Memories of MarseillePrint
By Michael Dirda
April 27, 2012
Back in 1970-71 I lived in Marseille, where I taught English at the Lycée Saint-Exupéry. The year before, I had graduated from Oberlin College and failed to win a Rhodes Scholarship—a long shot, at best, given that I played no sports, earned mediocre grades as a freshman and sophomore, and had participated in absolutely nothing extracurricular. It turned out that zeal for learning and boyish charm weren’t quite enough for the Rhodes committee. Somehow, though, I was later awarded a place on a Fulbright-sponsored teaching program in France.
I asked to be assigned to a school located anywhere but Paris. In 1968 I’d spent a thrilling May and summer in France—“bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / but to be young was very heaven”—and had quickly realized that Paris was full of university students, tourists, and Americans. I didn’t want to see any of these. My goal was to speak nothing but French and to learn the language well. As it turned out, by the time I left to return home to the United States, a native French speaker needed as much as two or three minutes before realizing I was a foreigner. My Marseille accent was even remarked upon.
As an “assistant d’anglais,” I taught courses in pronunciation and conversation, sometimes to just a few students at a time. On my first day I was immediately warned never to hold a class if only one person showed up. The school—a “mixed” lycée—was unusually sensitive about any possibility of teacher-pupil hanky-panky. I was 21, some of my students were 17, and several of the young women dressed with a sophistication that took my breath away.
So I could readily understand the school’s concern. But there was another reason: it was at Lycée Saint-Exupéry in 1968 that Gabrielle Russier—in her early 30s—had taught and fallen in love with one of her 17-year-old male students. Their affair, illegal to begin with, was further complicated by the leftist politics and rivalries of the day. In the end, Russier was sentenced to prison for what was called, I believe, “le détournement d’un mineur.” She subsequently wrote her burly and bearded young man love letters until her release, then committed suicide. When published, those letters became a French bestseller, the same year that Erich Segal’s preppy Love Story was the No. 1 American tearjerker. (Ethnologists may want to reflect on what this indicates about the two cultures.) As it happened, I taught the brother of the boy involved in this tragic romance, and a movie about it appeared in the spring of 1971: Mourir d’aimer (To Die for Love), starring Annie Girardot.
During that academic year I lived on the school grounds in a small room above some faculty and staff apartments. The bleak dormitory-like quarters on the second floor were largely empty except for me and my fellow “assistants” Uli, who taught German, and Paolo, who taught Italian. Uli usually sported a beat-up leather coat he’d found in a flea market, loved the work of William Burroughs, and was a passionate fan of Pink Floyd and Deep Purple, in particular the latter’s concerto for rock band and orchestra. He soon found a girlfriend and moved in with her.
Fine-boned, bespectacled, and aristocratic, Paolo quickly became my close friend. He had brought his Volkswagen Beetle from Pavia, and we soon took to driving downtown to the Canebiere, the Vieux Port, and the Opera House. At this last, I watched Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn dance in Swan Lake, attended an early performance of Alban Berg’s restored Lulu, and sneaked into a solo piano recital given by Arthur Rubinstein. At that performance, in the middle of a Chopin piece, a loud voice from the audience suddenly cried out, Plus vite—“faster.” Rubinstein neither faltered nor increased his tempo.
As it happened, Marseille’s red-light district was also located on the streets around L’Opéra. Hence the smirks Paolo and I would occasionally receive whenever we mentioned spending an evening there. Paolo, in fact, grew quite infatuated with one particular papillon de la nuit—butterfly of the night—and would operatically fling a rose to her as we drove by her corner on our way to a concert or movie.
As the year went by, I soon began taking my breakfasts at the same working-class café, enjoying a sugary brioche along with my coffee and my copy of Le Monde or Le Canard enchaîné. I bought myself a brown cloth cap, called a casquette, and a navy blue fisherman’s sweater that buttoned rakishly along the shoulder, took to wandering fearlessly (and foolishly) through the Algerian quarter at night, and vastly enjoyed the rowdy cosmopolitan swarms along the Canebière. I drank pastis, learned to play the cardgame La Belote, ate couscous and bouillabaisse. I was told that if you spoke the right words there was a place where you could dine on human flesh.
In my spare time I read the works of Marcel Pagnol, especially the Marseille plays Marius, Fanny, and Cesar, and such Provençal novelists as Henri Bosco and Jean Giono. Occasionally I’d take the bus to Aix, some 25 kilometers to the north, and wander up and down its beautiful tree-canopied main street, lined with bookshops, cafes and patisseries. One Saturday I climbed to the top of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, so often painted by Cezanne; on another weekend I went canoeing at Cassis and almost drowned in the Mediterranean surf. During that year a beautiful older woman tried to seduce me—and so did a 16-year-old blonde student. When a celebration honoring the 100th anniversary of the Commune grew violent, we all ran from the riot police.
On school holidays I traveled. Late one night in Pavia, Paolo—even drunker than I—nonchalantly drove his car off the street and down a wide flight of concrete steps. A short cut, he said, but the Volkswagen’s suspension was never the same. At the city’s cathedral I happened upon a film crew at work and so was allowed to glimpse up close the bejeweled cases holding relics of Boethius and St. Augustine. The following day Paolo and I sampled the liqueurs at the local monastery—the supposed original of Stendhal’s Chartreuse de Parme. Going on to Florence, I there spotted a guy absorbed in The Golden Bowl while we both waited to sign into the youth hostel: now a longtime editor for Harvard University Press, Lindsay Waters and I are still friends. Like Byron and Proust, I sipped coffee at Florian’s in Venice and went touristing with two Australian women I met there; they ordered me to read Patrick White. On a subsequent trip to Barcelona and Madrid—then still ruled by Generalissimo Franco—I finished André Malraux’s L’Espoir, as a youthful military corps marched in a nearby park, and during one long weekend in Grenoble—Stendhal’s hometown and Jean-Claude Killy’s—I learned to ski.
All this was a long time ago, and, though I’ve been back to France, I’ve never returned to Marseille. Why meddle with a fairy-tale year? Even now I can scarcely believe that I used to visit a hunch-backed dwarf who cut hair in an old garage. You’d climb down into a hole in the concrete and sit on a rackety kitchen stool, while the barber walked around you, clipping away and chattering about the perfidy of women. If he’d told me his name was Rumpelstiltskin, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.
Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.