“Tomorrow, yes, I will leave this house, I’ll abandon the village and the life here, all the faces that I love I will leave.”
“Tilting” is putting it gently. Colette Fellous’s world, detailed through a collage of memory, is actually thoroughly ruptured and shattered amid a trio of losses. Translated from French to English by acclaimed literary translator Sophie Lewis, This Tilting World is Fellous’s first book to appear in English. This author of more than twenty novels in French deviates from conventional form to take us on an impressionistic journey through and beyond the comforts of nostalgia, in a memoir dedicated to her decision to move away from her native Tunisia following the deaths of her father and a dear friend, as well as the 2015 Sousse attacks.
Truly, not much “happens” in the present moment of this short book, which is barely more than novella-sized. In fact, in the meta-narrative, Fellous is writing the manuscript on a single Saturday evening, overlooking the sea from the terrace. Most of the action, therefore, takes place in remembrance, in “burned, wrecked, violated memory.” In a striking recurrent image, she envisions her father as a baby cradled in her arms, in 1909, about to grow up “without a true mother tongue,” in a city where Arabic and French are intermingled with bits of Italian and Hebrew. This Tilting World contains within it, too, the obscured history of Franco-Tunisian Jewish people, resurrected through the remembered voices of Colette’s community.
For Fellous, the act of writing this book is a performative speech act in the philosophical sense, its goal to enact a decision and to render concrete a schism in Fellous’ life. Both reaching towards and away from her past, she seeks to understand herself as well as her family, her native country, and the political-social forces that have wrestled it from the soft swath of nostalgia. The horrors of Charlie Hebdo saturate everything; through it all, she hears “the roar of annihilation.”
Her prose alternates between lyrical odes to the urban and natural ecologies of Tunisia, and shifts almost imperceptibly to strokes of grief set in those same places. She heavily employs the mode of the list to build arrays of familiar objects: “Roman ruins appear, olive groves, avenues happy on a Sunday afternoon, stepping out of the cinema, bouquets of roses filling the little kiosks opposite the great city theater.” Her own desire, perhaps, in painting these softly vivid displays may be “…to give every detail a place of consequence and fresh value…to dig beneath first impressions, to discover a second language, to create hidden connections, associations, reminders, echoes, harmonies. To make everything more capacious and our lives unique.”
Not surprisingly, Fellous readily pays homage to Proust more than once, ensconcing us lovingly into pockets of her home and her city, bundling us in its warmth, while in the real world, terrorists attack the beaches and museums of Tunisia. She clutches at these sensory memories and I too, grow tenderly nostalgic for a life that is not my own, despite all of its known and anticipated horrors.
It seems like no coincidence that This Tilting World is a novel in translation. Fellous’s own bicultural childhood speaks to a split existence, a constant search for the true meaning of home all the while knowing that it doesn’t really exist. The act of translation, too, seeks to transplant but not erase the material of the original work. It suspends the text somewhere in-between, in the ether that ripples between two people and two languages. I can’t help but think of the immigrant experience (mine included), of constantly fighting for the feeling of home in a place that will never quite deliver it. Lewis’s translation puts lyricism and romanticism at the forefront but there is elegy, too, that mirrors our own bittersweet streams of memory.
This is a book meant to be read in a garden, under a golden angle of dusk, or in bed with the morning light billowing in. It returns over and over to the slow lushness of life, to a strange and hopeful love. In this beautiful edition, occasional photographs, some taken by Fellous herself, offer space to breathe, to look up at our own cherished objects and places, and remember who and what evokes in us the same strength of contemplation. In this sense, the book allows for true respite without turning a blind eye to violence. This Tilting World is an experience of finding comfort within our own histories, as torn and whirling as they are.
This Tilting World
by Colette Fellous; translated by Sophie Lewis
Two Lines Press; 168 p.
Dasha Bulatova is a poet and translator born in Moscow and working in Oakland, California. She is an MFA student at San Francisco State University and poetry editor for Fourteen Hills. Her work has appeared in Berkeley Poetry Review, Inverness Almanac, saltfront, and other journals. She contributes to Silver Age poets, an online anthology of modernist Russian poetry in translation.