Thursday 21 January 2010

Trompe la mort- As death approaches, Brassens has varied dreams of immortality

« Trompe la mort »: Brassens wrote this song in 1976 after alarmist reports appeared in the newspapers about the severity of his medical problems. Brassens was only 55 years old. The song claims that he as fit as ever and has a time left to live: « C'est pas demain la veille, Bon Dieu, de mes adieux ». The song explains that all the symptoms the journalists were quoting were just his theatrical pretences as a showman and he deals with each in turn.

However the defence that Brassens makes is not what it seems. His excuses are deliberately preposterous, beginning with the claim that his hair hasn’t really gone white - for dramatic effect he is wearing a white wig over the jet black hair he had been well known for. He ends with a last verse of total farce.

Under the comic exaggeration is the sad message that the newspaper reports are correct. The formidable Georges Brassens is experiencing serious physical decline with death not far away. He had five more years to live after writing this song and died in 1981.

Seeking clarity of recording, I have chosen the following version by Brassens' friend. Le Forestier.


Avec cette neige à foison
Qui coiffe, coiffe ma toison,
On peut me croire, à vue de nez,
Blanchi sous le harnais
Eh bien, Mesdames et Messieurs,
C'est rien que de la poudre aux yeux,(2)
C'est rien que de la comédie,
Que de la parodie :

C'est pour tenter de couper court
À l'avance du temps qui court,
De persuader ce vieux goujat
Que tout le mal est fait déjà.
Mais dessous la perruque j'ai
Mes vrais cheveux couleur de jais,
C'est pas demain la veille,(3) Bon Dieu !
De mes adieux.

Et si j'ai l'air moins guilleret,
Moins solide sur mes jarrets,(4)
Si je chemine avec lenteur
D'un train de sénateur,
N'allez pas dire : "Il est perclus"
N'allez pas dire : "Il n'en peut plus ",
C'est rien que de la comédie,
Que de la parodie :

Histoire d'endormir le temps,
Calculateur impénitent,
De tout brouiller, tout embrouiller
Dans le fatidiqu' sablier.
En fait, à l'envers du décor,
Comme à vingt ans, je trotte encore,
C'est pas demain la veille, Bon Dieu !
De mes adieux.

Et si mon coeur bat moins souvent
Et moins vite qu'auparavant,
Si je chasse avec moins de zèle
Les gentes demoiselles,

Pensez pas que je sois blasé
De leurs caresses, leurs baisers,
C'est rien que de la comédie,
Que de la parodie :

Pour convaincre le temps berné(5)
Qu'mes fêt's galantes sont terminées,
Que je me retire en coulisse,
Que je n'entrerai plus en lice.
Mais je reste un sacré gaillard
Toujours actif, toujours paillard,
C'est pas demain la veille, Bon Dieu !
De mes adieux.

Et si jamais, au cimetière,
Un de ces quatre(6), on porte en terre,
Me ressemblant à s'y tromper,
Un genre de macchabée,
N'allez pas noyer le sous fleurs (7)
En lâchant la bonde à vos pleurs,
Ce sera rien que comédie
Rien que fausse sortie.

Et puis, coup de theâtre, quand
Le temps aura levé le camp,(8)
Estimant que la farce est jouée
Moi tout heureux, tout enjoué(9),
Je m'exhumerai du caveau
Pour saluer sous les bravos...
C'est pas demain la veille, Bon Dieu !
De mes adieux.


With this snow a-plenty
Which caps my mop of hair
One may think me,at a rough glance
Turned white by the long grind.
Well then, ladies and gentlemen
It’s nothing more than powder in your eyes
It’s nothing but simple play-acting
Than simple parody :

It’s to try to stop in its tracks
The advance of racing time
To persuade this old tormenter
That all the harm’s already done
But under the wig I have
My true hair coloured still jet-black
It’s not the time quite yet, Good God!
For my farewells.

And if I look less sprightly
Less firm on my sturdy legs
If I move with a some slowness
At a senator’s pace
Don’t go saying : « He has gone lame »
Don’t go saying : « He has had it »
It’s nothing but simple play-acting
Than simple parody :

Matter of lulling time to sleep
Calculator impenitent
Stirring everything up- the lot
In the hourglass of fate
In fact, backstage, behind the set
I trot nimbly as at twenty
It’s not the time quite yet, Good God!
For my farewells.

And if my heart beats less often
And less quickly then before
If I chase with less hot zeal
Those of the fair sex

Think not that I am grown weary
Of their caress and of their kiss
It’s nothing but simple play-acting
Than simple parody :

To convince credulous old time
That my amorous jaunts are over
That I’m retiring to the wings
That I’ll enter the lists no more
But I remain a lusty fellow
Still hard at it, still as randy
It’s not the time quite yet, Good God !
For my farewells.

And if ever, to the cemetery
One of these days, they bring for burial
So like me to deceive people
Something looking like a corpse
Don’t go drowning it neath the flowers
While unplugging all of your tears,
It will be merely play acting
Nothing but a false exit.

And then dramatic climax when
Time has taken his hook
Judging that the farce is over
I quite happy, game for a laugh
I will dig myself from the grave
To make my bows to loud applause
It’s not the time quite yet, Good God!
For my farewells.

Translation Notes

1) A trompe-la-mort is a daredevil – someone who cheats death. Trompe la Mort was the nickname given to Vautrin, in Balzac’s “Le Père Goriot”. He was a larger than life character, who was secretly the head of the French criminal fraternity. They called him this name believing that, whatever he did, including murder, he would always escape death on the guillotine. As “tromper” means to deceive and the poem is about deception, perhaps an English translation of the title should include this idea – but it is better and easier to keep the name of Balzac’s famous character!

2) Poudre aux yeux. The image is of a powder cloud as white powder is applied to his wig- as in olden times

3) “C’est pas demain la veille means “that will not happen just yet”

4) Le jarret means the back of the knee for a man hock for an animal. There is an expression: “Avoir des jarrets d’acier” to have strong legs. Brassens was of athletic build and so I put in the word “sturdy” with this previous phrase in mind.

5) Berner means to fool, to mislead

6) Un de ces quatre is an idiom meaning « one of these days », « at some point in the near future »

7) “noyer le souffleur/sous fleurs” “Lâchant la bonde”. Here Brassens is continuing his theatrical images with a contrived idea that I find impossible to translate. The “souffleur” (prompter) is the person who whispers/ breathes the words when the performer forgets his or her lines. The prompter is hidden in a narrow pit at the front of the stage as confined as that in which the corpse in this verse is placed. “La bonde” is bung hole on a barrel. The image is of a flood of tears being released to flood the prompter’s pit. When spoken “souffleur” sounds the same of “sous fleurs”. I have given up on most of the image and stuck to Brassens’ pun with sous fleurs. I feel all the complication is because Brassens is referring to his own internment and eschews sentiment.

8) “Lever le camp” means to strike camp

9) enjoué means playful

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