This memoir is a powerful account of return. Didier Eribon, now Professor of Sociology at the University of Amiens, and author of many books, left his working class family behind him when he went to study in Paris and had little contact with them since. The return is a profound psychological journey, a rediscovery of that ‘region of myself’- he quotes Genet-from which he’d worked so hard to escape. It is a re-engagement with his former life, a reconciliation with his mother and ultimately an attempt at reconciliation with that part of himself which for many years he’d refused, rejected or denied.
The book starts with a frank account of the state of Eribon’s relationship with his family: he hasn’t visited his parents for years and his only contact is an occasional phone call or postcard. His relationship with his father in particular is so broken that he can only face visiting his parents’ home once his father becomes so ill with Alzheimer’s that he goes into a care home. When he does start visiting his mother, she shows him photographs and talks eagerly about her life, her marriage, her husband, she had so much to tell me that her words tumbled out rapidly in an endless stream. During this period, his father dies in the home. The writer had made no effort to see him and seems unmoved by his death, saying he didn’t love him and never had. He doesn’t go to the funeral, having no wish to see his three brothers and their families. Yet there’s an awareness already that this stance is only half the truth: There was nothing between us, nothing that held us together. At least that is what I believed, or struggled to believe; it had been my idea that one could live one’s life separate from one’s family, reinventing oneself and turning one’s back on the past and the people in it.
The account of his family life and upbringing in Reims pulls no punches. His parents both came from very poor working class families and born as they were, his father in 1929 and his mother in 1930, their poverty was compounded by the disruption of the Second World War. As the eldest of 12 children, his father was sent off on his bike to scavenge for potatoes in the freezing Champagne countryside during the Occupation. He left school before his 14th birthday to work in the factory as an unskilled worker and, according to Eribon, there was never going to be any other choice for him. Eribon’s mother was a bright girl who’d hoped to stay on at school, but her hopes were dashed by a family life we’d now describe as chaotic, including spending time in an orphanage after her mother abandoned her. She married young, had her first two children in rapid succession, worked as a cleaner and then later on the factory floor- in order that Didier, her second child, could go to the lycée and read Sartre.
When his mother shows him a photograph of his father after his death, Didier hardly recognises the enfeebled, shrunken man. He was nothing like the man I had known, the man who shouted at the slightest provocation, stupid and violent, the man who had inspired so much contempt in me. He says he doesn’t remember having a single conversation with him, and was amazed to learn that a few years before, this homophobic man had broken down in tears, overcome with emotion on seeing Didier, his son, on TV, talking about his book Insult and the Making of the Gay Self.
Eribon describes his parents’ lives, their marriage, the family’s poverty, in a cool and dispassionate, almost documentary tone, which sits well with the analytical commentary running alongside his account. He sees his parents as products of social determinism, shaped by the particular social and historical circumstances they grew up in. And yet, describing certain incidents from childhood with the reflection of age, some empathy creeps in. On one occasion his father returns after a couple of days’ absence and, drunk, smashes every bottle in the house against the wall. Didier and his brother are terrified. Yet now, Eribon is aware that this is a man who went from looking after his brothers and sisters as the eldest, to being married with two small children by his mid twenties, all the time in poverty, burdened with responsibility and no chance to enjoy the freedoms of youth.
Though his parents’ relationship is characterised as conflictual, with constant arguments and fights, there are some happy memories too: he describes his parents learning to drive in the 60s and buying a car which enabled the family to go on outings, including fishing. These were happy occasions, with other families involved, the men fishing, the women preparing the feast and looking after the children. But he describes, how after a while, he became bored with these occasions and disengaged from them, preferring to go off by himself and read a book. They represented the working class culture he became increasingly keen to distance himself from. And Eribon doesn’t shy away from poking fun at this aloof adolescent. Eager to set himself apart from his father, he showed no interest in DIY or making things and was rather surprised as an adult to come across intellectuals who were also good with their hands !
This is a personal memoir, but threaded through with references and some theory. I enjoyed the literary references (James Baldwin, Annie Ernaux, Raymond Williams) but found some of the references to philosophers and theorists a little over my head-however, they don’t detract from the book as a whole. There’s also an interesting section analysing the change in French working class political allegiances alongside the change in his parents’ voting patterns from Communist to National Front. (His brothers, on the other hand, have always voted National Front). Their opposing different political views and in particular his family’s racism is part of the reason he’s stayed away from them- yet this section is also interesting more generally for what it tells us about French working class voters now.
However, the most powerful aspect of Didier Eribon’s book is the account of this honest and brave attempt to revisit a past which he’d left behind many years ago. To interrogate this past and to acknowledge that this is where he comes from, despite the intervening years and the difference between his life now and that of his family. This book will be of interest to anyone who has made such a class shift but is also more generally a sobering account of working class French life in the post war period.