Sharon Carson |
A copy of French writer Didier Eribon’s beautifully crafted memoir Returning to Reims recently landed in my mailbox thanks to the U.K. based Left Book Club (more on the LBC below).
Here’s the trademark yellow-jacketed LBC edition.
Originally published in 2009, Returning to Reims has been available in English translation since 2013, and those not inclined to join the Left Book Club can find the trade edition here.
Didier Eribon is a social theorist and intellectual historian who has published scholarly works on gay theory, Michel Foucault, and book length interviews with Claude Lévi-Strauss and art historian Ernst H. Gombrich.
He wrote this memoir from his perspective as a French gay man committed to left politics, born in the mid-20th century, and watching his fellow citizens reinvigorate a nationalist Right.
Given his life experience, his work and his political preoccupations, it is not surprising that Eribon opens this memoir of difficult “return” with an extended passage invoking the complexities of identity, memory, continuity, dislocation, and malaise:
“Whatever you have uprooted yourself from or been uprooted from still endures as an integral part of who or what you are. Perhaps a sociological vocabulary would do a better job than a psychoanalytical one of describing what the metaphors of mourning and of melancholy allows one to evoke in terms that are simple, but also misleading and inadequate: how the traces of what you were as a child, the manner in which you were socialized, persist even when the conditions in which you live as an adult have changed, even when you have worked so hard to keep that past at a distance. And so when you return to the environment from which you came—which you left behind—you are somehow turning back upon yourself, returning to yourself, rediscovering an early self that has been both preserved and denied. Suddenly, in circumstances like these, there rises to the surface of your consciousness everything from which you imagined you had freed yourself and yet which you cannot recognize as part of the structure of your personality—specifically the discomfort that results from belonging to two different worlds, worlds so far separated from each other that they seem irreconcilable, and yet which coexist in everything that you are. This is a melancholy related to a “split habitus,” to invoke Bourdieu’s wonderful, powerful concept. Strangely enough, it is precisely at the moment in which you try to get past this diffuse and hidden kind of malaise, to get over it, or when you try at least to allay it a bit, that it pushes even more strongly to the fore, and that the melancholy associated with it redoubles its force. The feelings involved have always been there, a fact that your discover or rediscover at this key moment; they were lurking deep inside, doing their work, working on you. Is it ever possible to overcome this malaise, to assuage this melancholy?” (10-11)
Eribon’s memoir is on one hand a deeply personal exploration of this malaise, of his estrangement from his family and working class roots. This estrangement was part necessity: an emancipatory exile from Reims to Paris to escape from a stifling rejection of his gayness, a migration from small community to large city so often (then and still) part of the coming-out story of countless people.
But the other estrangement is political and social, and in the passage above, can be turned toward the social sphere: Eribon grapples with the ways his intellectual and political work also fed his estrangement from the working class and leftist roots of his family and community.
So in addition to exploring his own memory-scape and recounting a troubled “return” to his family and the town of Reims, Eribon offers sharp critique of an elitist and self-satisfied Left (in France, and by extension elsewhere) which he indicts for too often abandoning on-the-ground solidarity with working class and poor people, including (but not limited to) those in rural communities who have been catastrophically dislocated by emerging economic changes.
In essence, he argues a strong case that left and liberal-left players have too often ignored or avoided the real work of class politics and must share culpability for the transnational lurch to the Right we are currently witnessing.
Eribon structures much of Returning to Reims as his own self-critique in response to a question he poses this way:
“I mentioned earlier that during my childhood my entire family was “communist,” in the sense that the [French] Communist Party was the organizing principle and the uncontested horizon of our relation to politics. How could my family have turned into one in which it seemed possible, even natural sometimes, to vote either for the right or the extreme right?
What had happened to create a situation in which so many people whose spontaneous reactions had been one of visceral disgust when they came across figures they took to be enemies of the working class, people who happily hurled abuse at the television when such figures appeared on the screen (a strange but effective way of taking comfort in one’s beliefs and one’s sense of self), would begin voting for the National Front?” (119)
The book becomes an extended challenge to readers anywhere to ask the same question. Eribon foregrounds a profound restlessness—personal and political– which will no doubt elicit a range of reactions and counter-critiques, but will not allow any reader to settle for reassuring I’m-off-the-hook answers.
Steven Poole wrote a good longer review in The Guardian. Returning to Reims was also adapted for the stage in 2018: here’s the Hollywood Reporter review with a short video clip of the performance. And here’s the New York Times review of the off-Broadway production.
Getting back to the arrival of Returning to Reims via the mailbox:
The Left Book Club is a cooperative publishing project based in the U.K., started in 1936, with a first demise in 1948, and a reboot in 2015. Here’s the current website and here is their link to LBC’s current partner publishers. You can find the more recent publications of LBC here. The project also includes reading/discussion groups, debates and public education and organizing.
The history of the club is remarkable and fascinating, and like everything on the left, contested and variously interpreted. You can get started via a look at the historical overview by Roger van Zwanenberg on Pluto Press’s page.
Or just start with the wikipedia entry and follow the rabbit holes there for more on founding publisher Victor Gollancz and the politics of the project during its first years. The wiki also has a full list of the books featured by LBC from 1936-1948. There is a story behind each and every one.
A few other takes include John Lewis’s 1970 history The Left Book Club: An Historical Record (out of print), and Gordan Neavill’s book review of Lewis’s book.
The online project “Making Britain: Discover How South Asians Shaped the Nation, 1870-1950” has a very interesting reference page covering the involvement of South Asian writers (and related issues) in the early years of the LBC.
And there are good backstory descriptions of the Left Book Club on The University of Sheffield’s page for their LBC archive and on Ohio
University’s archive page for their LBC collection.
Sharon Carson is Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, Department of English, University of North Dakota and the reviews editor (and former editor) of North Dakota Quarterly.