddy,” was composed of short essays that wove in and out of direct chronology but centered on the way Louis, a feminine boy who was homosexual, was relentlessly bullied and beaten by everyone he knew, family or not; the second, “History of Violence,” was an eavesdropped account, Louis listening in as his sister told her husband of the brutal rape Louis had suffered, a brilliant piece of formal indirection that dramatized the unseemliness of listening to such stories, performing the squeamishness that Louis felt in telling his.

The latest novel may be understood as the second panel of a diptych begun with Louis’s “Who Killed My Father” — his father a man very much literally alive, but one whose alcoholism and racism and antisemitism and ultimate disability following a factory accident are a patrimony that could not, in Louis’s sympathetic view of his largely unsympathetic father, be denied. Each novel in the diptych is scarcely 100 pages, but in both, out of the quotidian horror of ignorance and poverty and fear, a transformation occurs for the parents, war achieving varieties of muted peace. A father who couldn’t abide his son’s “queeny gestures” and “fancy ways” becomes, in age, one of Louis’s appreciative readers; a mother who couldn’t leave Louis’s father finally does, beginning a new life in Paris, where, unexpectedly, so much changes that she can say — in a marvelous scene — that Catherine Deneuve came to visit her.

But these two little books, especially “A Woman’s Battles and Transformations,” also exhibit a less appealing feature of Louis’s novelistic practice, one that has been present all along, a kind of 40-watt intellectual bombast:

“I’ve been told that literature should never resemble a display of feelings, but I write only to allow emotions to spring forth, those sentiments that the body cannot express.”

“I’ve been told that literature should never resemble a political manifesto but already I’m sharpening each of my sentences the way I’d sharpen the blade of a knife.”