This poem is a morality tale- or perhaps more aptly an immorality tale- about prostitution. The title suggests the traditional, inspiring story of the sinner who sees the light – the story of the bad character who repented. However Brassens’ title is ironical.
The narrator of the poem was indeed by common judgment a bad character. He was a pimp. In contemporary Britain, it is politically correct to be kinder to prostitutes. They are “sex workers”, but their pimps are still the lowest of the low. However the moral issues here are shown to be complex. If the man’s previous life was despicable, his act of repentance was even more despicable. He abandoned the woman with whom he had lived in a passionate relationship- although by mutual agreement shared with many others- , who had made his fortune and he left her to a grim fate.
His work may have been vile, but we note that he and his partner provided a service to pharmacists, church officials, civil servants and serving police officers. We are aware that her pitch was close to the Chamber of Deputies. Brassens, the anarchist who rejected all outside interference in personal choice is pointing to the absurd contradictions in legislation which aims to prevent payment for sex.
Le mauvais sujet repenti
Elle avait la taill' faite au tour,(1)
She had a most shapely figure
Les hanches pleines,
Full in the hips,
Et chassait l' mâle aux alentours
And hunted the males, roundabout
De La Mad’leine...(2)
À sa façon d' me dir' : "Mon rat,
From her way of saying : « Darling,
Est-c' que j' te tente ?"
D’you fancy me ? »
Je vis que j'avais affaire à
I saw that I was dealing with
A’ raw beginner.
Sh’had the gift, it’s true, I quite agree,
L'avait l' génie
Sh’ had the genius,
Mais sans technique, un don n'est rien
But without technique a gift’s no more
Qu'un' sal' manie...
Than a dirty habit
Certes, on ne se fait pas putain
It’s true you don’t become a whore
Comme on s' fait nonne,
Like you do a’nun
C'est du moins c' qu'on prêche, en latin,
That’s at least what they preach, in Latin
À la Sorbonne...
At the Sorbonne…
Feeling overwhelmed with pity
Pour la donzelle,
For the damsel
J' lui enseignai, de son métier,
I taught her the little secrets
Les p'tit's ficelles...
Of her profession
J' lui enseignai l' moyen d' bientôt
I taught her the real way to soon
Make her fortune
En bougeant l'endroit où le dos
By swaying the place where the back
R'ssemble à la lune...(3)
Looks very like the moon
Car, dans l'art de fair' le trottoir,
For, in the art of street walking,
Je le confesse,
I must confesse
Le difficile est d' bien savoir
What’s hard is to properly know how to
Jouer des fesses...
Exploit the bum
On n' tortill' pas son popotin
You do not wiggle your bottom
D' la mêm' manière,
In the same manner
Pour un droguiste, un sacristain,
For a chemist, a church warden
A civil servant.
Rapidly instructed by
Mes bons offices,
My good offices
Elle m'investit d'une part
She invested in me a share
D' ses bénéfices...(4)
Of her profits
On s'aida mutuellement,
We helped each other mutu’lly
Comm' dit l' poète,(5)
As the poet says
Ell' était l' corps, naturell'ment,
She was the body, natur’lly
Puis moi la tête...
Then me the head..
One evening after
Ell' tomba victim' d'une
She fell the victim of
A shameful illness…
Lors, en tout bien, toute amitié,
Then, rightly, out of true friendship
En fille probe,
An upright girl,
Elle me passa la moitié
She passed on to me one half
De ses microbes...
Of her microbes
After sev’ral sharp injections
J'abandonnai l' métier d' cocu
I gave up the career of cuckold
Systematic......Elle eut beau pousser des sanglots,
It was in vain she gave deep sighs
Braire à tue-tête,
Brayed at full blast
Comme je n'étais qu'un salaud,
As I was nothing but a swine
J' me fis honnête...
I turned honest.
Straight off, stripped of my protection
Ma pauvre amie
My poor girlfriend
Courut essuyer du bordel
Ran to endure life in brothels
The shame of it…
Paraît qu'ell' s' vend même à des flics,
Seems she sells herself to coppers
Quell' décadence !
What decadence !
Y'a plus d' moralité publiqu'
There’s no public morality now
Dans notre France...
In our France……
1953 - Les amoureux des bancs publics
1) fait au tour – le tour is the lathe and so a part of the body that is « fait au tour » is well-turned, shapely.
2) La Madeleine – The area around the historic building of the Madelaine has long been regarded as a hunting ground for prostitutes. As their clientele in this area was from a better class, the women would be a better class of prostitute.
3) Brassens was a great admirer of a rounded female bottom and uses the moon analogy frequently. See Vénus Callipyge
4) N.B.The irony of his squalid arrangement being presented as a standard business contract.
5) Brassens lived with his book of La Fontaine’s fables. In La Fontaine’s « L’Aveugle et le Paralytique », there are the lines :
La charge des malheurs en sera plus légère