RETURNING TO REIMS by Didier Eribon, translated by Michael Lucey, Allen Lane 2018
Brexit! Why? Trump! Why? Two books, memoirs really, have floated to the surface recently in answer, in part, to those twin questions: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, set in Kentucky and Ohio, The United States, and this book, which refers mostly to Northern France and Paris. Neither deal directly with either Brexit or Trump; in fact Return to Reims was originally published in 2009, long before either cataclysm.
Both books try to draw larger lessons from the individual experiences of the authors, both of whom consider themselves struggling class, for want of a better description, their respective lives scarred by poverty, violence, alcohol, drugs, lack of opportunity and ultimately, success, a different kind of deprivation perhaps. Both focus quite a bit of attention on growing up and going (or not) to school. Both struggle to define, to make sense of, not belonging, being good at something which sets them apart, which has taken them away from where they grew up. In Didier Eribon’s case, he consciously broke off relations with members of his family, in some cases, for decades.
Politics as such isn’t front and centre in Hillbilly Elegy, (J.D. Vance is now a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley - read into that what you will) but politics plays a big part in the life of Didier Eribon. He asks the question directly: what makes someone who has been a supporter of the Communist Party for all of their life, vote for the extreme right? What makes their children unapologetically supportive of le Pen? His answer seems to be: lack of opportunity, lack of education. He and his older brother, with whom he shared a bedroom for years, have ended on opposite sides of life’s spectrum, to the stupefaction of both. They are no longer in touch, which is sad.
The other characteristic which connects the authors, surprisingly, is that both have been drawn toward a kind of masculine milieu, for want of a better description. In Vance’s case, first the armed services, then technology; in Eribon’s, what he refers to as the gay subculture. For J.D. art, the idea of art, the culture and enjoyment of art, figure in his book and I guess his life, not at all. The lack of art is marked. For Eribon, art is a part of what it means to be him. He became very interested in Benjamin Britten in particular and opera in general, for example, which he characterised as being a part of his discovery of what it meant for him to be gay.
Didier Eribon is a sociologist (enough now of J.D. Vance who comes across as very pleased with himself for having become filthy rich) and he can focus all his objective skill, gained over a lifetime of academic toil, on his circumstances, a kind of societal Marco Polo, who may have brought some Chinese trinkets home but hasn’t been tainted by any kind of strange Eastern ideas. Eribon is still safely and securely left wing, just as J.D. is safely and securely as rich as Croesus (sorry, couldn’t resist it).
Why do I get the feeling that these are both escapees who pulled the ladder up after them? Who burned the boats once they got to the other side? I too come from this kind of background; Australia in my case, and rural rather than urban, but working parents and a similar kind of environment. My struggle hasn’t been so much to escape, though God knows I’ve given a good impression of trying, but to try to understand what it means to have had this kind of experience, of growing up with those who were physical rather than intellectual, indifferent to culture with a capital C, and who had mysterious political affiliations.
My father wasn’t violent or a drunk. On the contrary, he was the sober one of his family. My mother, much as he frustrated her by seeming to lack ambition, said he had a heart of gold. I admired him, not only because he was calm and good natured, but because he was good with his hands. He could build things, make things. He understood timber. And I admired the boys I grew up with, who could ride horses, play sport, were capable, even if inclined to be handy with their fists. And that’s not to say that I didn’t spend every moment my school years fearful of what they could do if they felt inclined, that I too, didn’t seem to fit easily into a society of fast cars and alcohol.
Being good at school, coming from that background, puts you on a specific path. What is that path? It’s the path of success as an individual. What you leave behind is the possibility of success as one of many, of a spirit of collaborative work, of depending on your peers, your mates, your workplace co-sufferers. Academic success in being able to achieve on your own. You sit exams on your own. Your results are your own. You write your own books, win your own prizes. Or else you work as part of a team; your life is lived in the mix with others. This is the truth of a working class life. And it’s considered second rate. That’s the truth. The individual success is always superior to the team success. The academic success always superior to the physical success.
Nowhere is this more notable than in art. Theaster Gates, an artist from Chicago, whose father worked with bitumen, uses his art to encourage community, to express the working life, yet when he wanted his art to be exhibited without his signature, wasn’t able to because it was his signature which was valuable. Without the mark of the individual the art was worthless.
Didier Eribon struggles in this book to put a name to the reason that he was ejected from his class, that he had the overwhelming feeling that any kind of success would mean that he would have to reject those with whom he grew up. For him it’s either or. He can’t square the circle. Success is individual and means he must renounce those who would be collaborative, who work best in a team. There is no other choice.
Education has come to mean one thing - the only kind of success is individual. Everyone else is second class and can’t be trusted to vote the right way.