I have read All The Light We Cannot See again, here in St Malo, holed up in my room on the 3rd floor of the Hotel France et Chateaubriand, facing the sea. It is nighttime—dark and cold tonight. Perhaps the November 1st summer-like weather of today, with its 68 degrees, was the last gasp. I found a wool blanket in the cupboard and it’s piled on tight.
As I reread the St. Malo portions of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, WW2 novel by Anthony Doerr, I can’t help but feel the chill of the story. Today I went looking for and found the legendary 4 rue Valborel, the apartment of Marie-Laure and extended family, after nearly missing the building. The building is a large one, six stories high and wide, just inside the rampart walls on the western side of the inner city, Intra Muros. The building across the street from Marie- Laure’s is number 1 rue Valborel, and there is nothing between them on the street. Buildings two and three are missing. Each building is massive. But my self-annotated city map only had the street name, not the precise location. Sometimes it pays to turn around and look behind. Voila! Number 4 is marked in the cornerstone of the doorway.
Funny thing, 4 rue Valborel is a post-war stone block apartment building while 1 rue Valborel looks like I imagined 4 should look with old stone walls, old exterior light fixtures. The two buildings face one another.
Then again, in the story Marie-Laure’s building takes a big hit from the bombs, so perhaps there is some truth in the story. In fact there seems to be a lot of truth to the location of the story here when you are walking the cobblestoned rues.
I actually walked from 4 rue Valborel counting storm drains today, following directions in the book toward the bakery. Marie-Laure, the girl in the story, is blind and counts her way with her cane across Paris and St Malo. It’s a compelling element of the story. I missed a street corner and had to retrace my steps once, that’s how intently I was counting. I was trying to decide what constitutes a drain cover. The round ones? The flat kind that cover where the downspouts cross the sidewalk? (Questions remain because I had trouble making my number of storm drains match those of the book. )
But with my self-annotated city map in hand,
I wandered the right neighborhood, stopped in for a buckwheat galete and Russian tea at Le pie que boit café (the magpie who drinks) adjacent to a lovely bookstore that claims to have books in English. In both places I had chatty visits about Doerr’s novel, which neither proprietor has heard of. The novel is not here yet— not in French, not in paperback, and seemingly not even in English.
Call me the canary in the mine. Apparently I am the first wave of tourism in St. Malo following the book’s path, or at least the first person snooping around two blocks from where most of the action of the St. Malo section of the book takes place with enough curiosity to pepper the neighbors with questions. I described myself as the le commencement du vague (the start of the wave) to the bookstore owner, Edmond, who may sell books in English but who does not speak it.
No matter, we conversed just fine in my broken French which is, by the, way improving daily. Edmond asked me if I was an actress, by which I think he really meant a detective. In the end I owned literary detective. I am not accustomed to that title. Then again, my friend David Burke does a fine job of it in Paris. Then again he is dealing with historical truths of Hemingway et al. Honestly I am not sure how bent the narrative is here in St. Malo. I need a historian to sort me out.
Today was a national holiday in France— All Saints Day. Tomorrow the Tourist Office reopens and I have questions for them. They do have a walking tour of sorts relating to literary passages in the book on their web site, which is superb really. They are ahead of the wave. I’m just not sure who will follow.
It is not hard at all to imagine the novel as truth as you wander the narrow streets here, between six-story stone apartment buildings that steal the light from sky. Streets that would be very dark streets without illumination, in wartime for example. The church steeple guides me from street to street, often within view unexpectedly.
The stone and concrete ramparts that top the immense walls surrounding the old city are three or four stories high and it takes climbing steep stone staircases to go from ground level to the wide, street-like ramparts. Sort of an elevated walkway if you will– a very old stone one.
Now and then there are openings in the walls, which allow one to descend to the beach level. I looked carefully for the grotto today. If it exists I do not know where. I must write to Anthony Doerr and find out. The bookseller gave me a lead but it proved inconclusive
One curious thing about fiction is our half-hearted belief that the fictional story is not true. In historical fiction the truth is even murkier. Here in St. Malo the story of sweet and brave Marie-Laure is intensely more believable and upsetting than it ever was 6,000 miles away. I feel her here. I wonder if she was here. If not she, then someone with her story.