115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Memoir, the Novel, and the Self: Economic and Sexual Shame in Duras's The Lover and Louis's The End of Eddy

Ryan Lambert, The Community College of Denver

This presentation centers on two autobiographical novels: Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1984) and Edouard Louis’s The End of Eddy (2017). I ask, “Why do these writers market their texts as novels and not memoirs?” I suggest that genre—that of the autobiographical novel—works to turn shame into something more productive, a means to participate in the construction of one’s own subjectivity.  

Proposal: 

This proposed conference paper will discuss how autobiographical novels—particularly Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and Edouard Louis’s The End of Eddy—make use of economic and sexual shame to challenge current notions of subjectivity.

Both texts recount the respective author’s adolescent sexual awakening—Duras’s teenage love affair with an older Chinese man in French Indochina and Louis’s discovering of his homosexuality in rural, racist, homophobic France. Both writers make little attempt to mask their identities in these texts; indeed, Louis names his protagonist after himself, and “the girl” of The Lover is clearly Duras. The End of Eddy and The Lover center on themes of sexual and economic shame, tangible realities for both writers.

In a May 8, 2017, New Yorker review of Louis’s The End of Eddy, critic Garth Greenwell notes that “In interviews, Edouard Louis, who is now twenty-four, has said that everything he recounts in the novel is true” (63). Nevertheless, The End of Eddy is housed in fiction. Louis explores the trauma of growing up gay and poor in rural France. Marguerite Duras’s now-classic 1984 autobiographical novel, The Lover, on the other hand, describes Duras’s own experiences—those of growing up poor in French Indochina as she begins a sexual liaison with an older, wealthy Chinese man.

Neither text takes on the label “memoir”; instead, both texts are sold as novels. Thus, one must wonder at why both writers would recount their “true” experiences in novels, not memoirs.

Working from Philippe LeJeune’s idea of the “autobiographical pact” (a term later explored by Nancy Miller), I suggest that the (autobiographical)novel allows Duras and Louis more possibilities than a standard memoir would to explore shame and how that shame forms subjectivity through negation. Duras and Louis both abandon the memoir to defend from the shame-inducing gaze of the reader and to participate in the construction of self.

Principally, this paper draws from psychologist Silva Thompson, who devoted his career to studying the innate nature of affect and shame, drawing from psychoanalysis and cybernetics. I also take from queer theorists Leo Bersani and Michael Warner, as well as post-colonial thinkers like Gayatri Spivak (especially with regards to how both writers make use of “strategic essentialism” in their accounts) and Homi K. Bhabha.

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