Journalists will often ask about politics, since Louis — a wunderkind of French literature who at 27 has already risen to the status of public intellectual — is seen as a firebrand of the left and a voice for the yellow vests movement. Or they’ll want to know about his life, which he has documented with fierce and unflinching honesty in three novels about sexuality, class and cruelty.
“People are always more interested in the biographical stuff,” he said, adding with a laugh, “but I’m constantly writing about my life!”
Hence his happiness at a change of subject. This conversation, with yet another journalist, would be focused on theater: one of his first and most enduring loves, even the wellspring of his creative life.
His books have become magnets for stage adaptations — two of which, “History of Violence” and “The End of Eddy,” are traveling to New York this month. The productions, in an unheard-of collaboration between St. Ann’s Warehouse and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, have been planned for nearly simultaneous openings: “History of Violence” at St. Ann’s Nov. 13 through Dec. 1, and “The End of Eddy” at BAM from Nov. 14 to Nov. 21. (Both presenters will also host a talk with the novelist at BAM Fisher on Nov. 11.)
Louis doesn’t exactly know why so many directors have wanted to adapt his work, but he has one theory: “There is probably something theatrical in my writing,” he said, “because it’s part of me.”
After all, he is gay, and every gay person, Louis thinks, is a born actor. As the child of a working-class family — his name was Eddy Bellegueule back then — in a northern French town of less than 1,500 people, he would drink beer, talk about soccer or make fun of girls. Every day, he said, was a performance, “to protect myself from homophobia and masculine violence.”
His first escape from this life — documented with rage and unsparing detail in “The End of Eddy,” a coming-of-age roman à clef published when Louis was 21 — was being admitted to a theater program at a school in the nearby, but much larger, city of Amiens. Acting, he found, came easily, and he felt that the applause he received began to drown out the vicious slurs that had followed him throughout childhood.
Theater also made him read. The same toxic mannerisms of his masculine performance at home — a brazenly poor diet and a refusal to compensate with proper dental hygiene — had also kept him away from books. “Reading, for my father, was considered a way of losing your time,” Louis recalled, “and effeminate.”
But dramatic literature offered an entry point, especially to canonical French classics by Molière and Racine. Every school year also included field trips to productions at the local theaters. One was Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” — whose subtitle alone, “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” is enough to make a closeted boy nervous around his classmates. Louis lasted one hour before walking out.
“I stood up, and I said, ‘I don’t want to see this faggot thing,’” he recalled. “This play was confronting me with things that I had been trying to hide for so many years. It was too violent for me to see.”
He was called homophobic afterward; he welcomed the label with pride. “It made me less gay,” he said, “but I was full of shame. It’s one of my biggest regrets.”
If there’s a silver lining to that day, it’s that Louis also realized the power of theater not only to entertain, but also agitate. “The fact that I was uncomfortable was very emancipatory,” he said. “I wouldn’t be the same person today if I had not felt uncomfortable.”
Discomfort, indeed, has become his weapon of choice; like Bertolt Brecht reincarnate, Louis and his writing are often in combat with the bourgeois audience that has embraced and elevated him. And, knowing they’re at the stage adaptations of his books, he said, “I want to confront people with things that they precisely don’t want to see.”
Louis has been especially sensitive to class since moving to Paris in 2011 — a complicated, and irreversible, life change. He was admitted to a prestigious school in what is often treated as the only city that matters in France, far from the factory life and welfare reliance of his childhood.
“I learned to be gay in Paris,” he said. Through his mentor Didier Eribon, whom he had met in Amiens, he was introduced to a true community. He came to love opera. He read the books of James Baldwin and the poems of Allen Ginsberg, and saw the films of Gus Van Sant. He changed his name to Édouard Louis (inspired by Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play “It’s Only the End of the World.”)
“There was a whole history, and I was suddenly fascinated by it,” Louis said. “There were all these people who fought to make my body possible.”
But Paris is also where, in 2012, he was raped at gunpoint inside his apartment — which became the subject of his harrowing second novel, “History of Violence.” The autofictional book, which like “The End of Eddy” courted both praise and controversy, is an indictment of a justice system unfit for either a gay man like him or his attacker (Reda, who is Kabyle from Algeria); it also wrestles with the nature of truth and storytelling, with a plot relayed as memory, overheard conversation and, at times, the imagined biographies of others.
Among the novel’s fans was director Thomas Ostermeier — whom Louis met through Eribon and who had adapted Eribon’s “Returning to Reims” for the Schaubühne in Berlin. (That production also traveled to St. Ann’s.)
“History of Violence,” Ostermeier said, is “very theatrical” in its confluence of different voices and perspectives. He, dramaturg Florian Borchmeyer and Louis worked on a version for the Schaubühne — the one that will run at St. Ann’s — in 2018. The New York Times listed it among Europe’s best theater that year; a published script is on the way in France.
“There is this classic love story between Édouard and Reda, but that turns into a tense true crime story,” Ostermeier said. “But what is the right story, and whose story is it? They are competing in a kind of battle for the opinion of the spectator.”
“The End of Eddy” is much more linear and unambiguous. And so the adaptation by Pamela Carter — directed by Stewart Laing originally for Untitled Projects and the Unicorn Theater for young audiences in Britain — imposes more theatricality on the story, with two actors playing Eddy and four onstage screens with video and meta-narrative text.
“We’re theater-makers, and we’re not interested in reproducing the book on the stage,” Carter said, adding that she was attracted to how relatable the story was and how “very lovely it was that he found his way out by way of theater.”
That hopefulness is something she wanted young audiences in Britain to take away from the production; BAM has arranged to bring in a similar crowd by hosting a free matinee for high school students.
Dramatic writing has been increasingly woven into Louis’ oeuvre. While laboring on a new novel, he has also been at work on a play for the students of a theater school he is teaching at in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In September, he published a deferential translation of Anne Carson’s “Antigonick” — a project that began almost as a whim but also as a corrective to her virtual nonexistence in France — for L’Arche. It will be followed by another, of her “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy,” which he saw at the Shed during a visit to New York last spring. (Reaction to the play was overwhelmingly negative, but Louis said he adored its “undoing of genre.”)
His latest book, “Who Killed My Father,” began as a script for director Stanislas Nordey at the Théâtre National de Strasbourg. The result was a poetic stream of consciousness about masculinity, ambivalent love and the failures of France to help a man trapped and physically ruined by his working-class life. “The history of your body,” he writes as an address to his father, “stands as an accusation against political history.”
Since its publication, “Who Killed My Father” has found its way back to a dramatic form through multiple adaptations, with more to come: One, by Tony Award winner Ivo van Hove, is planned for his Internationaal Theater Amsterdam next spring. Ostermeier is mulling another made with and starring Louis, though it is more of an “underground” project at the moment, he said, the theatrical equivalent of a jam session.
It can be a little bizarre for Louis to see all these versions of his life, and himself, onstage. His reaction depends on the show. “I can’t see ‘History of Violence’ very often,” he said, “because of the difficulty in seeing this violence that I endured performed again.”
But, in a way, Louis also sees something positive in that — a sense of purpose. “It means I’m talking about things that are difficult to address publicly,” he said. “Autobiography starts when you say: What is impossible to talk about, too private, too difficult? Then people will recognize themselves in what you’re writing.”
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