Life at № 42 by E.M. Coutinho
“What was difficult was not being gay but being working-class,” he says. ‘People who say they are proud to be working-class are really saying they are proud to no longer be working-class.’ I escaped my background but I was still ashamed to admit it or make reference to it. I was ashamed of my family, of their habits, even of the way my mother pronounced words.’
Then he felt ashamed of his shame: ‘I never came to share the values of the dominant class. I always felt awkward or incensed when people around me talked scornfully or flippantly about working-class people and their habits and ways of life. After all, that’s where I came from.’
This contempt, he continues, ‘is everywhere, almost conditioned, always a bit pejorative, demeaning, contemptuous or mocking. Even if it’s not violent, there’s a superiority. I feel attacked by this. When people speak this way about the concierge, that’s my grandmother; or the factory worker, that’s my grandfather; and the cleaner, my mother.’
Wonderful book if you read French, if not the English version comes out next month. His book is what inspired Édouard Louis (who I’ve mentioned many times before) to write his own story. And just as is the case with Louis, although I think the book is brilliant, I have a slight problem with the narrative.
I imagine Eribon would say, of course you have a problem with the narrative because you couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to be part of the French Northern Industrial working class. True. But I do understand what it’s like to feel other. I’ve always been quintessentially foreign. All my cousins had national, cultural identities. They were a part of groups, cheered for teams, local and national – meanwhile I didn’t even have a language that I felt was mine. I was on my own. Neither bound nor rooted to anything by nature. That’s a double-edged sword, of course, because it also meant I felt (in my opinion rightly) that no one was bound to me. This made walking away from the first 20 years of my life and everyone who was in it very easy.
And that’s where my story collides with Eribon’s and Louis’. That’s not to say their identification of class as the causal factor in their sense of alienation is wrong, but I’m not sure the weight they give it is entirely justified. Being embarrassed of one’s parents crosses class lines. Many of my friends, who like me were sent to expensive schools, are embarrassed of our parents and families and wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near them. I can see how the class issue may compound alienation, but that happens no matter where one is on the scale. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been told I couldn’t understand one thing or another, because I don’t score high enough in the Oppression Olympics.
And now I present dialogues and adventures in mild racism:
E: (watching The Good Fight) Isn’t Christine Baranski the most elegant woman on television? She must style herself because she dresses in the same vein for every role.
M: You would think that. You know that singer from the talent program, what is he?
E: Venezuelan, I think.
M: No, but is he Indian?
E: Venezuelan, I’m sure.
M: But is he red Indian?
E: You’re not supposed to say red Indian any more!
M: Fine, is he Native Indian?
E: I don’t know; besides, we don’t have red Indians in Latin America, our Indians are a more yellowy orange colour.
M: Your Indians? Are these Indians you personally own and didn’t disclose when we got married? The envoy of political correctness has spoken.
E: I am politically correct. And that’s a good thing.
M: You think politically correct means whispering people of the gypsical persuasion instead of just saying gypsies.
E: Be quiet, I’m watching television.