Thursday, 9 October 2014

Le fantôme - Brassens extremely 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  !

It leads us to consider Brassens' view of death - a major theme of his songs






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 will miss morning 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
Society.



 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












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