Letter from Marseille




ON A GRAY DAY in Paris in late November, I was walking with A. in the Buttes Chaumont, complaining about a translation of mine that was going so poorly that I’d started having preemptive headaches whenever I opened my laptop. It had rained all morning, I remember, and the lawn and patches of woods we crossed were still wet. When we’d climbed halfway up a steep path, A. — who is also a translator and so more sympathetic to this kind of griping than most — interrupted me to point out some treetops where a band of bright green parakeets flitted among the branches. I had heard about the ubiquity of the bird in Paris’s parks and gardens but had yet to see one. They were, A. told me, loathed by many in the city for their incessant screeching and rumored aggressiveness toward weaker species. From this distance they looked amiable enough, I said, and as we continued up the path, we went on talking about various bird species that were likely misunderstood. Having just read Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (2015), I felt compelled to put in a few good words for both the crow and Crow, the heroic trickster-figure brought into being by the poet Ted Hughes and reincarnated to great effect in Porter’s novel.

Grief is such a better word than deuil,” A. said, bringing our conversation back to where it often ends up, to words and to the tension between our two languages. He translates English into French and so might be expected to make such pronouncements, just as I’m sure my affection for certain French words can seem terribly earnest — but here I felt he was on to something. “Deuil” has always made me wince a little. I can’t hear it without thinking of the expression “faire son deuil” — literally, to do one’s mourning — which strikes me as rather callous. The suggestion that “le deuil” is a thing to get done, we both agreed, ran counter to what we knew of grief: its amorphousness, the way it warps your sense of duration and erodes continuity, suspending you in its weather.

It’s not unusual for A. and me to make the leap from linguistic to death-related matters in our conversations. We became friends, in part, through his interest in my translations of the French writer Valérie Mréjen, whose 2012 novel Forêt noire — a book largely composed of fragments in which nameless characters meet their ends — I was translating around the time we met. I had, in fact, brought him a copy of the recently published translation and inscribed it for him as we sat in the café by the artificial lake. On my way there, I’d lost my footing on a wet sidewalk and nearly slipped — or perhaps not so nearly. I was aware, on some level, of how Mréjen’s text had subtly worked on my subconscious, granting me access to a liminal space where a version of myself kept dying and dying, often in some banal, entirely avoidable accident. Let’s try not to die in 2020, I wrote on the title page of A.’s copy of Black Forest, knowing we wouldn’t see each other again before the new year.

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Our walk that afternoon, like so many of the walks I took alone or in company in the time leading up to the lockdown in France, feels like a dream now. I’m writing from Marseille, where my apartment is on a quiet side street in the middle of the busy fifth arrondissement, the windows overlooking a grid of courtyards. Birdsong drifts from a pair of plane trees; a scruffy orange cat can often be seen slinking back and forth along the dividing wall, or else chasing beetles by the rose bushes. It’s a short walk in one direction from the Cours Julien — a leafy, sprawling square lined with shops and wine bars — and in the other from La Timone, one of the country’s largest teaching hospitals. In the afternoons, the occasional siren wails softly beneath the hip-hop music that blares from speakers in the Cours Julien, where terraces are newly open. A month after lockdown measures began easing here, I continue to avoid crowds and spend most evenings at home, in part out of caution and the dread of a second wave, but even more so in what feels like an unwillingness to let go of routines that have provided structure for the ambient grief of this deadly spring.

Back in March, I’d unwittingly prepared for the quarantine by reading Marguerite Duras’s collection of short essays La vie matérielle (1988), in Barbara Bray’s translation, a copy of which I’d found at a used bookshop days before the order to shelter in place was given. Bray rendered the title in English as Practicalities, no doubt guided by Duras’s many assertions on the subject of her own fastidiousness: her uniform that consisted of a black cardigan and straight skirt, her habit of burning her manuscripts as soon as the books came out, the pantry shopping list that remained taped to a wall in her country house — unchanged, nothing added — for 20 years. A few dozen items: onions, garlic, tinned tomatoes. In the passages where she writes of her longing to be near the sea, of feeling bereft of it whenever she’s in Paris, she seems also, somehow, to be speaking about grief. Not knowing it would be months before the next time I saw the sea — just a half-hour walk from my apartment — I’d underlined in pencil the lines: “At Trouville the sea’s always there. Night and day, even if you can’t see it, the thought of it’s there.”

I have since seen the sea many times — I try to go in the early morning, before the crush of people descends on the boardwalk — but have not yet been back to the Parc National des Calanques, a reserve that stretches along the coast from the southern end of Marseille to Cassis, and that reopened to the public two weeks ago. In a communiqué issued on the eve of the reopening, the park’s officials appealed to visitors’ prudence and common sense, calling on them to respect the biodiversity that has flourished in their absence. During the lockdown, maritime patrollers’ photos of rare seabirds sighted gliding over the water circulated widely online, along with a video of a pair of fin whales playing unusually close to shore that went so viral it even got a blurb in Page Six, as if cetaceans had achieved the status of celebrity overnight.

I sent screenshots of the seabird photos to my husband in Los Angeles, who replied with photos of the jacarandas blooming in our neighborhood. After nearly 10 years in the United States, we’d been planning a gradual return to the South of France, where he grew up; I’d arrived last summer for a translation residency and stayed on to start the long process of applying for French citizenship while he completed a film project in Los Angeles. Now that we’ve been apart since January and will most likely not see each other before the fall, our texts have increasingly become a stream of images of flora and fauna, with fewer and fewer words in between. In late April, when he came down with a relatively mild case of COVID-19, I constantly texted him photos of flowers and plants, as if their oxygen-producing properties could be transmitted over the wi-fi. I didn’t tell him when I woke up at 3:00 a.m. in a panic because I couldn’t hear him breathing, or that I’d reached out to shake him before I remembered he was an ocean away.

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In December, Valérie and I flew to the United States to join a poet friend of hers and his translator, a young American poet, for a series of readings in New York and Chicago. There was a special poignancy to those days of wandering the cities’ streets with Valérie and the poets between bookstore events, not least because Forêt noire is a flâneur novel that has, for years now, animated my experience of walking in cities. Its unnamed narrator imagines walking with her long-dead mother through Paris, a city that, as she approaches middle age, gradually reveals itself to be a forest inhabited by ghosts: loved ones, friends, acquaintances two or three times removed, strangers whose obituaries had left a mark on her memory. Their deaths are recounted in fragments interwoven with memories of her mother, who died, perhaps accidentally, from an overdose of sleeping pills when the narrator was 16. There is the sense that this formative loss has made her somehow porous, unusually receptive to other realms. Walking with Valérie down Varick Street toward the Woolworth Building or along Ashland Avenue, I marveled that the bond we shared over her book — the ambiguous spooky force it had exerted on me as a reader, and that I in turn exerted on myself as its translator — had brought us here in our boots and caps and scarves to trace new paths together through these snowy streets.

There was a tenderness, too, in seeing my friend for the first time as a traveler. On the second or third day, after walking together through the Vija Celmins retrospective at the Met Breuer gallery — all those meticulously mapped skeins of stars in the artist’s night skies akin to the pointillism of a Mréjen sentence — we crossed Central Park on our way to lunch. I felt a rush of warmth for her as she stood transfixed by a baby squirrel and, after a long moment, took her phone out to film a video for her young daughter.

It had been, by then, almost seven years since I first read Forêt noire in the winter of 2013, shortly after my paternal grandfather died — an easy death, as they say, but it had leveled me, and I lay awake nights as I hadn’t since childhood, alert with the knowledge that everyone dear to me would sooner or later be taken away. During that time, Mréjen’s novel was an unlikely source of consolation; the cure for thinking about death, it seemed, was more thinking about death, only with a writer of remarkable grace and precision — one who happened to be intimately acquainted with the subject — as my guide. When I became immersed in translating the book, though, things got more complicated. Despite everything I’d been told about the dangers of overidentifying with a text, I started reading myself into its pages; the doors to death swung open all around me, and every so often I found myself peering over a threshold, waiting for the feeling of vertigo to pass. After a few delays in the book’s publication, I joked to friends that I was liable to meet my own end before the translation was finally in the world; privately, I took these delays as further evidence that a dark wing had passed over me. (It seems that translators, too, can fall prey to delusions of grandeur.) When, days after I’d sent the publisher my final revisions, I learned that my sister, in her second trimester of pregnancy, had been diagnosed with cancer, my brain was momentarily flooded with the certainty that she would lose the baby and die within months, and that all of this was somehow tied up with the haunting into which I had been drawn.

I was blessedly wrong on all counts: my sister has lived to share in the incommensurable sorrow and rage of this wretched year; my niece, to taste her first spoonful of chocolate cake before a rapt audience on a Zoom call. Black Forest was published and made its way into the hands of smart and generous readers, a few of whom reached out to tell me of the consolation it had brought them. The spell had come full circle, and I began to sense that what I’d experienced as a haunting was in fact no more and no less than a temporary stripping away of pretense, of the protective layer of confidence that allows us to walk down the street and brush past countless strangers without once thinking that at any second our lives — any of these lives — might stop. For a time, this spring, it felt as if everyone I made eye contact with from behind our masks was thinking just that. Now, when I walk past the crowded terraces and hear the clinking of glasses carried on the breeze, I wonder how many of them have already forgotten.

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It’s 6:30 p.m. and the daylight’s waning; it’s been raining all afternoon, and I’ve not gone outside. I’m drinking red wine from a Peanuts mug. I miss the slow countdown to eight o’clock, when we’d all open the windows wide to cheer the city’s frontline workers. With the hospital only a few blocks away, this ritual took on an even greater sense of immediacy — at least, it did in the early days of the lockdown, before my neighbors gradually stopped poking their heads out of their window frames, no doubt distracted with the elaborate dinners they were cooking. In the final few weeks, it was usually just me and a man in the building opposite who looked to be in his 60s and almost always wore a pink baseball cap over long white hair, hooting at each other like characters in a Beckett play. Now I imagine he’s out at a bar or, like me, inside listening to the rain and feeling a bit melancholic.

A new type of photo has been circulating online: images of trash left along the trails and on the beaches of the Calanques. A pizza box lying among wildflowers, beer bottles scattered on the sand. The photos are posted on social media by people who live near the park, or by visitors who go there to be reunited with nature and are immediately confronted by the blithe idiocy of their fellow humans. People are documenting “covidiocy” all over France, but especially along the coasts. Someone has posted a photo of a beach in Hérault where a cluster of terns’ nests was demolished by motorbikes in an area roped off to preserve the breeding site. It’s a chilling scene to take in; the tracks in the sand describe a gratuitous cruelty that one can’t help thinking will win out over the will of many to repair, to protect delicate things. I think of the video that made headlines in the United States last month, the one filmed by a birder in Central Park: the viciousness of its subject’s mimicry of a white woman facing bodily harm, the apparent glee with which she spat the words “African American man” at him before calling the police to report a made-up threat, all because she didn’t feel like leashing her dog. There was something almost overdetermined in the way the confrontation played out, as if it had been scripted: an eerie prelude to the coming upheaval. But then, I wonder if it only seems that way to me because I’m watching it from a distance, one more spectator of America adjusting her binoculars, when what I want is to be part of the jubilant crowd marching down Hollywood Boulevard, or the one holding vigil in south Minneapolis, not far from where I grew up. On a Tuesday, I scour Instagram for images of the protests, but my feed is an endless stream of black tiles.

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A central conceit in Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is that the two brothers in the novel — the Boys, Porter calls them — speak in a single voice, slipping between the second-person “we” and a nebulous “I” that could be either one or the other or both of them. In the aftermath of their mother’s sudden death, they’ve become mutually permeable, their little boy-boundaries blurred by grief, while Dad, a Ted Hughes scholar at work on a study of the poet’s Crow, sits “alone in the / living room wondering what to do.” “Where are the fire engines?” the Boys ask in a kind of chant. “Where is the noise and clamor of an event like this?” When Crow himself arrives to watch over the family, he instantly recognizes the Boys as a single entity: “[T]wo forms, but one shape […] four little legs and four little arms […] and tiny little hopeful faces.” “They were in brother with each other,” he says at one point, narrating a dark fairy tale with the Boys at its center.

When I’m out walking now, or standing in line at the boulangerie, and I exchange a brief glance with a stranger who looks as stunned as I feel, I sometimes see a black feather hanging in the air between us. Ah, mon frère, I think, and for a moment we stand there frozen together, our edges blurred, wondering where all the fire trucks are, in brother with each other.

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7:00 p.m. and the rain is coming down harder. I pour myself more wine and put on a friend’s playlist posted during the second straight weekend of protests, on what would have been Breonna Taylor’s 27th birthday. I’m an orange moon, Erykah Badu sings, reflecting the light of the sun. From the window by the desk where I’m writing a small suncatcher hangs, attached to a chain and a clear plastic suction cup with a hook. When the afternoon light passes through it, trails of rainbow-striped pebbles are strewn on the floor; a few rainbow-striped minnows flit across the walls. A present from my sister, one for each of us in the family last Christmas — an example of her Duras-like practicality when it comes to gift-giving and to most things in life — it was already hanging there before drawings of wobbly rainbows started adorning balconies and windows in cities everywhere, tidings of hope and encouragement spreading like spores.

The kids in my neighborhood are particularly prolific rainbow-drawers, and I wonder if this has to do with the proximity of the hospital. I count myself among those for whom the incitement to look to the future is not a great source of comfort, and yet I like seeing the rainbows and sometimes stop to take photos of them. It’s not the attendant metaphors of promise and connection that soothe me but the repetition of form, the myriad variations on a theme, like staring at ocean waves or walking through a gallery filled with night sky after night sky, each one slightly different. Like reading a volume filled with miniaturist portraits of the one encounter we’re all bound to have, though we don’t know when it will come for us, or in what form.

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Earlier this week, I went to pick up my produce box at the épicerie on rue d’Aubagne, the long shopping street I often walk down to reach the Vieux Port, passing colorful spice stalls and trinket shops, Lebanese bakeries and rows of sidewalk tables where men in djellabas sit sipping mint tea. It’s the kind of street you might expect The New York Times to gush about in its “36 hours in…” section, as it did in the summer of 2018, a few months before two buildings on this same street — numbers 63 and 65 — collapsed on a Monday morning in November. Like countless dwellings in the city center, the buildings had been slowly crumbling for years while officials ignored expert warnings and the mayor poured money into a luxury hotel project blocks from where the buildings fell, killing eight people. It took days for the bodies to be pulled from the rubble and identified, among them students, undocumented immigrants, a painter, and a mother of six. I pass the makeshift memorial each week on my way to the épicerie, the victims’ faces printed on a banner with their names and ages, surrounded by hearts and messages written in marker. Un drame, the mayor called it, a tragedy, as if each of those deaths had not been banal and entirely avoidable. Then, several weeks into the lockdown, another letter was published by a group of engineers and architects from the city’s department of building and safety — a department, they said, that still hadn’t been given the resources to address a brutal housing crisis, nor to begin repairs on 2,600 buildings identified as being at risk. “In Marseille, a homicide by negligence in the making,” ran the headline in Libération. I look at the dozens of votive candles on the long table beneath the banner and think of all those for whom staying home — to save lives, they were told — came with the knowledge that they might, at any moment, be crushed beneath the state’s disregard for their existence.

When I moved to Marseille last fall, the one-year anniversary of the building collapse was approaching. A few collectives and associations from the area around rue d’Aubagne, known as Noailles, had organized a memorial and a series of events in the hopes of bringing people together to celebrate the life of the neighborhood. One of these, I remember, was aimed at children, who were invited to make drawings of places in Noailles that they loved, and which they could then ask to display at these locations. A few of the drawings are still taped to storefronts along rue d’Aubagne, outnumbered by the rainbows. When I passed one the other day, it put me in mind of a series of paintings the writer Amitava Kumar has been posting on his Instagram account in recent weeks, gouache paintings on the newspaper obituaries of victims of the virus, along with brief essays written from his home in a small town in upstate New York. Taking time to read the obituaries and to work on the paintings, he says, has become a way of slowing down his consumption of the news and considering the details of the lives lost. In one of them, a single pink tulip lies suspended horizontally in the center of a page almost entirely covered in wide streaks of gray gouache, the opacity of the paint allowing certain words or phrases to show through while others remain hidden. One can’t help thinking of the brittleness of this canvas, of how its crumbling will eventually complete the erasure.

As if I’d somehow willed it by recalling that tulip and its accompanying mini-essay, in which Kumar describes his wife as a Mrs. Dalloway who goes out to buy flowers with gloves and mask on, there were, for the first time — not just during lockdown, but for the first time since I could remember — flowers at the épicerie. A whole stand of them right when I walked in, big bouquets of peonies arranged with wildflowers and wrapped in butcher paper. The shop owner told me that the florist, a friend of hers, lived out in the country near Saint-Gilles and that her business had been hit hard when the open-air markets closed. I looked at the flowers, at one bouquet in particular, bursting with all the accents: iris and lily of the valley, nigella and valerian, yellow mustard grass and pink clover and spikes of flowering sage. I had no business buying a bouquet of that size — the thought of it sitting in my empty apartment where nobody but me would see it was absurd, even a little sad.

It was only after I’d taken many photos of the bouquet in my hand, from different angles and against different backgrounds — a white wall, my red-tiled floor, the square of blue sky outside my window — only after I’d sent the best ones to my husband and mom and sister, that I realized I had, in fact, bought these flowers, and that I didn’t have a vase to put them in. After rummaging around in the kitchen, I found a large plastic measuring cup in the cupboard of baking supplies the previous tenant had left behind. I set them in it on the mantelpiece and that’s where they are standing now, still looking spry, a few of the peonies just starting to wilt a little.

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7:30 p.m. I pour the last of the wine and read a few of the day’s coronavirus obituaries on the L.A. Times website, thinking of Kumar painting in the quiet of his home in New York. I watch an old video on my phone of my husband watching popcorn pop on a stovetop, a Buster Keaton smile spreading across his face, and sweep the floor, dancing with my broom to Lauryn Hill’s “To Zion.” I write a postcard to Valérie’s daughter, two or three lines about the birds pecking around for worms in the courtyard, and an email to A. asking how he’s doing. He writes back minutes later to tell me he’s been translating a novel from the Italian, a language he’s studied and read for years but never had the opportunity to work in until now. Remembering our conversation in the Buttes Chaumont, I look up the Italian word for grief — il dolore — and say it aloud to the empty room, uncertain of my pronunciation. I say it again and suddenly see, in the letters that make up the middle of the word, a pair of bird’s eyes and an upward-pointing beak:

olo

A soft whoop, whoop from across the courtyard. For a moment I think it’s my neighbor — maybe the rain has made him nostalgic for our tête-à-têtes of old. It takes a few seconds for me to recognize the sound of a distant siren, growing nearer. I close my laptop and go to open the window, to let it in.

— Marseille, June 2020

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Katie Shireen Assef is a writer, literary translator, and sometime bookseller living between Los Angeles and Marseille, France. Her translation of French writer Valérie Mréjen’s novel Black Forest was published by Deep Vellum in 2019.

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Featured image: “Marseille Harbour At Night” by Andy Wright is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Banner image: “France-000640 – Trouville-sur-Mer Lighthouses” by Dennis Jarvis is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

 

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