History of Violence: New Excerpt
History of Violence is international bestselling French author Edouard Louis’s autobiographical novel about surviving a shocking sexual assault and coping with the post-traumatic stress disorder of its aftermath.
On Christmas Eve 2012, in Paris, the novelist Édouard Louis was raped and almost murdered by a man he had just met. This act of violence left Louis shattered; its aftermath made him a stranger to himself and sent him back to the village, the family, and the past he had sworn to leave behind.
A bestseller in France, History of Violence is a short nonfiction novel in the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but with the victim as its subject. Moving seamlessly and hypnotically between past and present, between Louis’s voice and the voice of an imagined narrator, History of Violence has the exactness of a police report and the searching, unflinching curiosity of memoir at its best. It records not only the casual racism and homophobia of French society but also their subtle effects on lovers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. It represents a great step forward for a young writer whose acuity, skill, and depth are unmatched by any novelist of his generation, in French or English.
I am hidden on the other side of the door, I listen, and she says that several hours after what the copy of the report I keep twice-folded in my drawer calls the attempted homicide, and which I call the same thing for lack of a better word, since no other term is more appropriate for what happened, which means I always have the anxious nagging feeling that my story, whether told by me or whomever else, begins with a falsehood, I left my apartment and went downstairs.
I crossed the street in the rain so I could wash my sheets on the hot setting at the laundromat down the block, just fifty meters from the door to my building, I was bent double, the laundry bag was so big and heavy my legs trembled under its weight.
It wasn’t yet light out. The street was empty. I was alone and as I stumbled along, though I had such a short way to go, I found myself counting in my haste: Just fifty more steps, keep going, just twenty more steps and you’re there. I hurried faster. In my impatience for the future, which would, somehow or other, dispatch, consign, reduce this scene to the past, I found myself thinking: In a week you’ll say, It’s been a whole week since it happened, keep going, and in a year you’ll say, It’s been a whole year since it happened. The drops of freezing rain weren’t beating down but fell in a thin, clammy drizzle that soaked through the canvas of my shoes, the water oozed its way through my insoles and the fabric of my socks. I was cold—and I thought: He could come back, he’s bound to come back, now I can never go home, he’s driven me from my home. The manager of the laundromat was on duty, his blocky chest and head looming up across the rows of machines. He asked how it was going, I said Bad, in the hardest voice I could muster. I waited for him to say something. I wanted him to say something. But he let it go, he shrugged, he turned and disappeared into the little office of his, tucked away behind the dryers, and I hated him for not asking what I meant.
I went back with the clean sheets. I climbed the stairs in a sweat. I remade the bed, but still it smelled like Reda, so I lit candles, I burned incense; it wasn’t enough; I took air freshener, deodorant, bottles of cologne that I’d been given for my last birthday, aftershave, and I sprayed the sheets, I soaked the pillowcases, even though I’d just washed them, until the material foamed with thick clustering suds. I washed the wooden chairs with soap and water, took a damp sponge to the books he’d handled, rubbed the doorknobs with antiseptic wipes, dusted the wooden blinds slat by slat, moved and rearranged the stacks of books on the floor, polished the metal bed frame, scoured the smooth white refrigerator door with lemon-scented detergent; I couldn’t stop, I was possessed by an almost manic energy. I thought: Better crazy than dead. I scrubbed the shower he’d used, dumped several liters of bleach into the toilet and sink (it was two liters at least—a bottle and a half), scrubbed the entire bathroom, it was absurd, I even cleaned the mirror where he’d observed, or really admired, his reflection the night before, and I threw away the clothes he’d touched, washing them wasn’t good enough; I don’t know why it was good enough for the sheets but not the clothes. I got down on my hands and knees and scrubbed the floor, the steaming water scalded my fingers, the rag tore the tender skin away in little oblong strips. The bits of skin curled up on themselves. I paused, I took deep breaths, the truth is I was sniffing like an animal, I had become an animal, sniffing after the scent that seemed never to disappear, no matter what I did, his smell wouldn’t go away, so I decided it must be on me, not on the sheets or the furniture. I was the problem. I got in the shower, I washed myself once, twice, three times, and so on. I lathered my body with soap, shampoo, conditioner to perfume it as best I could, it was as if his smell were encrusted inside me, between the flesh and the epidermis, and I scraped at every inch of my body with my nails, I sanded away in a fury, trying to reach the inner layers of my skin and get rid of his smell, I swore out loud, “Fuck,” and the longer the smell persisted, the sicker and dizzier I felt. Then I realized: The smell is inside my nose. You’re smelling the inside of your nose. The smell is stuck in my nose. I left the bathroom, came back with saline, and squirted it into my nostrils; I exhaled as if I were blowing my nose so that—this was the effect I wanted to produce—the saline would get to the entire inner surface of my nostrils; it didn’t do any good; I left the windows open and went to go see Henri, the only friend I had who was awake that December 25 at nine or ten in the morning.
My sister is the one describing this scene to her husband. I still recognize her voice even after my years away, her voice compounded, as always, of fury, resentment, irony too, and resignation:
“But that’s the thing, it didn’t surprise me at all and that’s exactly what got me so mad, because when he told me—and he was sitting right there where you are now, and here I was listening, he always goes on about how nobody listens to him, which I mean, please, that’s not the problem, the problem is he never wants anyone else to talk, only him and he never stops, but as I was saying, when he told me how he left the hospital that day and it hit me how he never called me the day it happened, I said to myself: Of course not—but I kept my mouth shut, and at first I just sat there and dealt with it. I dealt with it. I was proud of the way I dealt with it, actually. I patted myself on the back. And I told myself, You knew who you were dealing with, did you really think he’d pick up the phone or, heaven forbid, come to visit (here it comes). I’m not saying he should have called me before he called everybody else or told me everything in detail right then and there, it’s not like I want to be the first person he calls, I’m not saying call and spend three hours on the phone, or three days, not at all. All I’m saying is call.
“But so I let him talk. I dig my nails into my hands, deep, to keep from bawling him out. I could see the big veins come up on my hands while he went on talking, I was clenching them so hard, they looked like beets, and all that time, the whole entire time, I was swallowing my spit to swallow the words I felt rising up in my throat, and I just kept telling myself: Hold it together, Clara. Hold it together.
“And finally I told him. Édouard, I mean. I told all this to my mother yesterday, he says he doesn’t want to see her but so what, that’s between them, it’s not my problem. Let them fight (that’s not true, she’s lying to him, in fact she has tried desperately to make peace between you, she’s done everything she could think of, everything, just the way your mother would try to make peace in her own family, as if the role had been passed down from one to the other). I called her to tell her how he’s doing, and I told her, I said, Oh my, you should have seen how it all came out, it just came out all by itself while Édouard was talking—it really is stronger than I am, I told her, but Maman, you know how I am, I’ve always had to say what’s on my mind, and it’s too late to change now, I’m too old, I’ve been around for a quarter of a century, and that’s not the way I do things, it just isn’t, I don’t care if he wants to harp on bad memories, that doesn’t mean I have to shut up, no way, I won’t put up with that kind of blackmail. I’m sorry, I told her, but no, because if you give in to that kind of blackmail then you don’t say anything, and that means you stop ever talking about anything and you’re always biting your tongue about something and that’s no way to live, so I told my mother what I said to Édouard: You could at least have tried, it wouldn’t have been that hard, for Christ sake, you could have done it, you could have called me that day. It’s not exactly complicated, is it, it’s not like you’re a righty with two left hands, you do know how to work a goddamn phone. To think it’s been almost a year since it happened and he only told me this week. That for a whole year I didn’t know anything about it, not until this week.
“And I didn’t even mention that she asked him while he was there at the hospital. The nurse, I mean. I know this for a fact. She leaned toward him—she was good at her job and knew what to do, she was a good person, he told me so himself. She leaned toward him and she said, Do you want to contact your family? Do you have any family somewhere you ought to contact?—and what does he say, all calm like it’s nothing: No, no, thank you, that’s okay. And so he was sitting there yesterday right where you’re sitting now. He was practically in the same position and then he imitated himself the way he told the nurse: No, no, thank you, that’s okay, and that’s why I gave him a dirty look, because I wanted him to know how I felt. And then I thought: I’m more than a quarter century old. We’re practically the same age. I’ve known him for almost a quarter of a century and he hasn’t changed a bit (but also, as soon as you arrived she started talking, nonstop, without listening to anything you said, telling you all the trivial gossip of the village, describing all the weddings and funerals of people whose names you don’t even remember, as if that way she could give herself the illusion, and give you the illusion, that you’d never left, that these stories still concerned you and that she was picking up a conversation that the two of you had only just abandoned, a day or an hour before. And so you decided to take your revenge).”
* * *
I SHOWED UP at her house four days ago. I’d told myself, naïvely, that time in the country was what I needed in order to get over the weariness and passivity that had consumed my life, but no sooner had I walked through the door, thrown my bag down on the bed, and opened the bedroom window, with its view of the woods and the factory in the next village, than I knew it was a mistake and that I’d go home feeling even worse than before, even more depressed by my own inertia.
It’s been two years since my last visit. When she complains about how long I’ve been away, I mumble some empty clichélike “I need to make a life of my own” and try to sound as if I mean it, as if it were her fault, not mine.
But really I have no idea what I’m doing here. The last time I came, she picked me up in the same car, with the same sickening smell of old tobacco, and as I watched the same fields roll by on the other side of the door—the corn and rapeseed, the same reeking acres of sugar beets, the rows of brick houses, the loathsome National Front posters, the grim little churches, the abandoned gas stations, the rusted-out, falling-down supermarkets surrounded by pasture, the depressing landscape of northern France—I was overcome by a wave of nausea. I’d realized that it would make me lonely. By the time I left, I told myself I hated the country and I swore I’d never come back. And now here I am again. And there’s another reason you stayed away. Not just because you always start fighting the minute you show up, I thought when I arrived, when I was in her car, when I was singing so we wouldn’t have to talk, not just because you experience everything about her—how she acts, the things she does, the way she thinks—as a personal attack, as an affront. You’ve also stayed away because you’ve discovered how easy it is to cut her loose, how little you actually miss her, and sometimes you rub her face in it because you want her help, because you want her to help you leave. Now she knows. She knows how cold you can be and you’re ashamed. Even if there’s no reason to be ashamed, even if you have every right to cut her loose, still you’re ashamed. You know that coming to see her means facing your own cruelty, what in your shame you call your cruelty. To see her is to see a side of yourself you don’t like, and that makes you resent her. You can’t help it.
Since my last visit, all I’ve sent is a few text messages and a few perfunctory postcards, pictures chosen at random out of some vague sense of familial obligation. She’s stuck them to her fridge with magnets, each postcard hastily scribbled from a park bench or a table in some café (“Kisses from Barcelona, See you soon, Édouard” or “Thinking of you in Rome, beautiful weather”), maybe less to keep up our connection—which is what I tell myself—than to remind her of the distance between us, to make her understand we’ll never be close again.
* * *
HER HUSBAND IS HOME FROM WORK. From where I’m standing, I can just see his feet. He and Clara are in the parlor, I’m in the next room. With the door ajar, I can hear whatever they say, but they can’t see me hiding here rigid behind the door. I can’t see them either—except for his feet—but my ears tell me she’s sitting in the chair across the room. He listens, motionless, and she speaks.
“He told me straight out he hardly knew a thing about the man, except his first name was Reda.”
Didier and Geoffroy say he was lying, they say he gave me a made-up name. For all I know, they’re right. But I refuse to believe it, each time the thought occurs to me I bat it away. I focus on something else, as if, after all he took away, I want him to leave me that much, as if my knowing those four letters could bring a kind of revenge or, if revenge is too strong a word, at least a kind of power over him, a power derived from knowledge. I don’t want to lose that, too. Whenever I tell this story and I hear someone say that, obviously, he didn’t give me his real name, when I’m told it’s textbook to use a fake name in a case like this, in this kind of situation, it always touches a nerve, I can’t help getting angry, I can’t stand to hear it, I want to shout the person down, to shut them up, to shake them.
“He told me the story again this morning. We were at the bakery and I asked to hear it all again,” and it’s true, on the way to the bakery I told her that when Reda pointed his gun at me—because that was the part she wanted to hear over and over again—when he pointed his gun at me, the question I asked myself wasn’t Is he going to kill me? because by then there was no doubt in my mind, it was already over, he was going to kill me and I was going to die, that very night, in my own room, I accepted it the way one accepts and adapts to any situation; for as history shows, people do adjust and adapt, even to the most inhumane conditions, even in the face of atrocities, and this—I told Clara, giving in to my weakness for grandiosity—is both the best and the worst news for humanity, since it means all you have to change is the world and then people will change themselves, or at least most people, and (Clara wasn’t listening) there’s no need to change them person by person, which would take forever; people adapt, they don’t endure, they adapt. So the question wasn’t Is he going to kill me? but How is he going to kill me? In other words: Is he going to wrap his scarf around my neck again and strangle me? or Is he going to take a dirty knife out of the sink? or Is he going to pull the trigger of his gun? or Will he find a way I can’t even imagine? I’d stopped looking for ways to escape, I’d stopped hoping to survive, all I wanted was to die as painlessly as possible. Later on the police, or maybe it was Clara, congratulated me on my bravery, and the idea of bravery struck me as utterly out of place, as alien to that night. He takes a few steps back, gripping the butt of his gun. He stretches out his other hand, the empty one, and without ever looking down, he reaches into the pile of clothes on my chair, he feels around. He pulls out the scarf. I think: He’s going to strangle me again. But when he came near me, he didn’t try to strangle me the way he had a few minutes before, before he took out his gun. He didn’t reach for my neck. This time he tried to tie me up, he was holding on to my right arm and trying to grab the other arm so he could tie the scarf around it, I remember he smelled of sweat and also of sex. I fought back, I held him off, and I was so afraid I thought: I don’t want to die, or something just as tragically cliché. I cried out, but softly; obviously I didn’t make too much noise. I couldn’t risk it. I pushed him away, very calmly, as calmly as I could. Don’t do that, I pleaded. I struggled, I fought him off, and all the while he kept repeating the same thing, louder and louder, I’m going to take care of your ass I’m going to take care of your ass (take care of not in the usual sense, but rather in the sense of “deal with,” that is, in this context, destroy) I’m going to take care of your ass I’m going to take care of your ass. Now he was shouting. I hoped a neighbor would hear us and call the police. But if the police come, what if he’s so afraid of getting arrested that he panics and kills me when he hears them calling, “Police, open up,” through the door? When he couldn’t manage to tie me up, he took out the gun, which he’d stashed in the inside pocket of his fake leather coat, he threw his scarf on the floor or else he put it around his neck, I can’t remember which, and he shoved me down on the bed.
* * *
THE MORNING OF THE TWENTY-FIFTH, just a few hours after this scene, I walked and biked to my friend Henri’s, and on my way there I was still thinking, In a week you’ll tell yourself: It’s been a whole week since it happened, keep going, and in a year you’ll tell yourself: It’s been a whole year since it happened. I’d just reached his landing when he opened the door. He must have heard my feet on the stairs. I wanted to throw myself into his arms and yet I hesitated, though I couldn’t have said why.
I told Clara, “It wasn’t that I thought he might be dangerous.” In the very beginning, right after my night with Reda, I didn’t yet believe—as I would believe for months, later on—that anyone could turn dangerous, even the people I was closest to, that they might turn homicidal, and be seized by a lust for blood and destruction and simply attack me, even Didier and Geoffroy, my two closest friends; and yet face-to-face with Henri something held me back. We both froze, and in those few seconds, while time stood still, I could feel him gently scrutinizing and analyzing, searching for any clue that could explain what I was doing there, so early, on such an unlikely day. His eyes swept over me, they took in my dirty, greasy hair, the dark rings around my eyes, my neck with its constellation of purple marks, my crimson swollen lips. As he took it all in, his face collapsed by degrees; I remember the many showers I took before I went to Henri’s, and yet I very distinctly remember my hair was dirty when I got there. He invited me in. He followed behind me, and I could feel his gaze on the back of my neck. I wasn’t crying. I made my way inside. His tables were covered with framed photos, and over the sofa there was a big portrait of him, behind glass. I sat down and Henri made coffee. He came back from the kitchen holding two cups, they were rattling in their saucers; he asked if I wanted to tell him what happened, I said yes. I described Reda, first his brown eyes and black eyebrows; I began with his eyes. His face was smooth. His features were soft yet rugged, masculine. When he smiled, he had dimples, and he smiled a lot. The copy of the report that I keep at home, drafted in police language, refers to an Arab male. Each time I see that phrase it infuriates me, because I can still hear the racism of the police who interviewed me later, on that December 25, I can hear the compulsive racism that, in the end, seemed the crucial bond between them, the only bond they had—apart from their too-tight uniforms—the only glue that held them together, because for them Arabdidn’t refer to somebody’s geographical origins, it meant scum, criminal, thug. At the police station I’d given a brief description of Reda, when they asked, and immediately the officer on duty cut me off: “Oh, you mean he was an Arab.” He was triumphant, delighted would be an exaggeration, but he did smile, he crowed; it was as if I’d given him the confession he’d wanted to hear since I walked in the door, as if I’d given him proof that he was in the right all along; he kept repeating it, “the Arab male, the Arab male,” every other sentence involved “the Arab male.” I told Henri about my night and went to lie down on his bed. He pointed me to his bedroom, in the loft, and I climbed up and went to sleep. I hadn’t slept in a long time, apart from a few naps with Reda.
Copyright © 2018 Édouard Louis.