Thursday, 9 October 2014

Le fantôme - Brassens intimate encounter with a ghost

This is the amusing story of his own very vivid encounter with a ghost and their fleeting relationship - very Brassensesque  !

C'était tremblant, c'était troublant(1),
C'était vêtu d'un drap tout blanc,
Ça présentait tous les symptômes,
Tous les dehors(2) de la vision,
Les faux airs de l'apparition,
En un mot, c'était un fantôme !

À sa manière d'avancer,
À sa façon de balancer
Des hanches quelque peu convexes(3),
Je compris que j'avais affaire
À quelqu'un du genr' que j'préfère
À un fantôme du beau sexe.

"Je suis un p'tit Poucet perdu (4),
Me dit-ell', d'un' voix morfondue(5),
Un pauvre fantôme en déroute(6).
Plus de trace des feux follets,
Plus de trace des osselets(7)
Dont j'avais jalonné ma route !

"Des poèt's sans inspiration
Auront pris - quelle aberration -
Mes feux follets pour des étoiles.
De pauvres chiens de commissaire
Auront croqué - quelle misère ! -
Mes oss'lets bien garnis de moelle.

"À l'heure où le coq chantera,
J’aurai bonn' mine avec mon drap
Plein de faux plis et de coutures !
Et dans ce siècle profane où
Les gens ne croient plus guère à nous(8),
On va crier à l'imposture. "

Moi, qu'un chat perdu fait pleurer,
Pensez si j'eus le cœur serré
Devant l'embarras du fantôme.
"Venez, dis-je en prenant sa main,
Que je vous montre le chemin,
Que je vous reconduise at home."

L'histoire finirait ici
Mais la brise, et je l'en r'mercie,
Troussa le drap de ma cavalière(9)...
Dame, il manquait quelques oss'lets,
Mais le reste, loin d'être laid,
Était d'un' grâce singulière.

Mon Cupidon, qui avait la
Flèche facile en ce temps-là,
Fit mouche(10) et, le feu sur les tempes,
Je conviai, sournoisement(11),
La belle à venir un moment
Voir mes icônes, mes estampes(12)...

"Mon cher, dit-elle, vous êtes fou !
J'ai deux mille ans de plus que vous...
— Le temps, madam', que nous importe !"
Mettant le fantôm' sous mon bras,
Bien enveloppé dans son drap,
Vers mes pénates(13) je l'emporte !

Eh bien, messieurs, qu'on se le dise :
Ces belles dames de jadis
Sont de satanées(14) polissonnes(15),
Plus expertes dans le déduit(16)
Que certain's dames d'aujourd'hui,
Et je ne veux nommer personne(17) !

Au p'tit jour on m'a réveillé,
On secouait mon oreiller
Avec un' fougu' plein' de promesses.
Mais, foin des délic's de Capoue !
C'était mon père criant : "Debout !
Vains dieux, tu vas manquer la messe !"

Mais, foin des délic's de Capoue !
C'était mon père criant : "Debout !
Vains dieux, tu vas manquer la messe !"

It was trembling, it was troubling,
It was dressed in sheet of pure white,
It presented all the symptoms,
All the aura of a vision,
The false airs of an apparition,
In short, it was indeed a ghost!  

By the way it moved towards me,
By the manner in which it swayed
Its hips a wee bit rounded
I understood I was dealing
With someone o’ the gender I prefer
With a ghost of the fair sex.  

"I'm a P'tit Poucet castaway,
She tells me in crestfallen tones,
A poor ghost totally vanquished."
No trace left o’ will-o’-the-wisps
No trace left of the tiny bones
With which I had marked out my route!  

"Poets lacking inspiration
Seem to have mistaken- how wrong –
My will ‘f the wisps for clustered stars.
Some poor police dogs on the chase
Seem to have gobbled – how awful! –
My bones well furnished with marrow.  

"By the time the first cock will crow,
I will look a sight with my drape
All full of wrong creases and torn!"
And these profane times we live in
When folk scarce believe in us still,
They will shout that I'm just a fake.”

"I, whom a lost cat moves to tears
Think how my heart was afflicted
Faced with the ghost’s predicament.
"Come along, I said taking her hand,
Allow me to show you the way
Let me take you back to your home."  

The story would finish right here
But the breeze, and my thanks for it,
Parted the drape of my companion...
Damn, a few small bones were missing,
But the rest, far from be’ng ugly,
Was of exceptional grace.  

My Cupid, who was very slick
With his arrows in those days,
Hit the mark and my temples fired,
I invited, insidiously,
The beauty to come a moment
To see my icons, n’ engravings...  

"My dear”, she said “you're crazy!
I’m two thousand years more than you...”
“- Time, madam', what does that matter!"
Putting the ghost under my arm,
Well wrapped up in her drapery
To my family home I took her!   

Well, gentlemen, let it be told:
These beautiful ladies of old
Are the hell of sexy devils,
More expert in art of loveplay
Than certain ladies of today,
And I’m not naming anyone! 

 At first light I was awoken,
By some-one shaking my pillow
With an ardour full of promise.
But ,pon the hay of Capua!
T’was my father shouting: "Get up!
"Yee gods, you're going to miss mass!"  

But ,pon the hay of Capua!
T’was my father shouting: "Get up!
"Yee gods, you're going to miss mass!"  

Le Fantôme - Translation notes
1)               tremblant, c'était troublant – Brassens is using an effective alliteration and as both words are used in English we can retain this
2)               les dehors de la vision – « Les dehors » are the outward appearances, e.g. Robert quotes : « sous des dehors aimables, il est dur » = under a friendly exterior, he is a hard man.  As I will need synonyms for the word appearance, I note these options : airs- (false) front – mannerism - putting on airs – show – aura – semblance – bearing – effect – feeling – presence  - look.
3)               quelque peu convexes, - Brassens was great admirer of a nicely rounded bottom see VénusCallipyge

4)               un p'tit Poucet perdu – to describe how the ghost is lost and alone, Brassens relates her to the character, of an ancient fairy tale, well-known in France,.  This tale had existed in the spoken tradition for centuries at the time in the 17th century when it was translated and adapted by Charles Perrault   Petit Poucet is the main character in this tale.  He and his brothers and sisters were taken out into the forest by their parents, who could not afford to keep them, with the intention of losing them so that they would be killed and eaten by the fierce animals and ogres that inhabited it.  (Like many of the traditional fairy-tales, it is horrific and sadistic.)
5)               d'un' voix morfondue – « morfondu » means « dejected »- « crestfallen »
6)               en déroute - -« mettre en déroute » means to rout/ to put to flight
7)                      osselets in both English and French are arthritic lumps on a horse’s fetlock.  There is a word    “ossicles”, which are small bones of the middle ear.  In the story of Petit Poucet, Petit Poucet knowing his parents’s intentions dropped a trail of pebbles so that he could retrace his steps to get back home.  It seems that Brassens is using “osselets” to mean little bones and he pictures the alluring skeleton ghost leaving her track by using her own tiny bones.  At one point in the tale Petit Poucet chose items for his track that were eaten by the animals of the forest
8)               The ghost is justified in saying that not many people believe in ghosts these days, but a British T.V. show called “Most Haunted” wins a big viewing audience.
9)               Cavalière – literally- female dancing partner.
10)            Fit mouche – « Faire mouche » means to hit the bulls-eye, to score, to hit home.
11)            Sournoisement – sournois means deceitful- underhand
12)            Voir mes icônes, mes estampes -  The phrase "Want to come up and see my etchings?" is a sexual euphemism by which a person entices someone to come back to their place with an offer to look at something artistic, but with ulterior motives.  Wikipedia gives the full history at this link. 
13)            mes pénates – In Ancient Rome the Penates were the gods of the household and they were worshipped.  The word comes from “Penus” – a Latin word for food (more usually alimentum). The French use “pénates” as a figurative expression for home as in this poem.  Robert quotes the example: "regagner ses pénates"- to go back home.
14)            Satanées – « satané » is an oath such as “blasted” – “damn”- “confounded”
15)            Polissonnes – polisson means naughty as in “naughty child ». but as in English can have the sense of saucy – randy – somewhat sexy e.g. you may be told – “There were some naughty goings on at the party last night.”
16)            le déduit = enjoyment/ act of lovemaking.  In old French « déduire » had the sense of « divertir”. 
17)   Et je ne veux nommer personne -  I strongly suspect that the person, whom he would not name, would be in the wings as he sang this song.  Joha Heiman, who was his closest companion in his later years, seems to have lost interest in the physical side of their relationship, while keeping a close eye to ensure that Brassens did not find consolation elsewhere - see- Je me suis fait tout petit    Brassens makes repeated reference to his sexual deprivation in his songs - see Aupres de mon arbre.
18)    un' fougu' – la fougue means- ardour- exhibiting a fiery, lively spirit.
19)  Capua is a city in Campania, Southern Italy.  After Hannibal’s rout of the Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC, he allowed his army a period of rest there, before his final assault on Rome.  The Roman historian, Livy, states that the delights of the town and its ladies, were so great that his army was not in fit shape for battle afterwards- hence Brassens choice of oath after an apparent night of sensual indulgence. (N.B.Other historians maintain that Hannibal’s men fought equally hard after their winter break in Capua and so it probably did them no harm)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Brassens and death
Death was a major theme -some claim the major theme- of Brassens’ songs.  It is said that all his life he was attracted to cemeteries and enjoyed going to funerals, even of those with whom he did not have any close connection.

In this song, he meets one of the dead and together they enjoy close relations, but at the very end it turns out to have been nothing but a strange dream that he had had in his early youth, when he was still living at home and was still a practising Catholic under the strict religious discipline of his mother.  

As it is a dream about a ghost there is a temptation to use the word "nightmare", but the way Brassens tells it, in spite of the oddity, it is more like the "Sweet dreams" we wish each other at bedtime.  One is bound to reflect that some of the sweetest moments of life are those that you waken up from. 

In this boyhood dream, as retold by the older man, there are ideas on death and the afterlife that are found in quite a number of other Brassens songs.

The idea of continuing sexuality after death is found in his song Oncle Archibald, where he consoles himself that his Uncle’s sudden death was the instant occasion for his sensual matrimonials with the female angel of death.  Similarly when he envisages his own death and burial in Supplique pour être enterré à la plage de Sète, he imagines himself appreciating the experience when ladies come to use the mound of his seaside grave as a seat, when they change into bikinis to go bathing.

Although Brassens had given up his Catholic religion, he seemed to take for granted the existence of an afterlife.  However, whereas the traditional Christian concept of heaven is the medieval ideal representing the power and magnificence of the elite, with king and judges in palatial settings, Brassens’ world of the dead is a relaxing, everyday and democratic place, Here he can at last live without the threat of mortality, that had haunted him all of his living days.  Luxuriously,he can imagine spending eternity on a pedalo off the beach at Sète.  According to "le Phantome", Georges Brassens had the same instinctive feeling at the age of sixteen or seventeen. 

I think that Brassens would have sympathised with the great American poet, Emily Dickinson, who had a vision of heaven during one of her attacks of epilepsy and  found it such an ordinary understated place, in spite of its absolute beauty and total peace.  She describes her experience in the following poem:

I Went To Heaven :
I went to heaven, -

'Twas a small town,

Lit with a ruby,

Lathed with down.
Stiller than the fields
At the full dew,
Beautiful as pictures
No man drew.
People like the moth,
Of mechlin, frames,
Duties of gossamer,
And eider names.
Almost contented
I could be
'Mong such unique

 I have made a brief study of this poem on my Carla Bruni site; To access this site and to hear Carla Bruni's song adaptation please click the following link:I wentto heaven

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Le vent - A lively song that celebrates Le Pont Des Arts in Paris

This is a very jolly, lively song, not too serious I would think, in which Brassens celebrates one of the most famous landmarks of Paris – the footbridge over the Seine called Le Pont des Arts.  The following photo beautifully captures its setting in the heart of Paris. 

For history of the bridge click this link to the Wikipediaarticle.  

Brassens is amused that the wind, no respecter of persons of whatever kind, mischievously strikes the bridge  with its strong gusts, discomforting and embarrassing stuffy people of all social classes.

- Le vent
Si , par hasard ,
Sur l' pont des Arts ,
Tu crois's le vent , le vent fripon ,
Prudenc' , prends garde à ton jupon !
Si , par hasard ,
Sur l' pont des Arts ,
Tu crois's le vent , le vent maraud ,
Prudent , prends garde à ton chapeau !

Les jean-foutre et les gens probes
Médis'nt du vent furibond
Qui rebrousse les bois ,
Détrouss' les toits ,
Retrouss' les robes ...
Des jean-foutre et des gens probes ,
Le vent , je vous en réponds ,
S'en soucie , et c'est justic' ,
comm' de colin-tampon

Si, par hasard,
Sur l' pont des Arts,
Tu crois's le vent, le vent fripon,
Prudenc', prends garde à ton jupon !
Si, par hasard,
Sur l' pont des Arts,
Tu crois's le vent, le vent maraud,
Prudenc', prends garde à ton chapeau !

Bien sûr , si l'on ne se fonde
Que sur ce qui saute aux yeux ,
Le vent semble une brut'
raffolant de nuire à tout l' monde
Mais une attention profonde
Prouv' que c'est chez les fâcheux
Qu'il préfèr' choisir les victim's de ses petits jeux

Si, par hasard,
Sur l' pont des Arts,
Tu crois's le vent, le vent fripon,
Prudenc', prends garde à ton jupon !
Si, par hasard,
Sur l' pont des Arts,
Tu crois's le vent, le vent maraud,
Prudenc', prends garde à ton chapeau !

The wind
If, by some chance,
On th’ Pont des Arts,
You meet the wind, the impish wind
Take care, hold tight onto your skirt!
If by some chance,
On th’ Pont des Arts
You meet the wind, the rascal wind
Watch out, hold tight onto your hat!

The prim folk and the dishevelled
Malign the furious wind
Which lifts the woodwork,
Strips tiles off roofs,
Blows dresses high….
Of prim folk and the dishevelled ,
The wind,  I guarantee you,
Frets about it, and quite rightly,
Not in the slightest bit.

If, by some chance,
On th’ Pont des Arts,
You meet the wind, the impish wind
Take care, hold tight onto your skirt!
If by some chance,
On th’ Pont des Arts
You meet the wind, the rascal wind
Watch out, hold tight onto your hat!

Of course if you base yourself on
Only your first impression
Then the wind seems to be a brute
Crazy to do everyone harm
But a deep examination
Proves it's  from the most quick tempered  
He prefers to choose the victims of his little games.

If, by some chance,
On th’ Pont des Arts,
You meet the wind, the impish wind
Take care, hold tight onto your skirt!
If by some chance,
On th’ Pont des Arts
You meet the wind, the rascal wind
Watch out, hold tight onto your hat!

Georges Brassens - 1953 - Les amoureux des bancs publics

Le Vent - Translation Notes (The Vocabulary)
crois's le vent ,= (Croiser quelque chose) to chance to run into/ to bump into something - to pass someone or something coming in the opposite direction.
le vent fripon - the mischievous/ cheeky wind
le vent maraud – the rascally wind
Jean-foutre – My Petit Larousse tells me that "Je m'en foutisme" = insouciance.  that means not giving a care about anything.
des gens probes ,  upstanding upright right-minded. (  There is a contrast here that can make you think that  Brassens is, typically, making a reference to social disparity.   In this context, I think though, that he is merely saying here that the two extremes of contrasting dress styles reveal the complete range of people picked on by the mischievous wind.)
 Médis'nt du vent  (Médire de) –slander –speak ill of
vent furibond – furious – livid – angry wind
rebrousse les bois – brush up (e.g. hair) in the wrong direction
Détrouss' les toits – Strip the roofs -Détrousser means to rob violently (eg in a hold up)- to fleece you of your possessions
Retrouss' les robes – hitch up/ hike up dresses – roll up (sleeves)
Il ne soucie pas de- he does not care about - he has no regard to
colin-tampon  a nothing – a trifle – a thing of no importance – 
répondre de qch – to vouch for something
cela saute aux yeux – it sticks out a mile – it’s quite obvious – you can’t miss it
raffolant de – raffoler de means – to be mad about – to be crazy about- to be wild about
fâcheux – upsetting – annoying ie something that is a nuisance or a pain – disagreeable/ unpleasant – unfortunate/ untoward.  I use "bad tempered." It is self-evident that those who, because their clothing has been violently blown about, become very annoyed or angry, will, at that moment at least, be the most bad tempered.  This is Brassens' little joke.

The following photo shows two characteristics of the bridge- the venue for young romance and the unpredictable gusts of wind:

Please click here to return to the alphabetical list of my Brassens selection

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

L'Assassinat- A tale with great pathos of crime and punishment

The details of this tale may be brutal, but Brassens has written a haunting song.  When the client of a prostitute refuses to pay the reasonable price that her youth and beauty merited and her minder comes to intervene, we can expect things to get very nasty.  In spite of the violence, this is a song of great pathos and many performers of Brassens’ music include “L’Assassinat” in their repertoire.

 L'assassinat - 

C'est pas seulement à Paris
It is not in Paris alone
Que le crime fleurit,
That serious crime(1) is rife
Nous, au village, aussi, l'on a
We in the country too, we have
De beaux assassinats.
Some fine murder cases.

Il avait la tête chenu’ (2)
His hair was white with his years
Et le coeur ingénu,
His heart was innocent
Il eut un retour de printemps
He felt a revival of spring
Pour une de vingt ans.
For a girl of twenty.

Mais la chair fraîch’, la tendre chair,
Burt flesh that’s fresh, flesh that’s tender,
Mon vieux, ça coûte cher.
Old chap, that is expensive
Au bout de cinq à six baisers,
After just five or six kisses
Son or fut épuisé.
He’d outspent all he had.

Quand sa menotte elle a tendu’(3),
When she proffered her tiny hand
Triste, il a répondu
Sad, he said in reply
Qu'il était pauvre comme Job.
That he was as poor as Job.
Elle a remis sa rob’.
She put back on her dress.

Elle alla quérir son coquin(4)
She went off to get her bad guy
Qui avait l'appât du gain(5).
Who was out for what he could get.
Sont revenus chez le grigou(6)
They came back to the skinflint’s home
Faire un bien mauvais coup(7).
To perform some dastardly deed

Et pendant qu'il le lui tenait,
Whilst he was holding him for her
Elle l'assassinait.
'twas she did the killing.
On dit que, quand il expira,
They say, at the moment of death,
La langue ell' lui montra.
She had put out her tongue at him
Mirent tout sens dessus dessous,
With the place turned upside down
Trouvèrent pas un sou,
They found not a cent,
Mais des lettres de créanciers,
But some letters from creditors,
Mais des saisi’s d'huissiers.
But lists of bailiffs’ seizures.

Alors, prise d'un vrai remords,
And then, gripped by true remorse
Elle eut chagrin du mort
She grieved for the dead man
Et, sur lui, tombant à genoux,
And dropping to kneel over him
Ell' dit : "Pardonne-nous !"
She pleaded “Forgive us!”

Quand les gendarm's sont arrivés,
When the policemen arrived there,
En pleurs ils l'ont trouvé’(8).
In tears they did find her.
C'est une larme au fond des yeux
'twas a tear deep down in her eyes
Qui lui valut les cieux.
Which earned her a place in heaven.

Et le matin qu'on la pendit,
And the morning when they hanged her
Ell' fut en paradis.
To paradise she went.
Certains dévots, depuis ce temps
Some religious folk since this time
Sont un peu mécontents.(9)
Have been somewhat displeased.

C'est pas seulement à Paris
It is not in Paris alone
Que le crime fleurit,
That serious crime is rife
Nous, au village, aussi, l'on a
We in the country too, we have
De beaux assassinats.
Some fine murder cases.

L'ASSASSINAT  Translation notes


1)      serious crime-  I am adding an adjective to give a 6 syllable line as in the French.

2)      Chenu – ayant la tête chenue means having a head of hair white with age
3)      Sa menotte elle a tendue – The most usual meaning of « La menotte” is the handcuffs.  However in informal talk, for instance to children it has the meaning of “hand”.  In English an informal word for hand is sometimes “mitt”- e.g. “See if you can get your mitts on a smart pair of trousers for me.”  “Paw” also is sometimes used.

4)      Son coquin – « Coquin » as a noun or an adjective describes some-one who is vile, without honour or honesty. It is therefore a term used as insult.  The term can imply sexual immorality:  “la coquine” means the loose woman, the whore and “le coquin” -the “vile” man who, in this story, would be the girl’s pimp.

5)      Qui avait l'appât du gain – « l'appât » translates “the lure” or “the bait” i.e terms used in fishing and hunting.  “Le gain” is profit, remuneration, money-making. – he was very attracted to making money.

6)      Le grigou –a word used in the Langedoc region for a very mean-spirited miser.

7)      Faire un bien mauvais coup – Reverso dictionary gives 2 alternatives: They say un mauvais coup is a familiar expression for- i). acte malveillant – a malicious act ii). affaire qui se révèle infructueuse – an affair that turns out to have unhelpful consequences. “Faire un sale coup à q’n” translates: “to play a dirty trick on some-one”.

8)      En pleurs ils l'ont trouvée – The girl’s recognition of her evil deed and her total remorse is totally conveyed by her behaviour.  She did not seek to escape but accepted her inevitable fate as though her life had no more meaning.

9)      Certains dévots, depuis ce temps sont un peu mécontents. -  Some commentators have said that the only villain in this tale is the girl’s pimp – the girl was redeemed by her repentance, and her client was an innocent man, in desperate straits, who genuinely failed to calculate the price that his pleasures were incurring.  These final lines, however, mention two further guilty parties traditional in the songs of the Anarchist, Georges Brassens, for their violation of natural justice: the Church and the State with their autocratic laws.
The Church
Although repentance and forgiveness followed by salvation were among the prime teachings of Christianity, Church authorities took it upon themselves to decree upon whom God granted this mercy. Brassens says, disapprovingly, that some devout people still refused to forgive the poor girl.
The State legal system
Brassens was no friend of the lawyers, but the particular target of his reproach was their use of the ultimate penalty of capital punishment (see Le Gorille).  His blunt statement of the hanging of this 20 year old girl comes as a shock.

There is a very atmospheric recording of this song by the contemporary French singer Francart and it has excellent subtitles

A comment after the post on YouTube expressed the admiration for Francart that I feel as well:

lizziecohen commented 3 years ago
This song is brilliant because it is so impacting in its human story. Francart's voice carries the emotion and the simple guitar accompaniment allows the lyrics to take hold with its underscoring of them. The story doesn't just go away when the song ends. I still hear his playing and his voice and the tragedy of the story still resonates.

Please click here toreturn to the alphabetical list of my Brassens selection

About Me

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Notes on the classics of French literature. During my years of teaching, I wrote thousands of pages for my students. Preferring not to discard all these years of work, I am posting them on the Internet as a resource for teachers and students and I am using my blogsite as the portal in order to give access to the individual books. During my university course, I was an Assistant for one year in Arras and my nostalgia for Georges Brassens stems from these happy days- now long gone- when his songs were first being recorded and he was all the rage among the student surveillants. When I opened this Blogsite many years ago, I used David Barfield, my maternal family name, as my Internet alias. My actual name is David Yendley and if any of my past students come across this site, I send them my best wishes. They were great company to be with.