Monday 8 April 2013

Celui Qui A Mal Tourné - reassuring tale of people at their worst but also at their best

I find this a touching poem and very personal to Brassens, as the experiences and emotions of the man in the story closely parallel those of Brassens.
 Brassens never found himself accused of murder of course, but in his youth, Brassens had become involved in unworthy criminality, which diminished his self-respect and gave him a great sense of guilt. He too had been condemned by the harsh verdict of the courts, which made no allowances.  He had been painfully conscious of the disgust and anger he had aroused in the ordinary people around him and had gone into long exile. Even when he became a successful performer, his self-image was of an outsider estranged from the society of “respectable” people - to him they were "Les croquants and les croquantes".

Paradoxically, the audiences who thronged to listen to him were in the majority from this “respectable” class and, who knows, might have included some members who were over-weight, over- wealthy and devoted to sensual pleasure, like the ageing fun seeker, whom the man in the story had accidentally snuffed out. Nevertheless, the audiences reacted to the social outsider on the stage with appreciation, sympathy and love. 
It is possible therefore that the enlightenment of the man seen in the last verse of the song describes Brassens' own realisation in the closing years of his career.  One can imagine that on some nights at the end of his performances, when stage-fright habitually tore his nerves to shreds, Brassens returned to the privacy of his dressing room and overwhelmed by the warmth of his reception, drowned by the invasive sense of human kindness, sank to the floor and wept uncontrollably.  The final two lines of the song are the most important in the song.

Celui Qui A Mal Tourné

Il y avait des temps et des temps
Qu'je n'm'étais pas servi d'mes dents,
Qu'je n' mettais plus d'vin dans mon eau (1)
Ni de charbon dans mon fourneau.

Tous les croque-morts, silencieux,
Me dévoraient déjà des yeux:
Ma dernière heure allait sonner
C'est alors que j'ai mal tourné(2)

N'y allant pas par quatre chemins,
J'estourbis(3) en un tournemain(4),
En un coup de bûche(5) excessif,
Un noctambule(6) en or massif.(7)

Les chats fourrés,(8) quand ils l'ont su
M'ont posé la patte dessus
Pour m'envoyer à la Santé(9)
Me refaire une honnêteté.

Machin, Chose, Un tel, Une telle,(10)
Tous ceux du commun des mortels
Furent d'avis que j'aurais dû
En bonn' justice être pendu.

À la lanterne(11)! et sur-le-champ!
Y s'voyaient déjà partageant
Ma corde, en tout bien tout honneur(12),
En guise de porte-bonheur.(13)

Au bout d'un siècle, on m'a jeté
À la porte de la Santé.
Comme je suis sentimental,
Je retourne au quartier natal,

Baissant le nez, rasant les murs,
Mal à l'aise sur mes fémurs,(14)
M'attendant à voir les humains
Se détourner de mon chemin.

Y' en a un qui m'a dit: " Salut !
Te revoir, on n'y comptait plus..."
Y' en a un qui m'a demandé
Des nouvelles de ma santé.

Lors, j'ai vu qu'il restait encor
Du monde et du beau mond' sur terre,
Et j'ai pleuré, le cul par terre,
Toutes les larmes de mon corps(15).

 Georges Brassens

1957 - Je me suis fait tout petit,

It had been a very long while
Since I’d had aught to bite into Since I’d put wine in my water
Nor any coal into my stove.

All morticians on the quiet
Were already eyeing me up
My last hour was going to chime
That was when I went badly wrong.

Not to beat long about the bush
I killed a man in a wild flash,
Clobbering with much too much force
A night-reveller stuffed with money.

The ermined judges,  finding out
Came down very hard upon me
Sending me to Santé prison
To remake ‘n honest man of me.

Lots of folk whose names slip my mind
All ordin'ry human beings,
Were of a mind, I ought to have
In all fairness gone to be hanged.

Strung up high and with no delay !
While they saw themselves already
Slicing my rope fair and proper,
To be shared out as good luck charms.

A century on, they threw me out
From the gate of Santé Prison
As I’m the sentimental sort,
I go back to where I was born.

Keeping head down, hugging the walls,
Ill at ease to be in my shoes,
Expecting to see the humans
Veer off, to keep out of my way.

There’s one who said to me : “Hello!
Never counted on seeing you…..”
There’s one who enquired news of me -
My « Santé » - my health and prison.

Then I saw that there still remained
People and fine people on earth
I flopped to the ground and I wept
With uncontrollable tears.


1)      Qu'je n' mettais plus d'vin dans mon eau – The normal practice of putting water in wine is reversed. To avoid sentiment, the poet does not want to tell us too directly that the man was desperately short of food and shelter.

2)      C'est alors que j'ai mal tourné.  There is probably some irony here, as, the state that the was in, makes clear that things had gone badly wrong for him long before.

3)      J'estourbis = I killed.  The poet says he does not wish to beat about the bush but he uses a less usual verb for “to kill.”

4)      en un tournemain = in an instant/ in the twinkling of an eye/.  Perhaps in this case a mad,, impulsive action is implied.

5)      un coup de bûche = a blow with a lump of wood.

6)      Un noctambule = sleepwalker/ night owl/ a late nighter

7)      en or massif  = in solid gold

8)      Les chats fourrés, A slang expression meaning “judges”, descriptive of their robes.

9)      La Santé – The proper noun denotes the Prison in the 13th arrondissement of Paris.  The common noun of course means “health” and this permits puns in the poem.

10)   Machin, Chose, Un tel, Une telle – In English, when we want to quote some-one whose name we forget , we say « Thingummy says…. ».  In French they say « Machin dit….. » or they could use the other devices on this line.

11)   À la lanterne  Wikipedia gives this full explanation :  Lanterne is a French word designating a lantern or lamp post. The word, or the slogan "À la lanterne!" gained special meaning and status in Paris and France during the early phase of the French Revolution, from the summer of 1789. Lamp posts served as an instrument to mobs to perform extemporised lynchings and executions in the streets of Paris during the revolution when the people of Paris occasionally hanged officials and aristocrats from the lamp posts. The English equivalent would be "String Them Up!" or "Hang 'Em High!

12)   (faire) en tout bien tout honneur means something done with honourable intent and without any reservations

13)   En guise de porte-bonheur. There is an old superstition that a piece of hangman’s rope already used in an execution, brings good luck.

14)   fémurs, are femurs in English also of course, which are the thighbones – so we don’t share the idiom.

15)   Pleurer les larmes de mon corps means to cry my eyes out

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


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