Kleppinger on Duchêne (2022)

Duchêne, Rémi. L’Escale des géants: Marseille et les écrivains, 1830-1900. PU de Rennes, 2022, pp. 373, ISBN978-2-7535-8365-8

The title of Rémi Duchêne’s study of canonical nineteenth-century French authors, L’Escale des géants, is a very effective indicator of the book’s content and focus. Marseille served, Duchêne demonstrates, as both a stopover and a port of call for many well-known authors of this period. The book features an engaging sequence of brief chapters relating the various adventures in Marseille of the following authors: Balzac, Stendhal, Dumas père and fils, Nerval, Flaubert, Sand, Hugo, Gautier, Maupassant, Daudet, and Zola. The city was also more than an escale for its famous native son of the era, the prolific writer Joseph Méry, who appears frequently in the pages of this book as a friend to several authors.

The strength of the book lies in its documentary breadth and depth: Duchêne has expertly mined the novels, plays, and personal letters of all the authors profiled. He has located extensive documentation about what they did in Marseille, where they stayed, and with whom they socialized. Many authors, notably Stendhal and Flaubert, had relationships with women in Marseille that marked them for years: Flaubert, for example, returned several years after the fact to the building where he had met a woman named Eulalie and subsequently lamented its transformation into a commercial site (which did not stop him from visiting a barber who had opened a shop there, where Flaubert even recognized the wallpaper from his previous visits!). Balzac had a fondness for the antiques dealers of the Vieux-Port neighborhood, who were happy to sell him furniture and fine china from throughout the world. He detailed his purchases with enthusiasm in his letters to his lover Ève Hanska. And Maupassant, readers learn, was a skilled sailor who purchased a boat in Marseille (named Bel Ami II) and frequently traveled throughout the region.

In addition to the details of these authors’ lives in Marseille, Duchêne also explores how Marseille figures in their writings. Beyond the obvious importance of the Château d’If in Le compte de Monte-Cristo, we also learn that Les Trois Mousquetaires was inspired by and based on a book borrowed from a Marseille municipal library. Stendhal composed the first draft of Le rouge et le noir, at the time entitled Julien, while staying in Marseille. Flaubert incorporated details from his affair with Eulalie in his Éducation sentimentale, and, in one of the more bizarre stories recounted here, Balzac included material from his own failed money-making venture in Sardinia (which began in Marseille) in his 1841 epistolatory novel Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées. Of all of the authors detailed here, perhaps none engaged more deeply with Marseille than Zola: he had spent time there as a young child (and his father died in Marseille), and several of his characters in the Rougon-Macquart series either lived in or passed through Marseille.

While such anecdotes are often entertaining and shed light on lesser-known details of these authors’ lives and adventures, the book falls short on tying these threads together in an overarching argument. The main thesis presented in the prologue of the book is that “la plupart des géants de la littérature du XIXe siècle sont venus à Marseille mus par un rêve. La fortune, l’amour, le voyage, les mythes orientaux, la civilisation méditerranéenne, tout prétexte était bon pour mettre le cap sur le Midi et découvrir des horizons nouveaux” (11). It would have been useful to theorize more deeply what these authors were doing when they came to Marseille: what were they looking for that they could not find elsewhere, notably in Paris? Many of these authors came to Marseille for excitement and inspiration, which they found in a variety of ways, ranging from love affairs to money-making schemes and travel abroad. Based on the anecdotes recounted here, it would seem that Marseille was perceived as an alternative to Paris and somehow different from other parts of France, a Mediterranean city where they sensed that they had more freedom and opportunity to discover unconventional lifestyles. But this attitude also reveals ways of thinking about Marseille and the exoticism they seemed to have sought: Were they all entranced by the same forms of Orientalism (as defined by Said), or do their adventures indicate differing understandings of just what “L’Orient” is in nineteenth-century France? Opening the lens even wider, what do their stays in Marseille tell us about both the city itself, and its position in French letters?

Such a theorization might lead us toward the concept, most recently articulated and defined by Nicolas Maïsetti, of “marseillology”. Writers practice marseillology, Maïsetti argues, when they fixate on specific myths in circulation about the city: such myths can involve the sun and the sand, exotic food, or even a more general cosmopolitanism according to which Marseille is seen as a gateway to the Orient and somehow not quite French. Alexandre Dumas perhaps illustrates this idea best when he calls Marseille a “rendez-vous du monde entier” where one cannot find “deux hommes parlant la même langue” (12). This exoticization of Marseille at the hands of many of France’s most prominent authors of the nineteenth century certainly has implications for how the city is represented and perceived throughout the country. I would have liked to see further discussion of how these authors contributed to the construction and perpetuation of specific myths and stereotypes about Marseille.  Nevertheless, this book provides an exhaustive first step in understanding who was writing about the city and why. It therefore opens many further avenues of research that will be of interest, in particular to scholars of France’s second largest city and the discourses that have defined it.

Kathryn Kleppinger
The George Washington University