Friday 5 October 2012

La Princesse et le croque-notes - a sweet trap innocently set by a vulnerable girl

This song describes an incident in the late 1940s when Brassens was still unsuccessful and living in an extremely squalid area of Paris. (He was known locally by the disrespectful nickname of "Croque-notes" -keyboard basher according to this account)  It is the story of his encounter with a sweet thirteen year old girl that seems to have disturbed him long afterwards. She had made him a very personal invitation.

The comment which follows the You Tube video recording that I have embedded on this posting, is almost unanimous in finding the story deeply touching. The blogger “Benbuken” says that one listens to the poem with a lump in the throat as it contains so much emotion and truth.

Unfortunately, the very last line of the song intrudes to cause controversy - enough to cause even  enthusiastic admirers to express very serious reservations.  The line is open to different understandings however.

La Princesse et le Croque-Notes

Jadis, au lieu du jardin que voici,
C'était la zone(2) et tout ce qui s'ensuit,
Des masures des taudis insolites,
Des ruines pas romaines pour un sou.

Quant à la faune habitant là-dessous
C'était la fine fleur, c'était l'élite.
La fine fleur, l'élite du pavé,
Des besogneux, des gueux, des réprouvés,
Des mendiants rivalisant de tares,
Des chevaux de retour, des propre' à rien,
Ainsi qu'un croque-notes, un musicien,
Une épave accrochée à sa guitare.

Adoptée par ce beau monde attendri,
Une petite fée avait fleuri
Au milieu de toute cette bassesse.
Comme on l'avait trouvée près du ruisseau,
Abandonnée en un somptueux berceau,
À tout hasard on l'appelait Princesse.

Or, un soir, Dieu du ciel, protégez nous !
La voilà qui monte sur les genoux
Du croque-notes et doucement soupire,
En rougissant quand même un petit peu :
"C'est toi que j'aime et si tu veux tu peux
M'embrasser sur la bouche et même pire...(3)

"— Tout beau, Princesse, arrête un peu ton tir,
J'ai pas tellement l'étoffe du satyre(4).
Tu as treize ans, j'en ai trente qui sonnent,
Gross' différence et je ne suis pas chaud
Pour tâter de la paille humide du cachot...

— Mais, Croque-notes, j'dirai rien à personne...
— N'insiste pas, fit-il d'un ton railleur,
D'abord tu n'es pas mon genre, et d'ailleurs
Mon coeur est déjà pris par une grande..." (5)

Alors Princesse est partie en courant,
Alors Princesse est partie en pleurant,(6)
Chagrine qu'on ait boudé son offrande(7).
Y a pas eu détournement de mineure,

Le croque-notes, au matin, de bonne heure,
À l'anglaise a filé dans la charrette (8)
Des chiffonniers en grattant sa guitare.

Passant par là quelque vingt ans plus tard,
Il a le sentiment qu'il le regrette.(9)

Georges Brassens 1972 – Fernande
In times past instead of the garden here
It was the Zone and all that that implies
Ramshackle homes and slums beyond belief
Ruins that were not Roman in the least.

As for the fauna dwelling there beneath
T’was the fine flower, t’was the true élite.
The fine flower, the elite of the street-life,
Of the destitute, the outcasts, the rogues,
Beggars competing their phys’cal defects
Of the jailbirds, of just good for nothings,
Such as a pianist bloke, a music-man,
A wreck washed up clinging to his guitar.

Adopted by this chic smart set, soft at heart,
A little fairy had blossomed here
In the midst of all this degradation
As she had been found next to the gutter
Abandoned in a sumptuous cradle
They chanced on the name of Princess for her.

Now, one night, God in heaven, protect us!
There she is climbing up onto the knees
Of piano man and softly she sighs,
While blushing all the same a tiny bit:
« It’s you I love and if you like you can
Kiss me upon my mouth and even worse…”

« -Steady on Princess, just hold your fire,
I’m not made to be a cradle snatcher.
You’re thirteen years old, I’m turning thirty
Big difference and I’m not all that keen
To sample the damp straw down in the clink.

But piano-man, I won’t tell a soul
 “Don’t keep on like that”, said he jokingly
Firstly you are not my type and besides
My heart’s already booked by a grown-up …

At that Princesse left, running all the way,
At that princesse left , weeping all the way,
Hurt that he had spurned her benefaction There was no corruption of a minor.

The piano-man, in the morning early,
Stole away inside a rag and bone man’s
Cart, while strumming notes on his guitar.

Passing through there some twenty years later
He has the feeling that he regrets it.


1) le Croque-Notes - This is the nickname that Brassens gives himself in this story of himself where he talks of himself in the third person « he ». Larousse tells me that it means a bad musician. (There is a word “croquenot” that means a clodhopper shoe)
Picture below la Zone in 1939

2) La Zone – full name "zone militaire fortifiée", was the fortified ring built around the city in 1844. In later times, “la zone” came to mean the belt of land, 250 metres wide, which had been cleared outside the city fortifications, to remove cover benefitting an attacking enemy and to provide an unobstructed view for defending guns. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, shanty towns grew up illegally on this vacant land, housing the homeless poor, who were known as Zonards. When these were dismantled from 1919 onwards, the land was re-developed with a green belt of sports fields, parks etc. and a second belt of low-cost housing.

3) tu peux m'embrasser sur la bouche et même pire – The little girl shows she is well aware that it is a very naughty thing that she is proposing, just as next when she says she will keep quiet about it. However the brazen nature of the proposal is tempered by the pathos of her words.

4) Satyre -In classical Mythology this was one of a class of woodland deities, who were attendant on Bacchus. They appear in many works of art and are represented as part human, part horse and sometimes part goat and noted for riotousness and lasciviousness. As it is a learned word, it does not shock when Brassens uses it to say he isn't a sex fiend. In translation a word is needed appropriate to use to a little girl.

5) Mon coeur est déjà pris par une grande….Brassens was living there as the secret lover of his landlady, Jeanne, who was very grown up. It has to be said that Brassens was not desperate for young love as he used to smuggle up to his room, a succession of young street women, hidden from the jealousy of Jeanne. His delight in their sensual offerings is seen in numerous poems e.g. Les amours d’autan

6) Princesse est partie en pleurant - it would seem that Brassens was startled to see the sudden deep distress that he had caused as she ran away in a flood of tears.

7) on ait boudé son offrande – This line seems to show Brassens’ realisation of the insensitivity that he had shown. Princesse like Brassens was a different character from the rest of the natives of this area, where they had both found themselves washed up. The "love" she felt for him could have been an awareness of their affinity. The significant word is “offrande”.  Even if she came as a sexual offering, he now sees it not as an offer "une offre"but as an "offrande", which has a spiritual overtone. Larousse defines the word "offrande" as “tout ce qu’on offre par une bonne oeuvre”. He knew that the little girl was different from the other girls who crept up to see him on a regular basis. Cruelly, because of his panic about her age, he had rebuffed her as if like them she was just coming for some moments of sexual fun.  But she had offered love and deserved some tender understanding.

8) a filé dans la charrette – The fact that he cleared off for a time is a further sign of the flap he was in about having an underage girl in his room. It could be that Jeanne would have something to say about Princesse running from his room in great distress, the previous night and he thought it safer to lie low for a time.

9) Il a le sentiment qu'il le regrette – I leave this phrase vague in my translation. I have made clear my own interpretation in the translation notes abovebut there many different views of what Brassens actually regretted:
The blogger, VALOOSHKA2307, says it is a beautiful song, but only if the final words of the song are deleted. In the last line, Brassens says (referring to himself in the third person): “ il a le sentiment qu'il le regrette". VALOOSHKA’s understanding is that “it” refers to his rejection of the little girl’s offer of sexual contact and that Brassens is now sorry that he did not sexually abuse a little kid of thirteen. There are other bloggers who express the same reaction, some with total disgust. However, other commentators, while going along with this interpretation, do not take the final remark so seriously. To them it is just Brassens, the anarchist, seeking to shock the croquants and croquantes by confessing his continuing appreciation of the potential charms of the young girl’s offer while still aware that it was out of bounds.

In my opinion this interpretation is wrong and risks destroying a sensitive poem. I believe that Brassens regretted not what he did, but the way that he did it. In my translation notes, I point out the lines of the poem that lead me to this conclusion.

There is the added complication that “regretter” in French has the extra meaning of “to miss”. In the last verse of "Auprès de mon arbre", he said how much he missed the simple life, however squalid – and the girls – that he enjoyed in the Impasse Florimont and perhaps this is the same meaning here.


This song has grown on me as I have been working on it. I find myself wondering what happened to the unfortunate little girl- if she was, in fact, real. I would like to think that she made a stupendous success of her life after the disadvantage and sordidness of her early years from which she perhaps drew huge resources and great strength of character. I would see her becoming a modern version of Céleste Mogador, whom Paul Fort admired in “Si le bon dieu avait voulu”.

If I was French and a talented writer, I would write a film script to celebrate Brassens’ music but, to avoid the corny run of the mill biography, tell principally the story of Mogador in the character of the “Princesse”. At every point where Brassens is weaved into the story, I would have Princesse outperform him.

I have formed this notion as I would like to see the final moments of the film enacted from this poem: Princesse is a beautiful woman in her thirties when the chance of circumstances puts her alone with Brassens for the first time since the fatal night in 1948. He has no idea who she is but he is strongly attracted to her and makes the inevitable pass. With a charming smile, she listens as each of his increasingly desperate chat-up lines fall flat . Then she makes a dignified response:

— N'insiste pas, fit- elle d'un ton railleur. D'abord vous n'êtes pas mon genre, et d'ailleurs, mon cœur est déjà pris par un grand..."

The words strike home and Brassens is puzzled and taken aback. In the silent interval that follows there is some recognition then Princesse turns and walks elegantly away.

 Classy films always end with someone walking off, but this Brassens film will have a refinement for Princesse will have a Calipyge rear to add to the hero’s final despair.

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



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Unknown said...

or maybe, the last line says that on returning there 20 years later, he thought to himself, 'ahh, what if?' ('peut-être 'si seulement?' en Français) and immediately regretted thinking in this way (l'etoffe du satyre'