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Several years ago, writer Edan Lupecki started a popular Instagram account called Mothers Before. She asked people to submit photographs of their mothers before they became mothers, and to write a short paragraph on what the image invoked now. There were posed wedding portraits, candid party shots, clinical passport photos of new immigrants; a collection of young women who looked hopeful, daring, dreaming, defiant—or so their children tended to imagine. Most submissions seemed to be motivated by a special kind of curiosity and tenderness.
Why are we so drawn to these images of our mothers, and so moved by them? Although we’re not close, I keep a picture of my mother in her twenties on my dresser, and when I look at her, standing slightly hunched in a turtleneck and leather jacket, bangs in disarray, I cannot help but think that she looks beautiful and free—a mother before. Édouard Louis’s latest memoir, A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, starts with the same impulse, a photograph. His mother Monique looks right at us from the front cover:
She is tilting her head and smiling slightly [. . .] everything about the snapshot—her pose, her gaze, the movement of her hair—evokes freedom, the infinite possibilities ahead of her and perhaps, also, happiness. I think I’d forgotten that she’d been free before my birth—even joyful?
In a little over a hundred sparse pages, Louis takes us on his mother’s journey through marriage (battle), class struggle (transformation), and parenthood (a bit of both, but mainly battle). It is not a straightforward biography; there is a cursory summary of Monique’s childhood and her early dream to be a cook, but these are only ornaments on the long list of her losses. With the birth of her first child, the author’s older brother, Monique’s life ceased to be one of possibility and became filled with obligation, deprivation, violence, alcoholism, and loneliness. Louis’s father was aggressive and often drunk; he forbade Monique to wear make-up, and publicly humiliated her with terms like “fat cow.” Louis writes retrospectively, recognizing now that his mother’s incessant chatter, which he so hated in childhood, was her only bulwark against boredom. The rare sight of her dancing was just a stolen moment in a succession of disappointments; the “vision of her happiness” that he saw in the photograph of her before her life as a mother made him “feel the injustice of her destruction.” And she felt it too:
[My mother] was certain that she deserved another life, one that existed somewhere else, abstractly, in a virtual world that so easily could have been hers, and that her life in the real world was nothing but an accident.
Louis was born in 1992 in an industrial town in northern France. After his father’s back was crushed in a factory accident, his family survived on welfare and his mother’s odd jobs. He has written extensively on the intersections of toxic masculinity, social inequality, and homosexuality in his previous autobiographical novels. His debut, The End of Eddy, recounts a relentlessly bleak childhood of beatings and neglect, and how Eddy Bellegueule, with his working-class name, came to be the writer Édouard Louis. Who Killed My Father investigates the strictly metaphorical “death” of his father through alcoholism, disability, and misogyny. Finally, in A History of Violence, Louis gives an agonizing account of his own sexual assault, told from his sister’s point-of-view as Louis eavesdrops as she recounts the episode to her husband. In A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, he turns this family inquiry toward his mother, using his parallel fight for personhood as a gay man in an attempt to enter her world. “[Y]ours is the story of a human being who fought for the right to exist as a woman,” he writes, directly to her, “as opposed to the nonexistence imposed upon you by your life, and by life with my father.”
While Louis wonders if he can “truly understand her life if it is specifically distinguished by being a woman’s life,” he argues that if a man is “virility, power, camaraderie with other boys,” then “the person that I am was never a man [. . .] It is perhaps here, in this nether-land of my being, that I can attempt to understand who she is and what she lived through.” Of course, there is something contrived and superficial about this comparison that gives us a better understanding of the writer and his presumptions (much like the Instagram captions of Mothers Before) than of his subject, Monique.
Even though Louis’s prose is assuredly polished, it often feels as if he is deliberately exposing his process—his arguments are not always consistent, but it is through the relentless investigative writing that he develops insight and nuance, and revises his ideas. Louis’s style is detached, slippery, decidedly unsentimental, but nonetheless moving. He repeats phrases word for word, like a leitmotif, sometimes giving them a whole page spread to themselves. The use of white space and blank pages is telling; in music, the rests are just as important as the notes. As Hannah Arendt said, “There’s an English idiom, ‘Stop and think.’ Nobody can think unless he stops.” Louis’s sparseness gives both author and reader the opportunity to do both. One critic described this kind of stop-and-start probing as a literary “tic” across all of Louis’s works. For me, taken in isolation, it is part of what makes A Woman’s Battles sing. While translator Tash Aw consistently chooses language that feels honest rather than lyrical, he manages to retain (or perhaps inject) a wonderful rhythm throughout. Aw also invites the reader to sit in the tension between Louis’s philosophical explorations and his simpler, more confessional language, and each feels true to the story. When Louis speaks directly to his mother, the tone changes with the shift in grammatical person. A quiet parenthetical note, slipped in as if on a Post-it, speaks volumes: “(I was proud of you. Did I tell you?)”
As Louis recounts the violence done to and around Monique, he includes some of his own transformations in this list. His experience of social class is more deeply explored in The End of Eddy, but now he sees it in relation to his mother:
When I was a child, we felt ashamed together—of our house, of our poverty. Now I was ashamed of you, against you.
Our shame had parted ways.
Reading these lines, a certain reader would surely feel the joy of recognition, followed by the weight of complicity—as I did. The heady blend of hatred and desire for “les bourgeois” was one I’d imbibed my whole life. “I mostly hated them because I saw in them all the privileges that I didn’t have access to,” Louis writes, but also, “[t]he people I met, who became my friends, read books and went to the theatre, sometimes even the opera. [. . .] immediately I wanted to be like them.” Here is a startling facsimile of my own experience (as a precocious, queer, and serious child) of defecting from my social class, and of the resulting rift between me and my mother. Louis was first in his family to attend university, as was I; his mother was an occasional cleaning lady, as was mine. Like Louis, I wanted to use my new life of books, music, and culture “as revenge against my childhood.” “It’s regarde, not garde,” Louis recalls correcting his mother—his signature detachment not detached enough to mask the trace of shame.
I was learning different words at the lycée, and these words became the symbols of my new life—unimportant words like bucolic, fastidious, laborious, underlying. They were words I’d never heard before. I used them with you, and you got annoyed: Enough of your minister’s vocabulary! You’d say, That guy—ever since he went to lycée he thinks he’s better than us.
Though he had moved no further than the nearby city of Amiens for school, the distance between Louis and his mother could not have been greater. The gap between their lives, as with my life and my mother’s, became a source of both pride and embarrassment; it is rare to see this Janus-faced new relationship centered on discussions of social mobility. As with Louis, my own rift was most evident in language—the words I carried home from the university were pretentious, a sure sign of a “better than” mentality.
Most people who speak about their trajectory passing from one social class to another recount the violence they experienced in the process—because of their inability to adapt, their ignorance of the codes of the world into which they were entering. I remember mostly the violence I inflicted. I wanted to use my new life as revenge against my childhood [. . .] I became a class defector out of revenge—and this violence was added to all the rest that you had already lived through.
How can something feel like both betrayal and triumph? Wondering what A Woman’s Battles and Transformations might mean to his mother, Louis writes that he hopes it will become “a home in which she might take refuge”—a questionable wish for a woman who once told a reporter, “It’s not right, what he’s done [. . .] He presents us like backward hicks.” Louis attempts to navigate their relationship only after he gains enough distance from her, after their estrangement loosens its hold. Late one evening, he gets a call: “At last. I’ve done it.” Without asking, he knows that Monique has left his father, whose bitterness had made him cruel and controlling, and who had made her life unbearable. She moves into social housing and later to Paris, starts wearing make-up, and has, thanks to Louis, an implausible but true encounter with Catherine Deneuve. With her liberation comes a new, shared language. “I went for a stroll in the Luxembourg Garden today. I had coffee on the terrasse at a café near my place,” he recalls her saying and wonders whether “she was fully aware that the mere possibility of saying these sentences was a revolution in itself.”
Monique continues to carry an internal out-of-placeness, unsure of the rules of her new existence, but she keeps going: “She didn’t want to lose this chance to live a different life.” Is this a tad patronizing? Yes. But A Woman’s Battles and Transformations is not really her story. Like the images in Mothers Before, it is an unequal conversation with the past, a child’s vision of a parent, their relationship, and the ways in which both of those subjects transformed—it is Louis’s memoir after all, beautiful and moving for all its flaws. Louis’s trademark cool ambivalence is precisely what makes his work so evocative—but in this little volume, he reveals a hint of tenderness and curiosity for his “mother before,” and for who she might become.
For a more succinct review, I could have just said this: I sent a copy to my mother.
A Woman’s Battles and Transformations by Édouard Louis, translated from the French by Tash Aw (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2022).
© 2022 by Hannah Weber. All rights reserved.