Friday, 5 July 2013

La femme d'Hector - Or perhaps it's Jeanne, the wife of M. Planche


A characteristic of Brassens’ life was the close band of male friends that he enjoyed being a part of.  In his song of 1964, “Les Copainsd’abord” he describes his inseparable mates who used to join him on his boat off the South coast of France.

  In “La femme d’Hector” it is the band of mates that he was part of in Paris before he knew success.  Crowded together in the poverty of their slum neighbourhood around the Impasse Florimont, the families appear to have lived in each other’s pockets. 


In this lighthearted, unsentimental song from his earlier album of 1958, Brassens concentrates on the outstanding wife of one member of his Paris group.  We are left to speculate about her identity and the intimacy that Brassens shared with her.  Some-one has claimed that he actually knew this woman who was a very respectable  friend and neighbour, a perfect wife and totally loyal to her husband.


I think he is mistaken and those of us who have made an extended study of Brassens’ songs, would probably make a different guess about her identity.  In the last verses he says that it is to this one lady that he dedicates his art.










En notre tour de Babel
Laquelle est la plus belle,
La plus aimable(2) parmi
Les femmes de nos amis ?
Laquelle est notre vraie nounou(3)
La p'tite sœur des pauvres de nous(4)
Dans le guignon(5) toujours présente
Quelle est cette fée bienfaisante ?



C'est pas la femme de Bertrand(6)
Pas la femme de Gontrand
Pas la femme de Pamphile
C'est pas la femme de Firmin
Pas la femme de Germain
Ni celle de Benjamin
C'est pas la femme d'Honoré
Ni celle de Désiré
Ni celle de Théophile
Encore moins la femme de Nestor
Non, c'est la femme d'Hector.



Comme nous dansons devant
Le buffet (7) bien souvent
On a toujours peu ou prou(8)
Les bas criblés de trous
Qui raccommode ces malheurs
De fils de toutes les couleurs
Qui brode, divine cousette (9),
Des arcs-en-ciel à nos chaussettes?(10)


C'est pas la femme de Bertrand
Pas la femme de Gontrand
Pas la femme de Pamphile
C'est pas la femme de Firmin
Pas la femme de Germain
Ni celle de Benjamin
C'est pas la femme d'Honoré
Ni celle de Désiré
Ni celle de Théophile
Encore moins la femme de Nestor
Non, c'est la femme d'Hector.



Quand on nous prend la main sac-
-ré bon dieu dans un sac(11)
Et qu'on nous envoie planter
Des choux à la santé
Quelle est celle qui, prenant modèle
Sur(12) les vertus des chiens fidèles
Reste à l'arrêt(13) devant la porte
En attendant qu'on en ressorte ?


C'est pas la femme de Bertrand
Pas la femme de Gontrand
Pas la femme de Pamphile
C'est pas la femme de Firmin
Pas la femme de Germain
Ni celle de Benjamin
C'est pas la femme d'Honoré
Ni celle de Désiré
Ni celle de Théophile
Encore moins la femme de Nestor
Non, c'est la femme d'Hector.



Et quand l'un d'entre nous meurt
Qu'on nous met en demeure
De(14) débarrasser l'hôtel(15)
De ses restes mortels
Quelle est celle qui r'mue tout Paris
Pour qu'on lui fasse, au plus bas prix
Des funérailles gigantesques
Pas nationales, non, mais presque ?



C'est pas la femme de Bertrand
Pas la femme de Gontrand
Pas la femme de Pamphile
C'est pas la femme de Firmin
Pas la femme de Germain
Ni celle de Benjamin
C'est pas la femme d'Honoré
Ni celle de Désiré
Ni celle de Théophile
Encore moins la femme de Nestor
Non, c'est la femme d'Hector.




Et quand vient le mois de mai
Le joli temps d'aimer
Que sans écho, dans les cours,
Nous hurlons à l'amour
Quelle est celle qui nous plaint beaucoup
Quelle est celle qui nous saute au cou
Qui nous dispense sa tendresse
Toutes ses économies d'caresses ?(16)



C'est pas la femme de Bertrand
Pas la femme de Gontrand
Pas la femme de Pamphile
C'est pas la femme de Firmin
Pas la femme de Germain
Ni celle de Benjamin
C'est pas la femme d'Honoré
Ni celle de Désiré
Ni celle de Théophile
Encore moins la femme de Nestor
Non, c'est la femme d'Hector.




Ne jetons pas les morceaux (17)
De nos cœurs aux pourceaux
Perdons pas notre latin (18)
Au profit des pantins
Chantons pas la langue des dieux
Pour les balourds, les fesse-Mathieu(20)-
Les paltoquets, ni les bobèches(21-22)
Les foutriquets, ni les pimbêches,(23-24)



Ni pour la femme de Bertrand
Pour la femme de Gontrand
Pour la femme de Pamphile
Ni pour la femme de Firmin
Pour la femme de Germain
Pour celle de Benjamin
Ni pour la femme d'Honoré
La femme de Désiré
La femme de Théophile
Encore moins pour la femme de Nestor
Mais pour la femme d'Hector.

In our tower of Babel
Which woman is best looking 
Which most lovable among
The wives of our close friends?
Which one is our true nanny
Li’l sister of poor little us 
In the bad times ever present
Which one is this good fairy?



It’s not the wife of Bertrand
Not the wife of Gontrond
Not the wife of Pamphile
It’s not the wife of Firmin
Not the wife of Germain
Nor that of Benjamin
It’s not wife of Honoré’s
Nor that of Desiré
Nor that of Théophile
Even less the wife of Nestor
No, it’s the wife ’f  Hector


When we often sing and
Dance for our suppers
We've always got stockings
More or less full of holes
Who comes to mend these mishaps
With threads of ev’ry colour
Who weaves, divine seamstress,
Vivid rainbows onto our socks?

It’s not the wife of Bertrand
Not the wife of Gontrond
Not the wife of Pamphile
It’s not the wife of Firmin
Not the wife of Germain
Nor that of Benjamin
It’s not t’ wife of Honoré
Nor that of Desiré
Nor that of Théophile
Even less the wife of Nestor
No, it’s the wife ’f  Hector


When we’re damn-well caught total- ,
-ly redhanded –good God
And they send us up to plant
Cabbages in Santé jail!
Who is the one who modeling herself
On the virtues of faithful dogs
Stands unbudging outside the gate
Until we can come out again?

It’s not the wife of Bertrand
Not the wife of Gontrond
Not the wife of Pamphile
It’s not the wife of Firmin
Not the wife of Germain
Nor that of Benjamin
It’s not t’ wife of Honoré
Nor that of Desiré
Nor that of Théophile
Even less the wife of Nestor
No, it’s the wife ’f  Hector.


And when one among us dies
When we are required
To go and relieve the hotel
Of his mortal remains
Who is it that moves all Paris
To have arranged at bargain price
A funeral of lavish scale
Not a State one, no, but almost?



It’s not the wife of Bertrand
Not the wife of Gontrond
Not the wife of Pamphile
It’s not the wife of Firmin
Not the wife of Germain
Nor that of Benjamin
It’s not t’ wife of Honoré
Nor that of Desiré
Nor that of Théophile
Even less the wife of Nestor
No, it’s the wife ’f  Hector.



And when comes the month of May
The delightful time for love
When without echo, in the yards
We howl out after love
Who’s she who shows us great pity?
Who throws her arms around our necks?
Who serves us her endearments
All the caresses long saved up?


It’s not the wife of Bertrand
Not the wife of Gontrond
Not the wife of Pamphile
It’s not the wife of Firmin
Not the wife of Germain
Nor that of Benjamin
It’s not t’ wife of Honoré
Nor that of Desiré
Nor that of Théophile
Even less the wife of Nestor
No, it’s the wife ’f  Hector


Let’s not throw away the pearls
Of our hearts unto swine
Let’s not waste our Latin
To benefit just jerks
Let’s not sing the tongue of the Gods
For the half wits, for the skinflints
The wimp upstarts or stupid clowns
Puny midgets or vulgar swanks.


Nor for the wife of Bertrand
For the wife of Gontrond
For the wife of Pamphile
Nor for the wife of Firmin
For the wife of Germain
For that of Benjamin
Nor for the wife of’Honoré
The wife of Desiré
The wife of Théophile
Even less for the wife of Nestor
But for the wife of Hector.




La femme d'Hector – Translation notes

1)      Some commentators believe that Brassens chose this name because in the Greek myth, Hector had a wife who was a model of virtue, like this admirable wife in his song. This interpretation is invalidated by the later verse praising her for the generosity of her sexual administrations to other men in need.  In note 5 below, I quote a more convincing reason for the choice of name.

2)      La plus aimable – In this panegyric  of the most outstanding wife of the men who formed his close group of friends, the reader is left with the question how intimate the poet actually was with this paragon of womanhood.  For the translator, this arises immediately in the third line with the word “aimable”.  This can be a mild routine word: “Merci vous êtes très amiable – “Thanks, you’re very kind”.  More strongly it can mean: provoking your love – likeable/lovable.

3)      Nounou = maternal assistant, nanny, baby minder, baby-sitter.

4)      Des pauvres de nous – the self-pitying expression « Poor me! » is translated in French as « Pauvre de moi ! ».  There is a second play on words in this line as « Les petites sœurs des pauvres » are members of a Catholic religious community dedicated to the care of the old and under-privileged.

5)      Le guignon also expressed as « la guigne » - means misfortune, rotten luck.

6)      Hector, Bertrand, Gontrand etc- These were not the real names of his friends.  Brassens enjoyed giving nicknames and for this group he chose names that had been popular in the previous century but which now sounded old-fashioned and amusing.  This was probably the only reason for his choice of “Hector” in the title role.  I note that the full name of the French Romantic composer, Berlioz, who lived from 1803- 1869 was Hector Berlioz.

7)      Danser devant le buffet – this idiom means to sing for one’s supper (out of hunger and poverty)

8)      Peu ou prou – to a greater or lesser degree, more or less

9)      Cousette = junior/trainee dressmaker

10)   Des arcs-en-ciel à nos chaussettes – Until the 1960s we did not throw socks away because they had a hole in them - we darned them and we all had the necessary weaving skills with the help of wooden mushrooms.  It was difficult to match the wool perfectly and although the darns might stand out, there was no disgrace in such good housekeeping. It is an amusing and endearing story that the good wife in the story in her search for wool for her darns had to use differently coloured lengths, so her darns were all the colours of the rainbow

11)   Prendre quelqu’un la main dans le sac – to catch some-one red-handed, to catch some-one in the act.

12)   Prenant modèle sur – prendre modèle sur q’n = to model youself on s.o, to use s.o. as your example

13)   A l'arrêt – stationary. Un autobus à l’arrêt = a stationary bus

14)   Met en demeure de – mettre quelqu’un en demeure de  = to instruct some-one to

15)   Hôtel – The word has so many different different usages in French including hôtel-Dieu = general hospital, hôtel meublé = lodging house, hôtel de passe = whorehouse.  I cannot assume and so I stick with hotel.

16)   Qui nous dispense sa tendresse -  It is now no longer a secret that Jeanne Planche, the wife of his host, Marcel, was the mistress of Georges Brassens and despite the big gap in age he felt an undying love towards her - see my account in “The story of GeorgesBrassens and his Jeanne”.  Many  will be convinced that the real identity of the wife of Hector is Jeanne.

17)   Jeter des perles aux pourceaux= Cast pearls before swine.  This is an expression from the New Testament  that means to hand over to someone something precious which they do not have the capacity to value.

18)    Perdons pas notre latin – « J’y perds mon latin » means « I cannot make heads or tails of it »

19)   un balourd = a simple-minded person

20)   fesse-Mathieu = a usurer

21)   paltoquet = Larousse says this means some-one coarse, insignificant yet pretentious.

22)   bobèche = candle wax tray – a clown a fool

23)   foutriquet = insignificant person, small and puny

24)   pimbêche = an embarrassing, pretentious person




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

Posted by David Yendley July 2013