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The Sense of Life

Marseilles presents itself to you without preparation and without comment. It is there that the traveler first sees the Mediterranean; usually the tram goes on, and the traveler with it, to the Riviera or to Italy. Neither Marseilles nor the guide book invites you to stop.

It wants a full day. Although each of its two movements is complete, each one intends the other as its complement, like the systole and diastole of the heart; rather like night and day, making a complete cycle of life. Marseilles is a great French port and at the same time it is one of the inlets through which Asia and Africa filter into Europe. By day you find it wholly French, of the south of France, to be sure, clear and animated and sane. The famous Cannebiere (“its cafes always filled with consummators” as the guide book puts it) is a short wide street, much like the principal street of any other city of the Midi, except that it debouches on a quai which; whatever the guide books may suggest, is one of the major glories of the world. It is the Quai des Beiges, the short riparian side of the rectangle forming the Old Port. The two long sides are lined with rows of battered freighters, dismantled Russian yachts or battle-cruisers, and lovely old sailing vessels. Above them on one side are the soft cream and gray houses rising terrace on terrace on the hills or the old city; from the other a cathedral looks down on the two forts at the mouth of the bay, an ancient one which protected the Crusaders and another, one of the clean sober architectural pleasures with which Vauban made beautiful the cities he was asked to make only secure. At the far end, parallel to the quai, is a strange bridge, very high, with a platform at sea level which moves on its cable, back and forth like a shuttle across the bay, so that wherever and whenever you look, there is movement.

The life that goes on in this little rectangle is neither a pageant nor a carnival; it has nothing of the picturesque. Yet it endlessly creates images of an extraordinary liveliness, and as they congregate in the mind they take on a peculiar significance. The elements are almost all commonplace: loafers on the quai where the little launches start for Monte Cristo’s island; a defile of soldiers in khaki or blue; the tiny noisy trams; a small herd of goats awkwardly blocking the taxis and vegetable carts; dogs running underneath little carriages to keep in the shade; women with the faces of gypsies marketing for mussels or eels or dorade at the corner shops; the sidewalks of the cafes deserted in the bright blinding sun, and the crowds within talking and gesticulating; policemen, beggars, little girls, sellers of newspapers and almonds. The tempo is not exceptionally high; but the place is compact, the lines of activity run parallel to each other, the change is instantaneous and constant. As you sit on the balcony at Basso’s, achieving the literary, and actual, delight of bouillabaisse comme a Marseilles, life passes before you with more vivacity and ease, more variety and assurance, with more color and sounds and smells, than at any other spot I know. All centres in cities: Trafalgar or Times Square, the terrace of the Cafe de la Paix or at Florian’s in St. Mark’ s, are merely parades of people. On this quai work is being done and all the essential things of life have their relation here, and the smell and movement of the sunlit sea are the background.

More than the separate pleasures of the senses, there is a fulfilled satisfaction in looking at the Quai des Beiges, a feeling of elation that each element in the panorama is what it is, so completely and so intensely. Everything seems to grow there, is fed by the sea and draws vigor from the sun, becomes tanned and sharp and healthy. In the late afternoon the setting sun is very hot; the city grows charmingly small and drowsy.

It wakes to another life. From the centre of the city you mount series of stairs, ill-lit, with the stench of ordure overpowering the smell of the sea. At the top the narrow streets intercross, all sloping downward, and from each One in the centre runs slowly a dark stream of water Carrying refuse with it and casting up little heaps in the roadway. At one level the night-town of Marseilles begins with the rue Fontaine Rouviere. All its length it is bordered by small houses, their doors and windows open, each showing a room on the street-level, and each with a neat bed and a chair. In one a girl is brushing her hair by candle light, before the door of another two women, heavy and brutal, sit at ease, talking; now and again a slattern snatches at your sleeve and hurls a tin can, with her compliments, after you as you escape. Sailors push their way through, clutching their caps, throwing off the women who reach out for them, until they reach the appointed rendezvous. Up and down the street pass cries, laughter, conversation; the open houses throw their light, almost as sinister as the shadows in front of those where the blinds have been temporarily drawn. As you walk you feel that there is no sky overhead, but a roof, just above you, shutting you in as in a tunnel. It is black and dirty, and dogs lie asleep on the dunghills.

In the narrow cafe little girls dance with tidy rhythmical steps, the typical shuffle of French popular dancing, while their soldiers droop heavily over the bad liquor. A Dian and a girl pass through the room and through an equivocal curtain; presently they reappear; the mechanical piano responds briefly to a coin. Opposite you see a name a door: Cythera, and under it, in the doorway, sits an old woman, massive, motionless except for her sharp eyes, terrifying. The other houses bear international names, also, like Anna or Jeanne. Towa rd the end of the maze of streets, as you return to the quais, the thieves’ quarter begins, and the shops where you must order narcotics twenty-four hours in advance.

The city is full of terror, of disease and crime. There is a feeling of mutilation and cruelty, for all that the surface is so matter of fact; it is unbearably repulsive and fascinating. The long day in the sun is blotted out by this darkness, a horrible depression overtakes you. You shudder, and cannot leave, and wander back to the Old Port, looking at the riding lights of the ships and at the reflections of light in the motionless water.

This article originally ran in the July 7, 1926 issue of the magazine.