Geoffrey Beattie on ‘Returning to Reims’ by Didier Eribon
Like Eribon, I had a very humble background
French author Didier Eribon: Eribon thinks he had it hard, and perhaps he did, but his righteous anger led to an eventual resolution of identity. Photograph: Arne Dedert
Didier Eribon’s memoir Returning to Reims will resonate with a lot of readers – it’s already a bestseller on the continent. It certainly did with me. It is a story of an academically able and self-confident student (irritatingly overly self-confident at times, it must be said) born into a humble background in Reims in France and his escape from this limited, self-constraining and stultifying world through education. It details one side of that postwar world of opportunity and aspiration, and bettering yourself through education and qualifications – the hidden side, the side that you don’t really like to talk about–- the shame and embarrassment associated with where you come from.
The book documents the very personal legacy of that escape. Eribon today is a professor of sociology at the University of Amiens, so perhaps it’s not that surprising he views everything in primarily sociological terms, and tries to understand his emotional life and emotional journey, its causes and consequences, using concepts that any sociologist might understand. We are introduced to the work of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, masters of modern sociology, who eventually became his close friends, as he carves out his new career. Eribon is nothing if not an academic and social climber of the highest order.
It is a powerful book and one that I enjoyed immensely – for the most part, but some sections made for very uncomfortable reading. Like Eribon, I was born into a very humble background (in north Belfast). My father was a motor mechanic who died when I was 13, my mother worked in the local mill. It was a typical mill house, two up, two down, outside loo with newspaper rather than toilet roll (“far too expensive”, my mother would say, “we can’t afford that fancy stuff”), but I passed the 11-plus from our local primary school (the first in a generation, they said) and moved on to a world of school caps with crests on them, rugby shirts and cricket flannels which I wore over an arse raw from newspapers.
I would sit in our front room at the little yellow card table, with the telly on in the corner, and recite Latin and Russian verbs to my father, who sat patiently, not understanding a word of what I was saying, but encouraging me throughout. “Just two more pages, da,” I’d say, and he’d turn the pages as if he was following the incomprehensible squiggles on the page. I knew when I made a mistake, I didn’t need anyone to correct me, my father just had to give me any time I asked for and his love and admiration, that was all I could ever ask for. I never held his lack of education against him. How could I? It would have been absurd. And when he died suddenly and abruptly when I was in the second form of my new school, my life changed forever in an instant, and I rehearsed my Latin declensions alone from then on.
I never invited anyone back home to Legmore Street, but one night a classmate called uninvited to our little house at the turn-off-the-road for some help with his homework and a friend of mine from our street dropped a lit cigarette butt into the pocket of his school blazer as he left. I only knew he did this because I saw the smirk on his face. I knew that he’d done something, I just didn’t know what. The blazer must have caught fire on the way home because his irate father was soon standing in our front room demanding to know who had done this. My mother defended my two friends, she had seen nothing untoward. She even suggested that the cigarette butt had belonged to the Academy boy himself. “I bet they’re all secret puffers at that posh school,” she said. “You couldn’t believe some of them. They’re always very plausible – they could talk their way out of anything.”
I was trying to live a double life and I felt that tension acutely when I thought that these two worlds might collide
Her main worry about my education was that I would become “a snob”, or as she put it “a wee snob” – it always had the diminutive “wee” in front of it for some reason. “You’d never be ashamed of your background, would you?” she would ask, always seeking reassurance on this. But I avoided talking about where I came from after a while, and I rationalised, to myself at least, why I couldn’t bring anyone home – my mates from the street might cause trouble. I was trying to live a double life and I felt that tension acutely when I thought that these two worlds might collide. I belonged in neither comfortably.
And when I went off to university my descriptions of my early life grew vaguer and vaguer. I wanted to fit in to my new environment: my vocabulary changed, my accent mellowed, and yet at times of stress or when I was angry, particularly when I was angry, my accent reverted to the turn-off-the-road, and I could see those around me looking at me with great surprise and puzzlement. It happened once when I was at Trinity College Cambridge (I had the same tutor Prince Charles had a number of years earlier). Some ex-public schoolboy pinched a sports trophy that I’d just been awarded. Just high jinks, no doubt, but not to my common mind, that’s not how I would have f*cking seen it. My language turned the air blue, that’s the polite way of saying it. Needless to say that’s not how I described it.
Eribon would have described these transitions and challenges in terms of his good friend Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. I’m a professor of psychology, I would use different terms. My journey was uncomfortable like Eribon’s, but my last book was called The Conflicted Mind, for good reason. In it I explored, using psychology, how we resolve or fail to resolve all of these early conflicts and tensions.
But Eribon and I differ in many ways, and not just in terms of what academic tradition we draw upon to explain our experiences. Eribon hated his father and despised his family, their culture, their politics, their views on his sexuality (he was gay). He spends much of the book telling us how bad his family were, while at the same time admitting that “I know next to nothing about my father. What did he think about? . . . How did he see things?”
Perhaps, the marshalling of all of this class hate, and the fury directed against his own family, was necessary to propel him with great energy away from these beginnings to new social and cultural destinations, which allowed him to develop very close relationships with the French intellectual elite. I never hated like that; in fact, I never hated at all. Any shame I felt had to be dealt with very differently because I loved my family, and any embarrassment I felt had to be buried, lest they ever detect it. So, with me and others like me, you find yourself trying to protect your family, and embarrassed about your embarrassment, masking your complex and contradictory emotions, pulled both ways, so much so that you end up conflicted, and belonging neither here nor there.
Eribon thinks he had it hard, and perhaps he did, but his righteous anger led to an eventual resolution of identity. Many working-class children never achieve this sort of resolution. They have accepted the great educational challenge, they have bettered themselves through hard work, they have moved on. The only problem is that they haven’t arrived anywhere that they recognise – they may even hardly recognise themselves. And this can at times feel unbearable.
Geoffrey Beattie’s second novel, The Body’s Little Secrets, is published by Gibson Square