“Despite the perpetual rain, the sordid merchants, and the Homeric vulgarity of its carriage drivers, she would always remember Paris as the most beautiful city in the world, not because of what it was or was not in reality, but because it was linked to the memory of her happiest years.” – Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Marquez Garcia
I’m reading (continuing from three months ago, because ‘reading for pleasure without needing to write an essay’ is unthinkable while at uni) this right now, and I came across this passage which is breathtaking in its beauty and truth. A case of someone else setting down what I’ve always felt and never said (c/f Alan Bennett!).
It always amazes me how much places become infused with the memories of certain experiences or people (and I guess obliquely, people are experiences). I don’t think I could ever conceive of Oxford or London without certain people; London would be much sadder and without half its excitement/charms for me without Someone, for example. Paris – which is, for me also, the most beautiful city in the world! (although I didn’t encounter the ‘Homeric vulgarity’ of any carriage drivers….what is Homeric vulgarity?) – is so linked to memories of experiencing winter and Christmas in all their European glory: vin chaud from outside St.-Pierre-de-Montmartre; chocolat chaud; crepes in Montmartre and the Quartier Latin; the Christmas market along the Champs-Élysées!
One lives out one’s life in emotionally distorted spaces: every walk along the Thames or every step in the Tate Modern becomes value-laden, feeling-laden – it constantly gestures back to another time and another feeling. The problem arises in time, because people fade in and out of one’s life and places do not (although there is the transience of rooms and homes, which is another matter entirely – I guess I’m thinking only about cities here). I suppose when that day comes traversing along streets of happy memories will be the saddest thing of all.
Until then though – there is little or no seeing places for what they are in ‘reality’, as Garcia writes; the only reality they have is one which is redolent of anticipations and fears, filtered through desires or one’s particular and momentary mood on a day.
This is also wonderful and not all sad, in its own way: stories lie over cities for me like palimpsests; London is never just my London but has traces of Dickens’s London, and Austen’s; Naipaul’s and Virginia Woolf’s. Paris is never just my Paris but Djuna Barnes’s and Jean Rhys’s; Choderlos de Laclos’s, Flaubert’s. I cannot dream of New York divorced from Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, or Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer. Places become soaked in the memories of books too, and while I may romanticize this excessively, it definitely adds infinite amounts to their beauty and charm for me.
Edit: Oh golly! And merry Christmas everybody! That was a bit of a downer note to end a Christmas post on, now I think of it….!