One Night in Marseilles

     I fell into conversation with a Moroccan prostitute. Actually it was not so much conversation as playful banter, a constructed space where one’s demons may dance for a while. I was probably wasting a busy girl’s time. She asked me where I came from and what I did and I told her I sold books, livres anciens, and she laughed to think one could survive by means of such trifles. What was I doing in Marseilles talking to a prostitute about the antiquarian book trade? I asked her if business was good and she pulled a clownish face. We both had been spiked by the video trade. She worked out of one of the dingier bars close to the train station, which was empty save for her two bored female colleagues and a single barman who looked as though his dog had just died of rabies. She was not like the women at the so-called ‘American bars’ (Russian in reality) down at the harbour front, all coiffure and cleavage. She was dressed sloppily enough, sweater and jeans, as if for home. She lifted her sweater a little to show me a slightly flabby belly, almost as if to indicate she was at the lower end of the flesh trade, and laughed when we said goodbye. A fool I may be, but she haunted me for the whole of that evening and she haunts me still, if only just a little.

    I’m beginning to get her features in a scramble. What is it about the human face that it should be the most memorable thing in existence and yet its atoms are the quickest to disperse? There are those whom I have known at length, who, although I saw them from a thousand angles, come back to me in only the merest of glimpses and always in the same few frames. What survives of my Moroccan is a downward curve in her smile, and, beneath the pockmarks, a prettiness of a kind that made me hesitate. “Vous êtes très jolie,” I said, after refusing her advances. The words played back to me, in the space of this prose, make me queasy ― but they were, at the time, for better or worse, truly meant. I would like to believe my utterance, silly though it was, freed us from the burden of commerce. There was a discernible shift of tone. Sex off the agenda, we jabbered a while. I did not ask her any of the questions I should most like to have had answers to. What, for example, were the circumstances in her life that she should have allowed herself to be cut off from her family and culture? After all, an Arab girl in her position would be unlikely to find a way home. I wonder, though, how truthful I’ve been here. I might rescue her in my fantasies, but I’d also violate those very aspects of her I want saved.

      Among literary exercises there are few more doubtful than those written by men about prostitutes, where the tendency is to fall between sentiment and prurience. Why admit these kerb crawlers of the intellect other than to get ‘on the cheap’ a spectacle of one’s own innate badness or goodness? Whatever way one looks at it, it is an unhealthy play of the intellect, a mere preening of the mind. There are those, Dostoevsky, for example, and perhaps, in terms of sympathy, I should count myself among them, who find their God only in the lowliest of places. Surely I build her up, my Moroccan, for my own purposes. Shall I now make her my patron saint of Marseilles? A single cackle from her direction will bring down the edifice I make of her sad and miserable existence.

      What made me go there in the first place? I had been with friends in the Cevennes. After so much postcard loveliness perhaps I was hungry for a filmic atmosphere, which, like Alain Delon, was both sinister and edged with finesse. Alone among countries, France is the multiplier of whatever mood one takes there: if one goes there with a feeling of joy one will be rewarded tenfold but heaven forbid should one go there in low spirits for one leaves feeling considerably worse than before. Paris is a particularly dangerous place to be but the same holds for the rest of France, even if not quite to the same degree. I have tried this theory out on friends and have yet to be disabused of it. I had gone to the Cevennes after a major disappointment and although I supped well and conversed at length I did not find a panacea. I went to Marseilles to feed my silences. I spent a couple of hours walking before I found, and had to pay for, a double room, a miserable hole of a place that seemed to smell of every person who had ever stayed there. I opened the shutters wide and still the air would not move. I then wandered all over the city, enjoying only the Arab quarter, its sounds and smells. On the whole, I did not much care for the place.

       I’ve been reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay, On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places (1874). What is it about certain books that come at just the right moment in one’s life? “We see places through our humours as through differently coloured glasses,” he writes. “We are ourselves a term in the equation, a note of the chord, and make discord or harmony almost at will … And even where there is no harmony to be elicited by the quickest and most obedient of spirits, we may still embellish a place with some attraction of romance.” Stevenson is most definitely one of my people in that he is a corrective to my own morbid tendencies. Of all the writers with whom I’d most like to have a drink, it’s R.L.S. What friends we might have become. When I was in the Cevennes, I read (of course) Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey ― also Joseph Roth’s The String of Pearls, which is about a Viennese prostitute who is called upon to act as a double for a countess spotted at a ball by the visiting Shah of Persia. The easily duped Shah rewards her with a string of pearls, the sale of which precipitates a whole series of tragedies. We may see in this, if we look hard enough, an anticipation of the fall of the Habsburg Empire.

     A couple of days ago, I was relating all this to a friend of mine, the poet and translator, Jennie Feldman, and no sooner did I mention Marseilles than she exclaimed, “Oh, I just love Marseilles!” She had lived there for a year. She began a small revolution in my thoughts, which, together with Stevenson’s essay, produced a ray powerful enough to cut through the murkiness gathered there, even if it did take some days for its light to reach me. There is, indeed, something about Marseilles.

     After I spoke to the Moroccan I went back to my hotel, exhausted from not having slept the night before. I should think I had not slept out of anticipation of going to Marseilles and now I could not sleep because I was in Marseilles. A few minutes after I settled into the bed whose mattress was higher on one side than the other, which made me feel as though I might at any moment spill onto the floor, I felt an all too familiar burning sensation. I have just checked my eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. The Latin name for the bed bug is Cimex lectularius. The more familiar English word is derived from the Celtic bwg meaning “ghost” or “goblin”, for such was the terror its attacks at first inspired. I am rather surprised to learn that in England until about three centuries ago the bed bug made only a rare appearance. I am sorry to learn that human blood is the sole food of this species. That night in Marseilles they induced in me not so much terror as a sense of weariness brought on by the realisation that I’d been here too many times before. Such have been the choices I made in life that I have been forced to economise. Too often I have found myself on sunken beds in hot countries. And here, where I had paid for a double, whole continents of bites began to rise on my flesh. I moved across the room to a second bed where a mosquito (I think it was just the one) dived at me in the darkness. I put the light on several times but against the several peeling layers of floral wallpaper ― a domestic archaeology was to be found here ― it was too well camouflaged. All through the night I listened to the sound of police sirens, which suggested that perhaps Marseilles was living up to its reputation for violence. There’s almost always trouble when the air doesn’t move. A woman moaned rhythmically from one of the windows opposite. Suddenly her cries of ecstasy were cut into, displaced by a wild laughter of seagulls. It was as if some sound technician in his lab had perfectly spliced the two sounds together.

      At four o’clock in the morning, fed up with Marseilles, fed up with the bites, fed up with the mosquitoes, I packed my bag and walked though unlit streets to the train station, going past the bar where the Moroccan prostitute had been. A metal blind had been pulled down. I took the five o’clock train to Nice where, that following night, during the course of an electrical storm, a bolt of lightning struck and destroyed the noisy generator just outside my hotel window, which had been keeping me awake. I welcomed the silence. I tossed and turned some more. France was indeed the multiplier of what one takes there, and in my disquietude I wondered whether Allah had room in his paradise for a Moroccan girl who’d been cast adrift.                            

— Marius Kociejowski