This Tilt­ing World

Colette Fel­lous (auth.), Sophie Lewis (trans.)

  • Review
By – December 30, 2019

This slim vol­ume is the first appear­ance in Eng­lish of award-win­ning French author, pho­tog­ra­ph­er, pub­lish­er, and radio pro­duc­er Colette Fel­lous. Born in Tunisia to Jew­ish par­ents, Fel­lous has spent most of her adult life liv­ing and work­ing in France. But the lure of her birth coun­try and the life she led there with her par­ents drew her back year after year — long after her par­ents left the coun­try in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War in Israel and long after their deaths. That is, until 2015. In that annus ter­ri­bilis the Fran­coph­o­ne world was riv­en by extreme ter­ror­ist vio­lence, begin­ning with the Char­lie Heb­do­mas­sacre in Jan­u­ary, fol­lowed close­ly by the kosher super­mar­ket stand­off and hostage deaths, and end­ing the fol­low­ing Novem­ber with the attacks through­out Paris. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, in Tunisia ter­ror­ists attacked tourists in two major inci­dents, one at the country’s prin­ci­pal muse­um and anoth­er at a beach resor, in addi­tion to scat­tered attacks against gov­ern­ment instal­la­tions and personnel.

Fel­lous strug­gled to come to a deci­sion dur­ing this mael­strom of vio­lence — to leave Tunisia for good. In the mix of Fel­lous’ emo­tions is her reac­tion to the death of a close friend, an author who gave up writ­ing to take up an adven­ture sail­ing around the Mediter­ranean. The book’s lyri­cal prose records her med­i­ta­tions on the mean­ing of her birth­place, why she con­tin­ued to return there every year, her mem­o­ries of her par­ents’ trou­bled mar­riage, and her rela­tion­ships in Tunisia and in France

The Eng­lish title for this vol­ume embod­ies Fel­lous’ sense of dis­ori­en­ta­tion at the out­burst of vio­lence by ter­ror­ists in her birth coun­try. Tunisia had been the ori­gin of the Arab Spring move­ment and it was the one coun­try in the Arab world that seemed to be mov­ing in the pos­i­tive direc­tion that the Spring promised — toward free­dom and tol­er­ance. Fel­lous paints a pic­ture of the mul­ti-eth­nic world she grew up in, which, though it had its ten­sions and fault lines, was a meet­ing place of cul­tures and tra­di­tions. The out­burst of vio­lence threat­ened that promise. The French title, Pièces détachées (detached or sep­a­rate pieces), express­es some­thing of Fel­lous’ method of com­po­si­tion. The book is cast as a tran­scrip­tion of her trou­bled days fol­low­ing the sec­ond attack on tourists at a Tunisian beach resort just weeks after learn­ing of her friend’s death. She records her shift­ing mem­o­ries, sum­moned up Proust-like, by smells and tastes and sights. The con­nec­tions are more emo­tion­al and asso­cia­tive than log­i­cal. The French title also express­es some­thing of the place in the world of Fel­lous and her fam­i­ly of exiles and refugees along with oth­er refugees that have so dom­i­nat­ed the head­lines in recent years.

Fel­lous’ style incor­po­rates the voic­es of oth­ers — her father, friends in Nor­mandy, Tunisians — and it is some­times dif­fi­cult to keep track of whose thoughts and words we are read­ing. Her rea­sons for decid­ing to aban­don Tunisia remain some­thing of a mys­tery — and as the last pages indi­cate, may not be her final deci­sion after all. But the book’s lyri­cism car­ries it along as Fel­lous moves through her mem­o­ries, and art­ful­ly evokes the time, place, and per­son­al­i­ties of a world knocked off its axis.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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