Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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News & Features » December 2015 » Cédric Fabre’s Introduction to Marseille Noir

Cédric Fabre’s Introduction to Marseille Noir

To celebrate the release of Marseille Noir, the latest from Akashic’s Noir Series, we’re pleased to give you a look at editor Cédric Fabre‘s introduction, “Marseille Calling.”

Marseille Calling

In 1900, after fifty years of unprecedented growth and modernization that radically transformed the city, Marseille was the queen of the Mediterranean, tirelessly drawing its power from the vast French colonial empire. In the eyes of the writer and reporter Albert Londres, it had acquired the status of an “imaginary court in a universal palace of trade.” Its decline began in the 1960s, when France lost its colonies, and this accelerated with the oil crises of the following decade.

Marseille’s past glory is still visible through its industrial remains: old, abandoned oil refineries, soap and brick factories you come upon at a bend in the road between L’Estaque and Callelongue. Today, moving through the city from one end to the other can feel like a dive into a socioeconomic slump, with its decrepit villages and its housing projects in constant decay and an unemployment rate sometimes over 50 percent.

A postindustrial city might be defined by the distance that separates it from its golden age, because it’s at the heart of that space-time—when a page of glorious history has been turned—that the mythologies and fantasies, the resentments and nostalgias that play a part in shaking up and rebuilding its identity, are formed. For if its changes are sometimes blindingly obvious, its permanent features become more tangible. “Marseille, always bound for elsewhere,” wrote the French author and songwriter Pierre Mac Orlan. Unfortunately, the horizon seems—let’s say momentarily to remain optimistic—out of reach, and the city is still trying to figure out a future for itself . . . And indeed, it does keep transforming, sometimes for the best, if only in its outward appearance. It was named the 2013 European Capital of Culture, and our dream is that a stimulus like this will be the opportunity for a new chapter. A city of tragedy—it is partly Greek—Marseille does, however, have resources, and can count on its formidably dynamic youth.

Marseille is a “world city”—which makes one think of London more than Paris, in many ways—a crossroads for the people of Europe and the Mediterranean, a city that welcomes all migrants and exiles. It is a city that embodies the rabble-rousing, tough-guy side of the whole French nation. People like its cocky humor and its accent as much as they fear its spirit of rebellion. In fact, its identity is often reduced to a sports slogan, Proud to be Marseillais, which also reflects a feeling of abandonment and helplessness. Here socioeconomic struggle brings people together and unites them just as much as the wins of the Olympique de Marseille soccer team. It has the aura of noir, an aura that its residents often love as much as they hate, enlightened—or blinded—by that southern light. “You can’t understand Marseille if you’re indifferent to its light. It forces you to lower your eyes,” said Jean-Claude Izzo, the extraordinary novelist who finally gave Marseille back its voice after decades of almost no decent literary fiction.

Fooled by clichés that it was partly responsible for creating, Marseille sometimes portrays itself with an unconscious, disorganized strategy to constantly scramble its image. The city is never where you think it is. Local elected officials have often denounced “Marseille bashing” in their speeches, promising to improve its image before they make a commitment to fix its problems. While the cover headline of a Parisian weekly recently read, “Marseille, a Lost Territory for the Republic”—the vast majority of its people respect the laws of the Republic, vote, and pay their taxes, thank you very much—the New York Times declared it was the second must-visit destination, after Rio and before Nicaragua. Marseille is frequently reduced to the capital of delinquency and corruption in France. But for journalists looking for this raw reality, it is often difficult to grasp and define, since it is composed of a multiplicity of fictional fragments.

Marseille’s violence has become the violence of a closed city, wedged between the sea and the hills and thus often turned against itself. The killings linked to drug deals are blown out of proportion; and the reality of the ever-increasing economic gap, between the north and south and the violence it results in, is neglected. Of course there is organized crime . . . Michel Foucault said it’s on the margins that the center is constructed. And local organized crime has been connected to politics for a long time, going back to the German occupation of France during World War II when the Guérini brothers chose the side of Gaston Defferre, an important figure in French history who went on to become the longtime mayor of Marseille. And the image of Marseille as a city of thugs goes back even further: it was in the second half of the nineteenth century that the city acquired the reputation of being dangerous, when crime was becoming “organized” little by little, and it continued all the way to the famous “French connection” of the ’60s and ’70s.

Today the crime tends to be disorganized, fragmented, more violent: the kids mowed down by gunfire are often under twenty-five . . .

In such a context, how can culture be given the place it deserves? Before Marseille was labeled the European Capital of Culture, we were already patching together garage rock concerts, beach parties with deejays, art shows, theater and dance performances, all with a do-it-yourself spirit. Each one in his or her own corner, more or less; private resourcefulness that held little interest for politicians. People deplored Marseille’s constant reluctance to honor its own artists, musicians, and writers—an old tradition. You had to leave in order to succeed. The writer André Suarès, strolling through the neighborhoods of Sainte-Marthe, Saint-André, and Saint-Julien, said that we have always produced saints when poets were needed. Marseille writers are still not highly regarded, neither here nor elsewhere. They’re accused of “doing their Pagnol”—a reference to Marcel Pagnol’s folksy plays that have become classics—before they’re even read, and they remain largely unknown.

Yet how can one write about this city and its people any other way than through fiction? Reality here seems so completely unbelievable. If elsewhere the crime novel can claim a kind of “socio-realism,” in the tradition of Zola or Vallès, here the genre can rapidly turn into social surrealism. Because here, a gang of youths can “rob” a downtown parking garage and manage it for months under the nose of the police, collecting money and raising the gates manually, before anyone finally intervenes; because here, too, when we try to honor a poet like Rimbaud (who died in Marseille) and we can’t find an available stretch of an avenue or alley to bear his name, we settle the matter by baptizing a space in the Saint-Charles train station the Arthur Rimbaud Waiting Room—inaugurated by none other than Patti Smith.

For all these and many more reasons, Marseille provides magnificent material for writing. For a long time, when it still had its eye on the sea, it was in fact a veritable “open city” for writers on shore leave.

“Marseille belongs to whoever comes from the open sea,” observed the poet and novelist Blaise Cendrars. Stendhal, Zola, and Mérimée wrote of its excess, its fiery personality, and its cosmopolitanism. It welcomed some of the greatest globe-trotting writers: Joseph Conrad, Albert Londres, Pierre Mac Orlan, Blaise Cendrars, Walter Benjamin, Mary Jayne Gold, Claude McKay, Anna Seghers, Ousmane Sembene . . . all lost travel writers and novelists, advocates of a vagabond literature that turned Marseille into one of the capitals of “world fiction” well before the English defined the concept. The literary journal Les Cahiers du Sud, which was founded by Jean Ballard in 1925 and lasted into the mid-’60s, was a brilliant illustration of this. At the same time, poets and lovers of literature were growing up in the city, from Victor Gélu to Louis Brauquier, as well as André Suarès, all largely forgotten today. It’s not surprising that it became a capital of rap and slam poetry, for Marseille knows, intimately, what “popular culture” means . . .

Thus, approaching the city through the genre called “noir” seemed to make sense—even if this genre, supposing that it actually exists, encompasses different realities, since each author is free to define it from his or her own perspective. A number of the writers who agreed to contribute to Marseille Noir don’t write crime fiction or any other type of “genre fiction.” Some grew up outside of Marseille and have just settled in the Phocaean city; others were born here and then left for other horizons. They come from diverse cultures—and sometimes languages—but all of them participated in the construction of this fictional cartography of Marseille—or is it a monograph?—with their own imaginary visions. All have their own re-creations, or even their own distorted memories or selective amnesia . . . We had no intention, of course, of spotlighting some school of writing or literary movement, nor of speaking with only one voice, nor of coconstructing an exhaustive or realistic portrait of our city. Rather, our goal was to present different ways of seeing.

This anthology is neither a comprehensive survey nor a compilation, and still less an enumeration of the emblematic places of the city. An anti-guidebook? Maybe. If Marseille Noir does have any homogeneity, it’s mostly because the authors put Marseille at the heart of their stories, because the city here is omniscient, omnipresent, and recurrent—a character in its own right. Some stories resonate with each other and we marvel at the discovery that sometimes it is in the interstices, in invisible points of junction between two stories, that magic exists . . . for we’re betting that in literature, everything is a matter of secret, mysterious correspondences.

In this collection, we have retained crime fiction’s predilection for a literature rooted in a specific place, as well as its obsession with the power of the connection between the individual and his or her environment, between the individual and the community.

Some authors chose to infuse humor into their dark tales, as when Philippe Carrese, who began writing a series of crime novels about Marseille in the mid-’90s, depicts ordinary cagoles (sluts) and cacous (show-offs), eternal victims of themselves and of the city that made them. A comical tone is also found in Serge Scotto’s writing, as he relates the tribulations of a bohemian apprentice in the iconic neighborhood of la Plaine at the end of the ’80s, an island of punkness in a city which was then turning to rap.

At times the city seems to circle around the Vieux-Port, where fishermen have given way to yachtsmen, and narrow streets swarm with exhausted, bitter characters who can’t cope anymore, because behind the flashy façade, the world is an open-air garbage dump, as Pia Peterson shows us. François Beaune sets his story on the 49 bus, with exhilarating verve, where he presents a Marseille that can test one’s patience and lead to angry outbursts. Minna Sif, whose story takes place partly in Belsunce, the cosmopolitan heart of Marseille, describes a city woven like a net that imprisons its prey, a city of wandering and waiting that can feel like the last stop. In some stories, the city appears almost as a hopeless dead end for bad boys on the lam, like the characters of René Frégni and Emmanuel Loi, who, each in his own way, present stories of vengeance and gangland killings, the stuff local legends are made of. For Marseille loves these urban myths—especially if they’re rooted in cult places like Vélodrome Stadium where François Thomazeau sets his story, or Endoume, through which Christian Garcin walks us, with a pinch of nostalgia; or Le Panier, an underworld mecca, revisited here in an insolent, surprising way by Patrick Coulomb.

Salim Hatubou’s political police procedural, which stretches from a housing project in the North End to the far-off Comoros, is quite different from the usual stories of drug dealing. Besides, the dealer isn’t always the way you imagine him, as you see when you follow Rebecca Lighieri’s character in a theoretically harmless location, the zoo. And, moving away from the swarming heart of the city, we land in Le Frioul for an outing in the form of a macabre, grandiose farce penned by Marie Neuser.

Finally, this anthology is an homage to Marseille: “It’s a mess after my own heart,” as Cendrars said. For Marseille also cures us of our obsession to be in control of everything, to get results, to be showered with praise. Because here, where we know how to cultivate a certain sense of self-mockery, we hope we’ve learned at least one essential thing: we know the foreigner is above all oneself.



CÉDRIC FABRE was born in 1968 in Saint-Louis, Senegal, and moved to France at age fourteen. A freelance journalist who runs writing workshops, Fabre’s novels flirt with alternate history (La commune des minots), fantasy, and noir (Marseille’s burning). He lives and works in Marseille. He is the editor of Marseille Noir.

Posted: Dec 8, 2015

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