“Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun,” wrote Charles Dickens, using the English spelling of the name of the French city. He went on to describe the “blazing sun upon a fierce August day,” stared at and staring back in return, as well as the “staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away.” This focus on oppressive sunlight comes at the beginning of the first chapter of Little Dorrit, a novel set mostly not in Marseille and largely in places where the sun forgets to shine, like, for example, prisons of differing degrees of dankness.
Although I had read several Dickens novels, some more than once, and even watched (and, I’ll admit, enjoyed) the Wishbone version of A Tale of Two Cities, I came late to Little Dorrit. I came to it after reading John Irving’s The Cider House Rules,which is also not set in Marseille. In Irving’s novel, a character is reading, or trying to read, Little Dorrit, although, if I remember correctly, she doesn’t get very far into it, and neither does anybody else. Still, Little Dorrit keeps popping up, almost like a leitmotif. Perhaps Irving was simply paying homage to Dickens, whose work he has said he admires.
The late James Welch, whom I met when he came to Cornell as a visiting writer a number of years ago, wrote a novel that actually is set in Marseille. In The Heartsong of Charging Elk, the main character, a young Oglala Lakota, finds himself unable to adjust to reservation life in the late 19th century. He joins Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild troupe and leaves with them on a European tour. During a performance in Marseille, Charging Elk falls from his horse and is seriously injured. When he wakes up in a French hospital, he learns that Buffalo Bill’s company has gone on without him. Stranded in Marseille with few possessions, no friends, no money, and no knowledge of the French language, he must fend for himself. Bad things happen, good things happen, terrible things happen, good things happen. At one point, Charging Elk finds work in a soap factory.
I arrived in Marseille (virtually) a couple of days before last Christmas. (For anyone who is not familiar with my virtual walking tours, I do the actual walking wherever I happen to be, using my Apple watch along with Google Maps to track my mileage and map my journey. I’ve been doing this for years.) Because I have never been to Marseille in real life, my touchpoints were literary; for me, Marseille is Little Dorrit, The Cider House Rules, and The Heartsong of Charging Elk. And there is one more touchpoint, a nonliterary one: soap. Marseille is famous for the quality of its hard-milled, scented soaps. Joe and I have been using a particular brand of Marseille soap for years; when our local Wegmans stopped carrying it, we found an online source. I am not surprised that Charging Elk worked briefly in the soap industry.
After Christmas in Marseille, it was time to move on. My next stop was Nice, with memories of the Bastille Day, 2016, terror attack still fresh in my mind. And then off to Genoa and beyond.
And here I am in Bologna, another city that I have never visited in real life, and my literary associations are scanty. Bologna figures only slightly in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy; Naples is, after all, the main character in those books. Years ago, when I sold foreign rights for an academic publisher, I met once a year with my European and Asian counterparts at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I especially enjoyed meeting with a woman named Luisa who worked for a publisher in Bologna. I remember the year she showed up breathless and exhausted; she and her co-workers had just pulled into Frankfurt after spending the night driving across the Alps. We talked about books and, because we were about the same age, we talked about our lives.
As I explore (virtually) the very real attractions of a very old city–the terra-cotta hues, the tiled roofs, the leaning towers (because Pisa doesn’t have a monopoly on leaning towers), the piazzas and basilicas, the arcaded streets, the university (oldest in Europe), and the marvelous food (which, alas, I will be tasting only virtually), I expect to discover that I would very much like to visit Bologna actually, to put real boots and ballet flats on the ground. It’s already on the list.
But I have other places to go on this walking tour from Sagres to Prague, so I’ll have to say Arrivederci for now. Next stop: Venice.