Ce monde qui vacille, comment le raconter, comment le saisir?
This question could push any enquiry off-piste, into the mapless deeper currents. It’s a line of foundational interrogation – and a very simple French sentence. How should I set up this brief foundation so that English readers would take it in their reading stride, register its invitation to turn and consider – no more, no less? It turned out oddly difficult to recreate.
Here is an excerpt from the second draft of my translation: ‘This shaken / shaking / trembling world / world rocking (on its foundations) world that trembles, how can I / we describe it / tell its story, how to // can we understand it / articulate it?’ While the rest of the book took shape, this line held out, resisting almost to my final draft.
The main problem was the verb ‘vaciller’, which means to falter or waver. It can refer to mental or physical states, or both. This world – an animate being with heart and soul – could indeed seem to falter at the spread of terrorism, yet I wanted to avoid the bathetic sense of an anthropomorphic world, massaging its worry lines like a harassed local councillor. Far more important, I felt, was the sense of our occupying an indifferent world like sailors on a vast ocean-going vessel, when that vessel encounters the heaviest seas, skyscraper waves. Or, better, that the horizon itself was losing its grip, sliding away, and with it the deck beneath our feet.
I often found clichés snapping at my heels. Generally I think it’s good to throw them a few scraps: they are part of how we understand our world, so acknowledge and put them in their place. But then you do have to find your own formula, something new for the book in your hands. ‘Tilting’ was the closest I could get; it allowed, simply, for the queasiness of a scene that goes on going wrong, on the largest scale. The rest of the sentence was about how you tell the story. I ended up with: ‘This tilting world, how can we talk about it, how make sense of it?’
And then, in this book so shaped by sea-going ideas, in which the landlubber author’s sailing-mad friend dies suddenly at sea and she invokes Racine’s classicising ocean imagery to mourn him, it’s fitting that we can never quite find our sea legs. Fellous’s rolling, flowing, comma-splicing style was one of those regular challenges translators into English face. This time the solution couldn’t be to chop it all up into nice short sentences. I had to keep the flow and go with it to a great extent, to allow the strangeness of thoughts moving into other thoughts, without straightforward or logical progression. To retain the flux as literal flux.
Fellous’s approach to time is equally fluid. At several points in the book, she paints pictures of times before she was born. At others she takes us in a blink from Tunis to Normandy, even onto Claude Chabrol’s living film ‘set’ for his Madame Bovary, where locals became extras and life melted into art.
There are not just films but other books folded into this text, yet again, the task in translating was not to point them out and ‘solve’ these little puzzles but to refold them in. One of Fellous’s closest mentors was Roland Barthes – she wrote explicitly about his role in her writing in La Préparation de la vie, which was published immediately before this book – and she stops to recall his voice as a way of working back to his thinking. As she quotes Barthes, so I quote Richard Howard’s translation of Barthes on why writing in fragmentary, haiku-like ways made the most sense to him.
When my column appears, I am dismayed to see my little prose, my (studied) little syntax, in short my little form, crushed, as good as cancelled by the overpowered writing that surrounds us. Yet we do have to fight for softness: from the moment it’s deliberate, doesn’t softness become a force?
And Fellous then writes (in my translation): ‘I try to find my way back to him as he wrote these words, to fill in the colour of that moment,’ and so, in his wake, her book too becomes dedicated to the fight for softness, in honour of the man ‘who taught [her] to read the world’.
Fellous is not alone in reading the world through and with Barthes (among others). While completing my translation of Pièces Détachées, I had the interesting privilege of preparing (of course: not writing but preparing) for a postgraduate reading group on Kate Briggs’s This Little Art. In this book Briggs similarly seems to write and work in a Barthesian mode. She too privileges the short form in her brief, detached chapters, building her argument in a cobweb spiral rather than progressing forward from step to step. For both Briggs and Fellous, Barthes’s turn to the haiku, the import and centrality of a form so marginal in European literature, provides a key to accessing his thought and style, as well as an ethical standpoint.
Returning to Pièces Détachées, I translated my way through to the end and started back at the beginning so many times that the book rather lost its end and came to feel circular. My faltering world problem and a hundred others were solved along the way. But I still had not decided what to do about the title. Anne Michaels had stolen our ideal title with her 1996 (bestselling) novel Fugitive Pieces. My working title had been Loose Pieces; I realised that my editor had independently been calling it Spare Parts. Both are reasonable translations. Although arguably more accurate, Spare Parts seemed to diminish the book’s value, perhaps implying it was a random selection of out-takes from some other main event. Loose Pieces was less obviously problematic, but concomitantly less memorable, less telling in any way at all. For a while I liked In Pieces, which indicates both things cominf apart and the possibility of coming together, shattering and building. But I had to concede that falling apart was the dominant sense, which was not the neutral notion that came across in Fellous’s French. Seeking an alternative fragment from the text – our own pièce détachée if you like – my editor was struck by the line that imagined our whole world at sea, horizons at the mercy of peaks and troughs, never level for two moments together. We had This Tilting World.