Battles and Transformations of a Woman by Édouard Louis – The Brooklyn Rail
One woman’s struggles and transformations
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 2022)
One woman’s struggles and transformations, the new autobiographical novel by beloved French writer and working-class advocate Édouard Louis, is a broad-brush portrait of a woman suffocated by a life of domesticity and subordination to her husband and family, and his struggle to free himself. The woman, in this case, is Louis’ own mother, Monique. However, a portrait of her mother’s life becomes a window into the lives of many women (hence the generalized title One woman’s struggles and transformations as opposed to My Mother’s Battles and Transformations).
As with his last book, who killed my father, Louis once again limits himself to a hundred pages – a stark contrast to the many male authors (Knausgaard, David Foster Wallace, etc.) who masturbate and spread their robust works on several inches of shelf. While his earlier work focused on patterns of violence, here are two stories of liberation. The first is that of Louis’ mother as she longs to escape the stifling life of a housewife in the town of Hallencourt (a small working-class village in northern France) and – through vacation, of friendship or the hope of winning the lottery – reached for any passing ship that might prevail. Set against the backdrop of this sadly universal tale is a brief documentation of Louis’ own quest for liberation as well as a bold confession: an acknowledgment that, as a son and a man, Louis was a contributing factor in the suffering of his mother, “one of the agents of (his) destruction.”
While his mother was belittled, neglected and humiliated by her husband, his family and the women of his village, Louis suffered his own violence as a poor gay boy with “girl mannerisms” growing up in a violent and homophobic environment. . town. But instead of finding solidarity with his mother, driven by anger and shame, Louis crawled further into himself and further from her. He burned invitations to parent-teacher meetings, hid and lied about school activities, and ultimately tried to stop her from being his mother. And although she sometimes berated him, inflicting her own violence on him, “Can’t you be a little normal once in a while?”, there were many times when she tried to share herself, to to see who she was and who she wanted to be.
Eventually breaking away from his family while at Lycée, a secondary school in France, Louis entered the realm of “the bourgeois– those whose “bodies”, “money”, “freedom” and “ease of movement” he hated as a child. Once there, he wants “immediately” to become like them. Louis remembers how, on returning home from school, he uses his new life and his release to further hurt his mother. He exhibits his recently learned words: “boring”, “bucolic”, “laborious”, “tedious” to show how he escaped and how much better he was than her. As a “class defector”, he had somehow become part of the privileged group he had hated. But through this detachment, with a new ability to compare the lives of his classmates and their families with his own, he begins to see the violent world his mother lived in.
In this short and fragmented account, the relationship with his mother turns from antagonistic to sympathetic and we discover the genesis of the social and political criticism of Louis’ violence for which he is now world famous. He uses his personal experience—how his father’s tyrannical behavior retarded his mother’s ability to achieve a full sense of self and how her role as a mother created an obstacle to her autonomy—to demonstrate how women suffer from subordination. and male dominance; and the political attacks on his family – how their livelihoods are further threatened when the meager state benefits they relied on after Louis’ father was badly injured in his factory job are cut – to show how legislation can further denigrate the poor. Essentially, Louis’ intimate narrative creates a pathway for understanding the complex and symbiotic nature between systems of power.
There are, however, some sections of this introspective tale that could have benefited from more flesh. While what he Is for her mother—encouraging her to leave her father, taking her to fancy French restaurants, and arranging a meeting with a celebrity she admired—is shown, her feelings for her are sparse and somewhat simplistic. I may be reading from my own experience as a writer and as a daughter, one where, as a youngster, I would write a scathing testimony of my mother while victimizing myself as a daughter gasping in the folds of the hysterical matriarch. It wasn’t until she passed away and my own struggle to mother those in my life began that I recognized our closeness, the complex bond that existed between her and me which, like Louis and his mother, came primarily from of a shared desire for liberation. I wondered if, in the same way, a contemptuous residue clouded his memory, or perhaps, like most of us, he was still struggling with his feelings.
Although as an avid fan and reader of his work I wanted a little more, the levity of Louis’s book can be seen as radical in itself. Towing the powerhouse that is male privilege, it makes itself smaller than those around it on the shelf, and in doing so, we must work to find it there. While it could be argued that a woman’s story should be much larger than that of her male counterpart, I appreciate and acknowledge the act of solidarity. It remains clear, through this work and others, that Louis is of service to those neglected by the privileged and a great role model for how men can become better allies to women.
In the end, we learn a crucial lesson, which many might already suspect or know, the heart-pounding message of this book, that male supremacy, in the end, serves no one.