Tag Archives: French literature

Shards of memory: Colette Fellous, This Tilting World

Translated from French by Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives, 2019)

The latest release from Les Fugitives is a work by French-Tunisian author Colette Fellous, offered in an elegant and articulate translation by Sophie Lewis. In This Tilting World, Fellous explores different dimensions of grief and loss: the sudden death of a friend, the terror attack on the beach at Sousse in 2015, and the exile from a home(land) that both is and is not hers. This is an intimate farewell to parts of Fellous’ life that she loved and can never fully possess or experience again: the recent loss prompts her to reflect on her relationship with her deceased father, and to write a fragmentary novel, a “nocturne” that pays tribute to people she loved, people she never knew, a country that she can never truly leave behind, and a figurative home in literature.

In This Tilting World Fellous draws together her father’s life during the twentieth century, the Tunisia of her childhood, and the changed world of the twenty-first century with its institutionalisation of terror and fear, describing the project within its own pages as an attempt to “tell the story of a father born and dead in the twentieth century, and the story of this world now, this Tunisian village I shall have to leave behind, in this year 2015, a terrifying year, remorseless, in its new, 21st-century colours.” The fragments of text move between past and present, but also beyond rigid notions of time as Fellous blends events and memories from different periods into one narrative experience. She layers terror attacks so that their impact is felt simultaneously, imagines her father as both a deceased adult who has left her adrift and a newborn child who she must protect, and unites her personal experience with a collective or universal one: “my novel is damaged, the world is damaged, I too am deeply wounded.” If her homeland is ravaged so too is she, as her country and her generation witness the birth of “a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even in our own bodies.”

The embodiment of terror – encompassing both fear and exile – is echoed in several of the fragments. Fellous describes the terrorist at Sousse as having killed people “on my beach, our beach, on every beach”, showing a universality of experience (“every beach”) and a collective suffering (“our beach”) alongside her personal grief and loss (“my beach”). Though Fellous recognises that she is privileged to be able to give voice to this experience, she also expresses a desire for individuality (“I don’t want to join any group, I want to see life with my own eyes, I want to be free”) and a yearning for selfhood alongside her reflections on writing, on creativity, and on the ways in which pain can inspire art. This longed-for freedom from prescribed views or distinct communities also represents a freedom from past silence: Fellous attempts to understand her father, and in particular to understand the silence that he transmitted to his children. She acknowledges that with this silence he had hoped to protect them from knowledge of his own suffering, rooted in its historical time of “betrayal, brutality … the camps”, but ultimately the father’s silence imprisons his children in a false innocence, a not-knowing that Fellous seeks to redress through her writing. Her father’s fractured, multi-cultural past is intertwined with historical experiences of colonisation and exile, which represent “the rupture that he’d tried to minimise”: this rupture is woven into the substance of her prose, which is itself always fragmented. Indeed the original title, Pièces détachées, indicates this fragmentation with the rupture between generations, cultures and languages reflected in the ruptures between each shard of text.

Sophie Lewis translates with sensitivity and a depth of understanding of the intricacies of Fellous’ writing: literary references abound but are never heavy-handed; the family experience is understood through references ranging from 19th-century novelist Flaubert to Alain Renais’ holocaust film Night and Fog and many others in between; nouns and adjectives are coupled carefully to convey the wistful heart of the narrative (such as “entwined bodies” or even the title, “this tilting world”, echoed in the text) and the syntax is deliberately poetic (“the wrinkles were become a kind of writing”, “always I stumble at this love”). This book is worth reading for the translation alone: there is a richness and range to Lewis’s vocabulary; the breadth of lexis is stunning, and shows an alertness to the possibilities of language (for example, choosing “I guarded Alain’s smile inside me” over the more obvious equivalent “I kept Alain’s smile inside me”). Above all, Lewis conveys the intimacy of a work that Fellous confesses is at the limits of what she can bear. Fellous claims to be writing so as not to forget her father, to offer him something long promised, and to give him a fitting farewell. Yet it is also a farewell to the country that she means to leave and yet to which she knows she will “always be returning”: she is perpetually drawn back to Tunisia “to see, to reassess, in order more easily to disengage”. This Tilting World is an evocative, candid and deeply moving account of a life lived between histories, worlds and languages, of times gone by, of present horrors and of fears for the future, but above all it is a monument to memory in all its forms: recollection, recognition, and remembrance.

Colette Fellous and Sophie Lewis will be in conversation with Michèle Roberts to launch This Tilting World at Daunt Books Hampstead (London, UK) on Wednesday 18 September; tickets available here.

Review copy of This Tilting World provided by Les Fugitives

“Can a man write a feminist book?”: Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon

Translated from the French by Cole Swensen (Les Fugitives, 2018)

In Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon offers an extraordinary homage to French sculptor Louise Bourgeois, weaving together fragments of her life and her art from his own experience. However, it would be false to describe this short, lyrical book as either a biography or art criticism: although Frémon offers glimpses into the life of Louise Bourgeois (which was also, as Frémon reminds us, “the life of the century”), and further insights into how many of her famous works originated, it is more in the style of a memoir. This is not Frémon’s memoir, though, but rather a memoir by Bourgeois via Frémon: Frémon shifts between the first and second person in his narration, sometimes speaking to Bourgeois as a real “you”, and sometimes as her, as an imagined “I”, writing Bourgeois in “his words that are also her words” (Siri Hustvedt).

Image from lesfugitives.com

Yes, “his”. This is an interesting case study that pushes at the boundaries of how we might understand “translating women”: publisher Les Fugitives released it yesterday with the tantalising question “Can a man write a feminist book?” (my instinctive response to this is “yes” since, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I believe that feminism is for everyone – but that’s a debate we can continue another day). Written by someone who knew her well, Now, Now, Louison is a unique insight into the world of Louise Bourgeois – her upbringing, her decisions, and her art. Though famed throughout the world, it was only towards the end of Bourgeois’ life that her work was celebrated (a point eloquently made by Frémon: “You can’t make a move these days without someone’s interpreting it in his terms. Above all, the French. They ignored you for fifty years, and when they finally noticed you existed, they couldn’t wait to tell you what you’d been doing”). Now, Now, Louison avoids the temptation to explain Bourgeois and her work in this way, and instead offers snapshots into the paths that brought her to fame. This is an intimate and emotional book, and above all a very beautiful one. The translator, Cole Swensen, is a poet, and this shows through in the translation. I ached with a kind of nostalgia while I was reading this book, and at first I couldn’t put my finger on why – the nostalgia often hits me when I read in French, or about Paris, which was once my home – but this was in English, and not focused on Paris (indeed, much of the book is set in New York, where Bourgeois lived as an adult). About a third of the way through my reading, it hit me: the reason I felt this nostalgia was because reading Now, Now, Louison was like reading in French. And this is not because of what you might call “literal” translation or anything clumsy like that, but rather because the syntax and some of the vocabulary mirror the French in a way that is not “English” but yet does not feel “foreign” in the translation. And yet there is nothing odd or affected about the translation: it’s simply an immense achievement on the part of the translator, that the translation communicates the language as if through a lens. I’m aware that this might seem as though I’m advocating an “invisibility” of the translator, so let me be clear: I am not of that school of thought. I see the translator as a co-creator, and Swensen is certainly not invisible here. Nor is the French book invisible beneath the translation – and that’s why I loved it. But it’s also why there was the occasional detail that didn’t sit too well with me, words that have a reduced field of usage in English (such as “parturient spider at the bottom of the garden”), a slightly odd use of syntax that mirrors the French (“there would reign a sepulchral silence throughout the house”), even my own bête noire for translation into English (using “the latter” too liberally). The “Frenchness” of the text is not hidden, and apart from these few details, this was a good thing in my view. Sometimes the original French language is explicit: there is analysis of a French phrase “made of marble” and its English equivalent “poker face”, there are French song lyrics that remain untranslated, and French cultural references that are unexplained (from Charcot and the Salpêtrière to Varda, Sagan, Duras and the Récamier) – these add to the feeling of “Frenchness” that pervades the translation.

The “spider woman”

I couldn’t write about Louise Bourgeois without mentioning spiders. They feature heavily in all of her exhibitions, and I was fascinated to learn how she became so obsessive about them. Frémon speaks as Bourgeois, explaining that they represent her mother: “She’s always been in my drawings, in the form of a spider. People don’t usually like spiders – they’re afraid of them. Women leap onto stools and scream, and men step on them with the satisfaction of having done a good deed.” The spiders take on a form of feminist resistance, instilling fear into other women and inciting men to crush them self-righteously, but Bourgeois made them ever bigger, stronger, and, crucially, pregnant, ready to give birth to more like them. The maternal image is present throughout: her own mother, weaving, attentive, and her female spiders, heavy with the life they will bring forth (or “immoderately maternal”, as Frémon puts it). Spiders are observed, catalogued, praised, and then sculpted into her “family”, with an attention Bourgeois does not seem to extend to her own children – or perhaps this is simply not where Frémon’s focus lies. Indeed, on the book jacket, Now, Now, Louison is described as exhibiting “elusive, haunted excess”, and I thought for a while about what exactly this meant. Haunted, because it is lyrical, philosophical, almost ethereal, Bourgeois appearing almost as a spectre; excess, because this is a big story in a small package, a story of the fragility behind the indomitable force; elusive, because there is so much that is not told, because Louise Bourgeois herself is always just out of reach. Her drawings “scream in silence” while she remains mute; she is likened to an “empty house” that she wanders through; the art she made is an expression of pain, love, and the questions she never articulated; her sculptures are “self-portraits”. Yet there is rarely any more detail than this: Frémon describes her sculptures as an equation with, on one side, “pain, anxiety, and frustration” and, on the other, “wood, marble, bronze”, and then, speaking as Bourgeois, offers the following realisation: “Then one day I thought, you can always carve wood, mold clay, or polish marble better than anyone, but what good is it if you don’t tell your own story? Lovely sculptures, gratuitous, idiotic, vain, and useless if they don’t say what you have to say.” Frémon, or Bourgeois-through-Frémon, seems to be saying that the key to understanding Bourgeois is in understanding her sculptures, and yet he avoids the temptation of telling us how to understand them. That is not to say that there are no revelations at all (there is a very interesting insight into the hanging headless figure of “Single II”); rather, there is an acknowledgement that “we are what others say we are.” Neither Bourgeois nor Frémon tells us directly how to interpret her work, and this elusive understanding is deliberate: “You’ll never know if it was ecstatic. I have my own ideas on the subject. And I will continue to have them.” If there is one key to understanding how Bourgeois worked, and what her work “means”, then perhaps it can be summed up in my favourite excerpt from the book:

“Aim for beauty, and you get the vapid; you get fashion, beribboned cliché; aim for something else – encyclopaedic knowledge, systematic inventory, structural analysis, personal obsession, or just a mental itch that responds to scratching, and you end up with beauty. Beauty is only a by-product, unsought, yet available to amateurs and impenitent believers.”

Neither Bourgeois in her work nor Frémon in his homage have “aimed for beauty”, but rather, just as the personal obsession Bourgeois had with spiders gave way to knowledge and analysis, which resulted in beauty, so Frémon’s obsession with giving Bourgeois a voice has given way to knowledge and analysis of his own, and he has ended up with beauty. A beauty that will always be incomplete and unsought, but that is there nonetheless, “available to amateurs and impenitent believers” in the pages of this book. It may have imperfections but, as we are told, “perfection masks feelings”, and if this book is anything, it is a book of emotions: this poignant tribute is just as it should be.

Les Fugitives have a very exciting list of titles forthcoming in 2019, that will probably be of interest to blog subscribers. You can browse the catalogue here.

Review copy of Now, Now, Louison provided by Les Fugitives.

The collective memory of a generation: Annie Ernaux, The Years

Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo, 2018)

The opening line of Annie Ernaux’s The Years, “All the images will disappear”, both sets up and sums up her project: every memory of every life – from historical atrocity to TV adverts – will vanish at death, and so we must remember, bear witness, and claim a place in the world. This ambitious and innovative autobiographical endeavour is a modern masterpiece, and I was delighted when Fitzcarraldo sent me a copy for review. Publisher Jacques Testard describes The Years as “a monumental account of twentieth-century French social history as refracted through the life of one woman”, and this is about as accurate a statement as anyone could come up with to describe The Years. It’s a tremendous, poignant, necessary book, but there’s a big issue for the translation: how will something so steeped in French cultural history translate to another context, and into another language?

Firstly, although you don’t need to have read any Ernaux to enjoy this book, any reader who has read other texts based on Ernaux’s life will recognise a number of important references in here: her mother’s illness and decline, her reflections on growing up in a post-war working class milieu, her relationships (including her first sexual relationship, an adult affair, and an illegal abortion) and her use of photographs to frame a narrative all feature in other works by Ernaux, and are presented in a different way here. In fact, “presented in a different way” could sum up everything about this book: it challenges perceptions of autobiography, balances personal triumphs and quiet tragedies with historical atrocities and the implacable passing of time, and offers a fascinating overview of life in France from the 1940s to the 2000s.

Testard advertises The Years as a “collective autobiography”, but there is more to be said on this. In one sense it is not collective, since it is written and narrated by only one person, but it is certainly not a “traditional” memoir. Rather, it is an individual voice representing a collective one: Ernaux herself describes it as an “impersonal autobiography,” based on a collection of images and reflections, a narrative framed around photographs of the author at different points throughout her life. The girl and woman in the photographs is never explicitly named as Ernaux, but the series of photos provide the reference points through which her past – and that of her country – is narrated. The “collective” aspect is evidenced in the most striking feature of this sort-of-autobiography: Ernaux never uses the first person singular. She does not speak as “I”, but rather “we”, or occasionally “one.” This narrative style mirrors Ernaux’s own description of the way her relatives told stories of World War II: “everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns, as if everyone were equally affected by events.” Adopting the same narrative strategy elevates this from a personal memoir, and instead makes it about events that affected people of Ernaux’s generation: in this way, The Years becomes an artefact for the collective memory of a generation. In the translation, the pronoun most regularly used is “we”, which creates an inclusivity akin to that of the French impersonal pronoun “on”, but on the few occasions when Strayer uses “one” in the English translation, it stood out as a little jarring to me (“It was quite enough that you had to be afraid of making love, now that everyone knew AIDS was not only a disease for homosexuals and drug addicts, contrary to what one had first believed”; “Just getting tested was suspect, an avowal of unspeakable misconduct. One had it done at the hospital, secretly, with a number, avoiding eye contact in the waiting room.”) I can see why Strayer chose the impersonal “one” here, as using “we” in the first instance implies that she and her peers initially believed AIDS to be a disease for homosexuals and drug addicts, and in the second instance would confirm that she and her peers went to the hospital for AIDS tests. I imagine that the sudden shift to “one” was a decision not made lightly, but can’t help thinking that something truly impersonal (the non-specific mass noun “people”, for example, or a passive, if we accept a shift in agency), might have stuck out a little less here – especially in the first instance, when the subject shifts from “you” to “everyone” to “one”.

Where the impersonal pronouns do work well, and map neatly onto the French original, is in Ernaux’s description of herself via photographs in the third person singular, “she.” The woman in the photographs hopes to write about “an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation,” and this is the great strength of The Years: its universality. Anyone who lived through the events Ernaux describes – even if not as closely as those who lived in France – will be able to relate to the global political shifts of the last sixty years (“1968 was the first year of the world”) and the technological advances of the 21st century (“a world that moves ahead in leaps and bounds”). Nonetheless, Ernaux eschews self-congratulation for her enterprise, noting with irony that “in the humdrum routine of personal existence, History did not matter. We were simply happy or unhappy, depending on the day.” This daily life is in part deliberately banal, in part coloured by history, but always recognisable and always beautifully observed. The Years is nostalgic yet still contemporary, from the pronouncement that progress means buying more to the description of fearing Arabs on the street during the Algerian war.

Women’s history is, unsurprisingly, at the forefront of many of the historical narratives: from equal access to education and “the deadly time ruled by their blood” that preceded the legalisation of contraception to the facilitating of backstreet abortions being likened to the Resistance of World War 2 and the revolution of May ’68, Ernaux brings to life a specifically female experience of “the years”. These are underlined by a gritty realism, however, as May ’68 is described as neither as momentous nor as glorious as the recurrent camera images, and Ernaux notes that “the struggle of women sank into oblivion. It was the only struggle that had not been officially revived in collective memory.” The Years helps to combat this, reviving the struggle of women in a conscious contribution to collective memory, and an attempt to allow a generation to own its collective history.

“Just as her older relatives used to gather around the family table to eat and to share memories that became their version of history, now it is Ernaux’s turn – and with her, her generation – to ‘tell the story of the time-before.’”

The Years is a book that defies translation: how can we translate a novel that is like a memory box of post-war French culture? Yet we have to try, and that Strayer has produced a page-turning, non-alienating piece of literature is a remarkable feat. There are some minor inconsistencies in the translation, though. For example, song and book titles are sometimes given in French with no footnote, sometimes given in French with a translation in the footnote, and sometimes given in translation. It must have been quite an endeavour for the translator to decide which would be recognisable more universally, and which would not. Radio and television shows are dealt with in the same way: Les Guignols de l’Info is given a footnote, but Allô Macha is not. The quintessentially French “minitel” (a pre-internet information system) is left as “the minitel”, and one footnote makes reference to “an untranslatable fart joke.” Strayer’s approach mostly seems to correspond to Michael Hoffman’s position that “what matters to me[…] is providing an experience, not footnoting one that might have been in had in another language, if only the reader had been conversant in that” – she provides an experience with minimal footnoting, recognising that it will not be the same and that endless footnotes would not make it any more comparable to the original. Though there is the occasional inconsistency or turn of phrase that gave me pause for thought, these are small details in an otherwise beautiful manuscript, that takes Ernaux’s masterpiece and offers it as an experience to a new readership.

As a true meta-narrative, the book ends with the woman in the photographs deciding to write down her story, which will be “a slippery narrative composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes, all the way to the final image of a life.” To cover more than half a century in such incisive detail, in under 250 pages, is an achievement in itself: the passing of time is palpable throughout, but the narrative never feels rushed. Rather, this is a handing-down of an obligation to remember. Just as her older relatives used to gather around the family table to eat and to share memories that became their version of history, now it is Ernaux’s turn – and with her, her generation – to “tell the story of the time-before”; translating this important work into English contributes to this imperative to remember.

The Years ends as it began, with snapshots from images that will disappear (at the beginning) to memories she wants to save (at the end). It is, perhaps, no coincidence that she talks of “saving” things in the digital age, and this is one of the great achievements of The Years: it saves a common time, a collective memory, and “the lived dimension of History.”

Review copy provided by FItzcarraldo Editions.