A Woman’s Battles and Transformations
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 2022)
A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, the new autobiographical novel by France's beloved writer and advocate for the working class, Édouard Louis, is a broad strokes portrait of a woman stifled by a life of domesticity and subordination to her husband and family, and her struggle to break free. The woman, in this case, is Louis’s own mother Monique. However, a portrait of his mother's life becomes a window into the lives of many women (hence the generalized title A Woman’s Battles and Transformations as opposed to My Mother’s Battles and Transformations).
As with his last book, Who Killed My Father, Louis once again constrains himself to around a hundred pages—a sharp contrast to the many male authors (Knausgaard, David Foster Wallace, etc.) who masturbate and manspread their robust oeuvres over many inches of shelf space. Whereas his former work centers on patterns of violence, here are two tales of liberation. The first is of Louis’s mother as she yearns to escape the suffocating life of a housewife in the town of Hallencourt (a small, working class village in northern France), and—by way of vacation, friendship, or hopes of winning a lottery—reaches for any passing ship that might ferry her away. Blended within the backdrop of this sadly universal tale is a brief documentation of Louis’s own quest for liberation along with a bold confession: an acknowledgment that, as a son and a male, Louis has been a contributing factor to his mother’s suffering, "one of the agents of (her) destruction."
While his mother was belittled, overlooked, and humiliated by her husband, family, and the women in her village, Louis was enduring his own violence as a poor, gay boy with the “mannerisms of a girl” growing up in a violent, homophobic town. But instead of finding solidarity with his mother, driven by anger and shame, Louis crawled further into himself and further away from her. He burned invitations for parent-teacher meetings, hid and lied about school activities, and ultimately tried to prevent her from being his mother. And although she occasionally berated him, inflicting her own violence onto him, “Can’t you be a bit normal from time to time?”, there were many moments where she tried to share herself, to allow him to see who she was and who she wanted to be.
Eventually detaching from his family while away at Lycée, a secondary school in France, Louis enters into the realm of “les bourgeois”—those whose “bodies,” “money,” “freedom,” and “ease of movement” he hated as a child. Once there, he “immediately” wishes to become just like them. Louis recalls how, when returning home from school, he uses his new life and liberation to further injure his mother. He flaunts his recently learned words: “tedious,” “bucolic,” “laborious,” “fastidious” to show how he had escaped and how much better he was than her. As a “class defector” he had, in a way, become part of the privileged group he had loathed. But through this detachment, with a new ability to compare the lives of his schoolmates and their families with his own, he begins to see the violent world in which his mother dwelled.
Within this short, fragmented narrative, the relationship with his mother changes from antagonistic to sympathetic and we discover the genesis of Louis’s social and political critique of violence he is now globally known for. He uses his personal experience—how his father’s tyrannical behavior stunted his mother’s ability to achieve a full sense of self and how her role as mother created a barrier to her autonomy—to demonstrate the ways women suffer from subordination and masculine domination; and political attacks on his family—how their livelihood is further threatened when the meager state benefits they relied upon after Louis’s father became severely injured at his factory job are cut—to show the ways legislation can further denigrate the poor. In essence, Louis’s intimate narrative creates a pathway to understanding the complex, symbiotic nature between systems of power.
There are some sections of this introspective account, however, that could have benefitted from more flesh. While what he does for his mother—encouraging her to leave his father, taking her to fancy French restaurants, and arranging an encounter with a celebrity she admired—is shown, his feelings for her are sparse and somewhat simplistic. It could be that I’m reading through my own experience as a writer and a daughter, one where, when younger, I would write scathing testimony of my mother while victimizing myself as a daughter gasping in the folds of the hysterical matriarch. It was not until her passing and my own struggle to mother those in my life began, that I recognized our closeness, the complex bond that existed between her and I that, like Louis and his mother, came mostly from a shared desire for liberation. I wondered if, similarly, a contemptuous residue shades his memory, or maybe, like most of us, he is still grappling with his feelings.
Even though as a fan and ravenous reader of his work I desired a bit more, the slightness of Louis’s book can be seen as radical in itself. Towing the powerhouse that is male privilege, he makes himself smaller than those around him on the shelf and in doing so, we have to work to find him there. Although one could argue that the story of a woman should be much larger than those of her male counterpart, I appreciate and acknowledge the act of solidarity. It remains clear, by this work and others, that Louis is in service to those overlooked by the privileged and an excellent role model for how men can become better allies to women.
In the end, we learn a crucial lesson, one that many might already suspect or know, the message beating from the heart of this book, that male supremacy, ultimately, serves no one.