Category Archives: French

French? Poetry?

When I started learning French formally around 2005, my French teacher suggested that I practise every day by keeping a journal. In the beginning it would take me 20 minutes to write two sentences, having to refer to dictionaries and grammars to just write the basic stuff. Sixteen years later and I can fill three or four pages in that time; the French is not perfect but it is mostly okay and every day I learn a few new words and from time to time I correct my systematic errors and learn more natural ways of expressing myself in French rather than using the stilted phrases that result from translating from English to French in your head. More and more, the words come to me in French because I now have a stock of standard phrases (clichés) and ways of saying things.

What do you write about in a journal? It varies. Mostly I record trivial stuff like who I have seen, gigs and other events (before lockdown at least). Then my thoughts and reflections, personal stuff, dreams, ideas, random word play too. At some point I started spontaneously writing ‘poems’ because that is just how my mind works and always has done. I get bored with the rules of prose and enjoy the freedom that poetry gives the imagination and language, you can break rules.

The first ‘poem’ I wrote in French just came to me after my mother died. I had already written something about her in English and then I was writing about her death in my journal and the words ‘ma mère suggested ‘mammaire’ (mammary) and without really thinking I wrote a bilingual ‘poem’ called ‘Mammaire Est Sortie‘ (Breast has gone). It was just a play on words, using bilingual puns:

“Je say pa et tu dis ma.
Je suis enfant et tu es vieille,
Mais tu n’écoutes jamais
À ce que je sais…”

I put ‘poem’ in quotes because I don’t have any pretension that this is a French poem of any interest other than to me. It just amused me to pun on the words ‘sais’ (know in French) and ‘say’ in English, ‘ma mère’ and ‘mammaire’ etcetera.

Since then I have written quite a few of these impromptu poems in French. What interests me about it is that I can see the poetic process working in slow motion and it makes me realise that in our native language our brains work too quickly to see it. For example, if you are going to write in rhyme, how big is your vocabulary? How many words do you know that rhyme with ‘mère’ for example. As you are searching for a rhyme for mère, you maybe find just a few that you know and you hit on ‘amère’ (bitter). This leads you down a path of mental associations and images (depending on your own particular associations and history). You might think of bitter almonds, but your brain might flip into English to do that. So you see immediately how your word choice is being constrained firstly by your limitations and then your own particular psychology (having chosen ‘bitter’ you might be bitter or not about your parenting, so the sentiment can go either way.) But you realise that you are totally limited by the means at your disposal.

This is no different to playing a musical instrument: you may be highly proficient and have an enormous repertoire to select from (you know your chops) so you are not going to play just two chords. Having said that, thousands of great songs have been written on two chords or a few notes, so the creativity and beauty is obviously not dependent on sophistication itself. But you can also get bored with unsophisticated music as you can with ‘naive’ poetry or painting. The ideal art is one that achieves simplicity by transcending its sophistication. The really great artists make it look simple but also produce simple things that conceal the talent that made them. Marvin Minsky called this ‘Negative Expertise‘, a good choice that is made by avoiding bad choices and blind alleys, deriving from a wealth of knowledge.

WH Auden said he liked writing in rhyme and metre because having that constraint forced out creativity. The mind becomes highly creative within those constraints because it cannot go just anywhere: it has to go somewhere. Some other poets (Frank O’Hara, for example) are averse to the clippety-clop-ness of that kind of verse and prefer lines that ‘follow the breath’ of the utterance, landing and taking off in the right places.

A good poem is a good poem regardless of its style – it is not those choices that make it good.

My French poems have no value as poems per se; maybe no art has any value per se. And they are probably unintentionally comical to a native speaker, I don’t know. I generally grammar check them as far as possible and then just leave any curious syntax in there. I mean, curious syntax is what poetry is good at:

“When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent…”

John Milton, Sonnet 19

Here is an entry from October 7, 2021. It’s parodying a certain type of French Romantic poetry (Google translation on the right).

Jeudi 7 octobre,
Un mois sombre et sobre,
Les arbres perdent leurs feuilles,
Les nuages les accueillent,
Et laissent mon esprit sous l’opprobre.

Tout que j’ai fait
L’année passée,
Me pousse dans le sens d’amertume
Comme un voilier dans une brume,
Je cherche la direction du soleil.

Même les corbeaux et pies
Me moquent par leurs cris,
Parce que ma mine
Révèle mon spleen
Qui accompagne leurs mélodies.

Lorsque le vent et la pluie
Fustige la nuit,
Le loir se cache
Sous une fleur, sa bâche,
Et rêve de blé qui brille.

Mais quand la terre dort,
L’homme vert est mort,
Les racines et les vers respirent,
Les graines et les spores conspirent,
De renouveler le monde encore.

Thursday October 7,
A dark and sober month,
The trees are losing their leaves,
The clouds welcome them,
And leave my mind in shame.

Everything I did
Last year,
Pushes me in the direction of bitterness
Like a sailboat in a mist,
I am looking for the direction of the sun.

Even the crows and magpies
Mock me by their cries,
Because my mien
Reveals my spleen
Which accompanies their melodies.

When the wind and the rain
Castigates the night,
The dormouse hides
Under a flower, its tarpaulin,
And dreams of shining wheat.

But when the earth sleeps
The green man is dead,
The roots and the worms breathe,
Seeds and spores conspire,
To renew the world again.

Here is another from around the same time. There seems to be an autumn equinox theme, lathered with a mock melancholy.

Il fait doux et calme
Sous le ciel bleu et pâle,
La fin d’été s’est déjà évanoui,
L’automne l’a pris dans sa cale.
Le voilier farci de rêves s’est enfui
Avant l’orage, son sourire amical
Nous a abandonné à sa blâme.

Tu te souviens les jours du chaleur
Lorsque les rivières et les rives miroitaient
Sous les jupes des arbres, leur bonheur
Comme une drogue nous enveloppaient,
Et la musique d’une vieille guitare
Accompagnait les notes d’un merle bavard.

Avant les chasseurs, avant leurs crimes,
Ont fait leur irruption dans la scène,
Les corps enlacés nos rêves animent,
Haut au dessus les champs les emmènent
Vers le grand arc blanc de la côte
Et ses visions de fuites maritimes.

Mais on se souviendra aussi le givre,
La lune gelée dessous une flaque noir,
Les vents qui plient les ifs chétifs,
Les vagues qui battent le promontoire,
Sont souvent plus calmes que l’été
Où nos désirs et nos peurs jouaient.

Le bonheur, c’est facile devant une glace,
Un verre et une langue aléatoire,
On peut se cacher, comme Narcisse, en surface
Les réflexions sarcastiques d’un miroir
Où tous les bouteilles oranges-bleus
Se tombent sous l’horizon de vos yeux.

It’s soft and calm
Under the pale blue sky,
The end of summer has already passed,
Autumn took him in its hold.
The sailboat stuffed with dreams has fled
Before the storm, her friendly smile
Left us to its blame.

You remember the days of the heat
When rivers and shores shimmered
Under the skirts of the trees, their happiness
Like a drug enveloping us
And the music of an old guitar
Accompanied the notes of a talkative blackbird.

Before the hunters, before their crimes,
Burst into the scene,
The entwined bodies our dreams animate,
High above the fields take them away
Towards the great white arch of the coast
And its visions of maritime flights.

But we will also remember the frost,
The moon frozen under a black puddle,
The winds that bend the puny yews,
The waves that beat the promontory,
Are often quieter than summer
Where our desires and fears played out.

Happiness is easy in front of a mirror,
A glass and a random tongue,
We can hide, like Narcissus, on the surface
The sarcastic reflections of a mirror
Where all the orange-blue bottles
Fall below the horizon of your eyes.

I have no idea whether these ‘poems’ make any sense in French. They may have crazy syntax although Google Translate seems to do okay with them. I showed them to a French friend of mine, who is a writer, and he refused to correct them and just said the errors were ‘charming’.

To me they are a form of automatic writing totally dictated by what I am able to do within the constraints of my language skills. But also, for the same reason, they are strangely liberating to write. I don’t have a little voice in my head saying “this is not poetry”, “this is not in the English tradition”, “you are not expressing what you really feel” and all those other little demons that stop us doing what we like. No, they are just bagatelles that do not have to prove themselves in the world and I do not even worry if they express an aspect of my personality that is melancholy or obsessive, because they do not mean anything to anyone, they are just the passing fancies of the day scribbled in a journal that nobody will ever read, not even my grandchildren. Do English people even learn French any more?

L’Aigle Noir, Barbara

The French singer Barbara, born Monique Andrée Serf in 1930, died in 1997. After becoming seriously ill in 1994, she stopped performing and wrote some fragments and notes for an autobiography that was published posthumously as ‘Il etait un piano noir’. In it she describes how from as early as she could remember she wanted to play the piano and sing; because there was no piano in the house, she mimicked playing on the table while making up songs.

Like so many of the great artists, she discovered her vocation young and was single-minded in her pursuit of it, refusing to do anything else, even when presented with great obstacles like poverty and homelessness. Being Jewish, her and her family had to go into hiding during the Second World War but, miraculously, they all survived, despite the family being scattered and broken up several times.

In her autobiography she describes how her father sexually abused her between the ages of ten and thirteen. Her mother did not believe her and nobody else wanted to know. Eventually, during a family holiday in Brittany, she escaped from her father and ran to the local police station and reported what her father did to her. As was common at that time, the police also refused to believe her and after her father arrived and told them that she was a fantasist, they returned her to his ‘care’.

Later her father abandoned the family and completely disappeared, attempting to contact her only once more, when he was on his death bed. The latter episode is the subject of another of her songs, Nantes.

This song L’Aigle Noir (The Black Eagle) refers back to those episodes of sexual abuse and her relationship with her father. As well as being awed by the power and beauty of this magnificent creature that drops down on her from the sky, she is also nostalgic to return to her childhood when his presence meant everything to her, when he used to light up the sun, was the maker of rain and miracles. In that ambiguity of emotions, you can sense the betrayal of trust felt by a young girl who idolised and loved her father but whose love was abused.

This song reportedly sold a million copies in 12 hours.

L’Aigle Noir, Barbara

Un beau jour ou peut-être une nuit
One beautiful day or maybe a night
Près d’un lac je m’étais endormie
Close to a lake, I was trying to sleep
Quand soudain, semblant crever le ciel
When suddenly, seeming to burst the sky
Et venant de nulle part,
And coming from nowhere
Surgit un aigle noir.
Appeared a black eagle.
Lentement, les ailes déployées,
Slowly, it spread its wings
Lentement, je le vis tournoyer
Slowly, I saw it whirl around
Près de moi, dans un bruissement d’ailes,
Close to me, with a rustle of wings,
Comme tombé du ciel
As if it fell from heaven
L’oiseau vint se poser.
The bird settled down.
Il avait les yeux couleur rubis
He had eyes the colour of rubies
Et des plumes couleur de la nuit
And feathers the colour of night
À son front, brillant de mille feux,
On his forehead, shining brightly
L’oiseau roi couronné
The bird king crowned
Portait un diamant bleu.
Wore a blue diamond.
De son bec, il a touché ma joue
With his beak, he touched my cheek
Dans ma main, il a glissé son cou
In my hand, he slipped his neck
C’est alors que je l’ai reconnu
Which was how I recognised him
Surgissant du passé
Arising from the past
Il m’était revenu.
He had returned to me.
Dis l’oiseau, O dis, emmène-moi
Tell me, bird, O tell me, carry me away
Retournons au pays d’autrefois
Let us return to the country of the past
Comme avant, dans mes rêves d’enfant,
Like before, in my childhood dreams,
Pour cueillir en tremblant
To gather, trembling,
Des étoiles, des étoiles.
The stars, the stars.
Comme avant, dans mes rêves d’enfant,
Like before, in my childhood dreams,
Comme avant, sur un nuage blanc,
Like before, on a white cloud,
Comme avant, allumer le soleil,
Like before, light up the sun,
Être faiseur de pluie
Be the maker of rain
Et faire des merveilles.
And perform wonders.
L’aigle noir dans un bruissement d’ailes
The black eagle, with a rustle of wings,
Prit son vol pour regagner le ciel,
Took his flight to regain the sky,
Quatre plumes, couleur de la nuit,
Four feathers, the colour of the night,
Une larme, ou peut-être un rubis.
A tear, or maybe a ruby.
J’avais froid, il ne me restait rien
I was cold, I was left with nothing
L’oiseau m’avait laissée
The bird had left me
Seule avec mon chagrin.
Alone with my sorrow.
Un beau jour, ou était-ce une nuit
One beautiful day or was it a night
Près d’un lac je m’étais endormie
Close to a lake, I was trying to sleep
Quand soudain, semblant crever le ciel
When suddenly, seeming to burst the sky
Et venant de nulle part,
And coming from nowhere
Surgit un aigle noir.
Appeared a black eagle.

Le Jardin Extraordinaire, Charles Trenet

Charles Trenet came from a Music Hall tradition and lived in an epoch when, even in
French cabaret, certain subject matter was taboo. As with Marie Lloyd in England,
Music Hall artists became adept at disguising taboo subjects using word-play, puns,
and innuendo. The audience were in the know and were thus able to enjoy bawdy
subject matter without ostensibly outraging polite society.

Le Jardin Extraordinaire owes something to that tradition because on one level it is a
song, seemingly narrated by a child (Papa… Maman…), about a fantastic
garden where ducks speak English, statues dance and frogs sing to the red-faced

But as with all magical gardens, sex very soon enters the scene in the form of a
beautiful girl who simply propositions him: « Vous me plaisez beaucoup, j’aime les hommes dont les yeux brillent ! » (“You please me a lot, I like men with sparkling eyes!”). There are references to the gloomy and perverse city where people in bars trade their love. To escape this Gomorrah, the narrator says he had to find ‘a sweet little love, a little flirt of twenty years’ (Il fallait bien trouver… Une gentille amourette, un petit flirt de vingt ans).

Trenet was gay and it is hard not to read into this song coded references to cruising in the
Jardin de Tuileries, a well-known cruising spot. From the introduction of the ‘young flirt’
the subtext becomes decidedly sexual but in such a way that anyone who remarked on it
could be accused of having a ‘dirty mind’. The rejoinder to that is the explicit introduction
into the text of a supposed childish fantasy references to prostitution and perversity
and the gloomy depression of a large metropolis.

Like Alice in Wonderland, he wandered into this garden by chance and found himself in
a magical playground where pleasure is easily had.

Le Jardin Extraordinaire, Charles Trenet

Il y a des canards qui parlent anglais
There are ducks who speak English,
Je leur donne du pain, ils remuent leur derrière
I give them bread, they wiggle their behinds
En me disant « Thank you very much, Monsieur Trenet »
At me, saying, “Thank you very much, Monsieur Trenet.”
On y voit aussi des statues
We also see there, statues
Qui se tiennent tranquilles tout le jour, dit-on
That stay tranquil all day long, people say,
Mais moi, je sais que, dès la nuit venue,
But me, I know that when the night comes,
Elles s’en vont danser sur le gazon
They go dancing on the lawn.
Papa, c’est un jardin extraordinaire:
Daddy, it’s an extraordinary garden,
Il y a des oiseaux qui tiennent un buffet
There are birds that have a buffet,
Ils vendent du grain, des petits morceaux de gruyère
They sell grain, morsels of Gruyère,
Comme clients ils ont Monsieur le maire et le Sous-Préfet
And have clients like the Mayor and the Sub-Prefect.
Il fallait bien trouver, dans cette grande ville maussade
I really had to find, in this big gloomy town
Où les touristes s’ennuient au fond de leurs autocars,
Where the tourists are bored, deep inside their coaches,
Il fallait bien trouver un lieu pour la promenade
I really had to find a place to walk,
J’avoue que ce samedi-là je suis entré par hasard…
I confess that Saturday I entered by chance,
Dans, dans, dans…
In, in, in…
Un jardin extraordinaire,
An extraordinary garden,
Loin des noirs buildings et des passages cloutés
Far from black buildings and pedestrian crossings,
Y avait un bal que donnaient des primevères
There was a ball that spilled primroses
Dans un coin de verdure, les petites grenouilles chantaient
In a green area, the small frogs sing
Une chanson pour saluer la lune
A song to salute the moon
Dès que celle-ci parut, toute rose d’émotion,
As soon as it appeared, all red with emotion.
Elles entonnèrent, je crois, la valse brune
They sang, I believe, The Brown Waltz,
Une vieille chouette me dit: « Quelle distraction ! »
An old owl said to me, “What a distraction!”
Maman, dans ce jardin extraordinaire,
Mummy, in this extraordinary garden
Je vis soudain passer la plus belle des filles
I saw suddenly pass the most beautiful girl,
Elle vint près de moi, et là me dit sans manières:
She came close to me and simply said,
« Vous me plaisez beaucoup, j’aime les hommes dont les yeux brillent ! »
“You please me a lot, I like men with sparkling eyes!”
Il fallait bien trouver, dans cette grande ville perverse,
I had to find, in this big perverted town,
Une gentille amourette, un petit flirt de vingt ans
A sweet little love, a little flirt of twenty years,
Qui me fasse oublier que l’amour est un commerce
Who makes me forget that love is a trade
Dans les bars de la cité,
In the bars of the city.
Oui, mais oui mais pas dans…
Yes, but yes, but not in…
Dans, dans, dans…
In, in, in…
Mon jardin extraordinaire
My extraordinary garden,
Un ange du Bizarre, un agent nous dit:
An Angel from Bizarre, an agent tells us:
« Etendez-vous sur la verte bruyère,
“Stretch out on the green heather,
Je vous jouerai du luth pendant que vous serez réunis »
I will play the lute for you while you will be reunited.”
Cet agent était un grand poète
This agent was a great poet,
Mais nous préférions, Artémise et moi,
But we would prefer, Artemise and I,
La douceur d’une couchette secrète
The sweetness of a secret berth,
Qu’elle me fit découvrir au fond du bois
That she revealed to me deep in the woods.
Poir ceux qui veulent savoir où le jardin se trouve,
For those who want to know where the garden is found,
Il est, vous le voyez, au coeur de ma chanson
It is, you see it, at the heart of my song.
J’y vole parfois quand un chagrin m’éprouve
I fly there sometimes when I feel sorrow,
Il suffit pour ça d’un peu d’imagination !
All it needs is a little imagination,
Il suffit pour ça d’un peu d’imagination !
All it needs is a little imagination,
Il suffit pour ça d’un peu d’imagination
All it needs is a little imagination.

La Chanson Des Vieux Amants, Jacques Brel

Many of Jacques Brel’s lyrics are almost poetry. That is, their meaning is often dependent on imagery, association, and sound rather than logical prose narrative. You can see that in the translation of La Chanson Des Vieux Amants below. A woman is talking to her lover about their twenty-year relationship and how they have survived. It sounds like one of those stormy relationships that consists of passions, partings, and reunions. Brel uses language in a symbolist way:

And each piece of furniture has its memory,
In this room without a cot
Fragments of old storms…

The translation is drained of the meaning that comes from the sound association of the original, the end rhymes and inner rhymes. Also, a French word may have a cluster of associations and potency for which there is no equivalent in the target language. For example, the original French for ‘fragments of old storms’ is ‘des éclats des vieilles tempêtes’. The word ‘éclat’ has multiple meanings in French: a flash, a burst, a scandal, breaking into splinters. All of those are present in the French but there is no single equivalent word in English. ‘Splinters of old storms’ is probably a better translation because its proximity to furniture suggests the violence of things being broken during an explosive argument.

Some of the lines I don’t know how to translate so that they make sense in English, such as ‘Et plus le temps nous fait cortège.’ A cortège is a procession, wedding or funeral, but I am not sure what he means exactly by ‘plus le temps’. ‘And longer the time makes us our cortège’ seems nonsensical to me so if you have a better translation, please let me know.

As well as the Brel version, I heard it sung by Juliette Greco. The woman says, ‘Of course, you had your lovers’, not ‘we had our lovers’. Maybe they wouldn’t have survived for twenty-years if their affairs had been more symmetrical. That’s possibly a Gallic thing, or a Gallic cliché – I don’t know which.

La Chanson des Vieux Amants, Jacques Brel

Bien sûr, nous eûmes des orages
Of course, we had some storms
Vingt ans d’amour, c’est l’amour fol
Twenty years of love, that's crazy love
Mille fois tu pris ton bagage
A thousand times you took your luggage
Mille fois je pris mon envol
A thousand times I took flight
Et chaque meuble se souvient
And each furniture has its memory
Dans cette chambre sans berceau
In this room without a cot
Des éclats des vieilles tempêtes
Fragments of old storms
Plus rien ne ressemblait à rien
Nothing any longer resembled anything
Tu avais perdu le goût de l’eau
You had lost the taste for water
Et moi celui de la conquête
And me, that of conquest
Mais mon amour, mon amour
But my love, my love
Mon doux mon tendre mon merveilleux amour
My sweet, my tender, my marvellous love
De l’aube claire jusqu’à la fin du jour
From the clear dawn till the end of the day
Je t’aime encore tu sais je t’aime
I love you still, you know I love you.
Moi, je sais tous tes sortilèges
Me, I know all your magic tricks
Tu sais tous mes envoûtements
You know all my magic charms
Tu m’as gardé de pièges en pièges
You kept me from trap to trap
Je t’ai perdue de temps en temps
I lost you from time to time
Bien sûr tu pris quelques amants
Of course, you took some lovers
Il fallait bien passer le temps
It was necessary to get through
Il faut bien que le corps exulte
The body has to rejoice
Finalement finalement
In the end, in the end
Il nous fallut bien du talent
It took us a lot of talent
Pour être vieux sans être adultes
To get old without being adults.
Et plus le temps nous fait cortège
And longer the time makes us our cortège
Et plus le temps nous fait tourment
And longer the time torments us
Mais n’est-ce pas le pire piège
But is it not the worst trap
Que vivre en paix pour des amants
For lovers to live peacefully?
Bien sûr tu pleures un peu moins tôt
Okay, you cry a little less early
Je me déchire un peu plus tard
I get torn up a little later
Nous protégeons moins nos mystères
We protect less our mysteries
On laisse moins faire le hasard
We leave less to chance
On se méfie du fil de l’eau
We are wary of the current
Mais c’est toujours la tendre guerre
But it's still the loving war.

Camille Claudel

Camille Claudel, 1864-1943, was the student, lover, and eventual enemy of the sculptor Rodin. She was a fine sculptor in her own right but had difficulty breaking free from Rodin’s influence, as well as from him personally.

Her life was very sad. After she split from Rodin, she became mentally unstable, exhibiting psychotic behaviour and bouts of paranoia. She was convinced that Rodin was trying to destroy her life and reputation. Her behaviour eventually became so disturbing that she was committed (by her brother) to an asylum from which she was never released. Despite the fact that her doctors said she was sane and could be returned to her family, they didn’t want her. She died in the asylum, spending thirty years of her life there, forbidden almost all visitors and all letters from anyone but her brother.

Much interest has been shown in the life and career of Camille Claudel, particularly with regard to the problems she suffered as the result of trying to be an independent woman and artist in a patriarchal era. Much of what has been written is biased one way or another, for or against Rodin. A more balanced account and assessment of her life and career can be found in the book Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, by J. A. Schmoll gen. Eisenwerth, originally in German but translated into several other languages.

The film Camille Claudel came out in 1988, starring Isabelle Adjani as Camille and Gerard Depardieu as Rodin. As you will see from the translated scene below, Rodin comes out of it very badly. Isabelle Adjani also played the role of Adèle Hugo in Truffaut’s L’Histoire d’Adèle H. She plays the role of the intense, romantic, and unstable woman with so much conviction it makes you feel that she has something of that nature herself. Like Camille, she is also stunningly beautiful.

For some reason, it seems to be impossible to get hold of scripts for films. I don’t know why, because they really add to your understanding of the film if you can study them and then re-watch the film. I read in Samuel Beckett’s biography that he was a fan of Bob Dylan, whom he referred to simply as The Poet. When Beckett went to New York to work on the production of one of his plays, he was introduced to Donn Pennebaker who made the Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. Beckett asked Pennebaker for a transcript.

A transcript is even more useful if you are trying to watch a foreign film and don’t want to use the subtitles in your own language. I can read French much more easily than I can understand it when spoken fast. Sometimes you can turn on subtitles in the original language but often they are only available in other languages, which is a drag. Often a lot is lost in translation and it is better to have the original scenario.

My French teacher, Muriel, painstakingly notated this scene from the film and for my homework I translated the French to English. Both are given below. This one scene expresses the significant story elements of the film and shows the passionate and difficult relationship between Rodin and Claudel. You really need to see the film to get the beauty of it (trailers on YouTube) and the superb acting.

Film Camille Claudel – scenario – scènes 11 et 12

Une élève J’ai entendu que Mademoiselle Claudel travaillait pour elle maintenant.
A student I heard that Mlle Claudel works for herself now.
Rodin Je lui ai montré où trouver de l’or mais l’or qu’elle trouve est à elle.
Rodin I showed her where to find gold but the gold she found is her own.

Rodin marche dans la nuit. Il se retourne, se sentant suivi. Une ombre apparaît, celle de Camille. Ils marchent hâtivement l’un vers l’autre. Retrouvailles passionnées et attendrissantes. Camille pleure de joie. Ils vont au café.

Rodin walks at night. He turns around, sensing someone following him. A shadow appears, that of Camille. They walk quickly towards each other. A passionate and tender reunion. Camille cries with joy. They go to a cafe.

Camille Bien sûr, je ne suis pas très gaie. Il semble que je suis devenue une étrangère. Il y a toujours quelque chose d’absent qui me tourmente.
Camille It’s true, I’m not very happy. It seems that I have become a stranger. There is always something missing which torments me.
Rodin C’est ta voix qui a le plus changé.
Rodin It’s your voice that has changed the most.
Camille Rien de ce qui est inhumain m’est étranger. Toi au moins, tu sais y faire avec tes intrigues. Tu ne peux pas dire le contraire !
Camille Nothing inhuman is a stranger to me. You at least, you know how to do it with your affairs. You cannot deny it!

[Quote from Terence : I am a man. Nothing human is alien to me.]

Rodin Ce que tu peux être mauvaise parfois ! Je trouve que tu vas pas très bien.
Rodin You are so nasty sometimes! I don’t think you are well.
Camille Ton Balzac est une grande idée, Auguste Rodin.
Camille Your Balzac is a great idea, Auguste Rodin.
Rodin C’est pas l’avis de tout le monde. Avec cette statue, je suis devenu la risée de tout Paris. Mon Balzac, je vais finir par le mettre dans mon jardin.
Rodin Not everyone thinks that. With this statue, I have become the laughing stock of Paris. My Balzac, I will end up putting him in my garden.

Un peu plus tard, chez Camille.

A bit later, outside Camille’s house. They embrace and kiss.

Camille Reste avec moi. Je veux faire l’amour avec toi.
Camille Stay with me. I want to make love to you.
Rodin Ton petit musicien, Debussy je crois. Il faisait bien l’amour ?
Rodin Your little musician… Debussy, I believe. He’s good at making love?
Camille Tais-toi. De toute façon, je déteste la musique.
Camille Shut up. Anyway, I hate music.

They are now inside Camille’s house. Rodin has his eyes closed and is feeling her statues with his hands.

Camille Et moi, pourquoi tu ne me touches pas ?
Camille And me, why don’t you touch me?
Rodin Non laisse-moi, laisse moi découvrir ton travail, tu veux ?
Rodin No, leave me alone, let me discover/examine your work, you want me to?
Camille Pourquoi ? Tu as peur que je t’ai dépassé ?
Camille Why ? You’re afraid that I have surpassed you?
Rodin Non, mais que tu m’aies copié peut-être. Calme-toi. Sois gentille. On dit que tu vas mal mais quand je vois la quantité de travail !
Rodin No, but you might have copied me. Calm down. Be polite. People say you are not well but when I see the quantity of your work!

Rodin still has his eyes closed.

Camille Tu ne veux pas voir ?
Camille You don’t want to see?
Rodin Oh non, je préfère toucher. Je veux toucher d’abord. Avec ton beau courage, tu es un démon de volonté.
Rodin Oh no, I prefer to touch. I want to touch it first. With your strong courage, you are a demon of will-power.
Camille Tu me donnes vraiment envie de ruer dans les brancards. J’ai l’impression d’avoir ramené un huissier chez moi.
Camille You really make me want to rebel, to kick over the traces. It feels like I’ve brought a bailiff home.

Rodin has been arrested by her statue L’Age mûr, which shows a man being physically torn between an older and a younger woman. When he realises the subject of the statue, he opens his eyes.

Rodin Tu ne peux pas. Ah non, tu ne peux pas ! Je t’ai expliqué tout-à-l’heure mes embrouilles avec mon Balzac ! Si tu donnes suite à cette ébauche, une nouvelle affaire va encore éclater. Comment peux-tu réduire ce que nous avons vécu à cette image-là ?! Tu me représentes comme un pantin désarticulé par deux femmes. Cette caricature est ignoble !
Rodin You cannot do that. Oh no, you can’t. I just explained to you my problems with my Balzac. If you were to follow it with this rough draft, a new scandal will erupt. How can you reduce what we have lived together to this image here? You represent me like a puppet torn apart by two women. This caricature is disgraceful/vile.
Camille Qu’est-ce que tu veux que je fasse ?
Camille What do you want me to make/do?
Rodin Je voudrais que tu fasses ce que je te dis, voilà exactement ce que je voudrais que tu fasses et tu le sais très bien.
Rodin I would like you to make what I tell you – there you go – exactly what I want you to do and you know it very well.
Camille Tu veux que je fasse autre chose que ce que je fais. J’entends suivre mon chemin à moi. J’ai acquis ce droit.
Camille You want me to do something different to what I do. I intend to follow my own path. I have earned the right.
Rodin Non, si ton chemin te donne le droit de me ridiculiser comme ça ou de me détruire, alors tu dois y renoncer. Tu dois y renoncer. Quelques soient tes idées, tu dois me les soumettre. Il n’y a aucune comparaison entre toi et moi, aucune !!! Tu es un sculpteur de troisième ordre !
Rodin No, not if your way gives you the right to ridicule me like that or to destroy me, you have to renounce your way. You must renounce it. Whatever ideas you have, you must submit them to me. There is no comparison between you and me, none! You are a sculptor of the third order.
Camille Quoi ?!! Tu t’attaques violemment à un sculpteur de troisième ordre !
Camille What ?!! You violently attack a sculptor of the third order!
Rodin Tout vient de moi, rien de toi ! Tu te bats trop pour ta sculpture ! Il y a longtemps qu’elle se défend par elle-même ta sculpture !
Rodin Everything comes from me, nothing from you. You work too hard for your sculpture! It’s a long time since your sculpture lived on its own merits.
Camille Tu peux m’expliquer pourquoi t’es si jaloux ?
Camille Can you explain to me why you are so jealous?
Rodin Jaloux, moi ? Mais moi, je sculpte la vie, pas la mort. Toi, tu donnes tort à la vie. Tu cherches la douleur. Tu t’enivres de douleur. Tu la fabriques la douleur. Tu te représentes comme une victime, comme une martyre mais c’est toi qui es partie, c’est toi qui m’a quitté.
Rodin Me, jealous? But me, I sculpt life, not death. You, you lay blame on life. You search out pain. You get drunk on pain. You create pain. You represent yourself as a victim, like a martyr, but it was you who left, it was you who left me.
Camille Mais c’est impossible de vivre avec toi !
Camille But it’s impossible to live with you!
Rodin Mais enfin, écoute Camille, ce que nous avons fait ensemble, c’était bien. Moi j’ai toujours ressenti la nécessité pour nous de vivre sur un pied d’égalité.
Rodin But in the end, listen Camille, what we did together, that was good. I have always felt that we should live on an equal footing.
Camille Mais tout le travail que j’ai fait pour toi était bien. « Mlle Claudel, l’élève de Rodin. Mlle Claudel fait du Rodin. Mlle Claudel ramasse les miettes du maître pour les fourrer ensuite dans sa sculpture. Et c’est ce que tu as laissé faire, c’est ça que tu as été dire.
Camille But all the work I did for you was good. “Mlle Claudel, the student of Rodin. Mlle Claudel, made by Rodin. Mlle Claudel, scooping up the crumbs of the master to stuff into her sculpture.” That’s what you allowed to happen, that’s what you have been saying.
Rodin Mon dieu, finalement tu es ma pire ennemie. J’te découvre.
Rodin Good god, at last, you are my worst enemy. I reveal you.
Camille Mais tu m’as tout volé, ma jeunesse, mon travail, tout !
Camille But you stole everything from me, my youth, my work, everything!
Rodin Tu m’accuses d’avoir gâché ta vie ?
Rodin You accuse me of ruining your life?
Camille Mais j’aurais préféré ne jamais te rencontrer. J’aurais préféré être dans un asile, là où tu aimerais bien me mettre d’ailleurs !
Camille I would have preferred it if I had never met you. I would have preferred to be in an asylum, which is where you would really like me to be, by the way.
Rodin Tu es complètement saoule. Mais tu es complètement ivre morte, complètement saoule. Il parait que tu bois maintenant. On dit que tu bois, partout.
Rodin You are totally pissed. You are completely dead drunk, totally pissed. It seems that you drink now. Everyone everywhere says that you drink.
Camille Mais si j’arrêtais de boire, on dirait que c’est toi et tout le monde verrait que c’est toi qui m’a mise dans un état pareil. Alors que tout le monde pense que je suis dans cet état parce que je bois, alors laisse les croire que je bois.
Camille But if I were to stop drinking, all the world would see that it is you who put me in the same state. So, all the world sees that I am in this state because I drink, so let them believe that I drink.
Rodin Camille, je suis sculpteur professionnel reconnu. Je te soutiens. Je sais que tu peux te vanter d’avoir contre toi tous les gens qui ne connaissent rien.
Rodin Camille, I am a famous, professional sculptor. I support you. I know that you can boast of having everyone who knows nothing against you.
Camille Qu’est-ce que tu veux dire professionnel ? Ca veut dire quoi ? Diriger trois ateliers à la fois pour cumuler les commandes ? Ca veut dire position sociale au lieu de mettre la main à la pâte lorsque tes ouvriers, tu les colles au travail mais tu mets seulement ta couche finale à tes marbres. Et moi, en tant qu’artiste, tu t’étonnes que je refuse ce système ?
Camille What do you mean professional? That means what? Managing three studios at the same time so that you can accumulate commissions? That means your social position instead of putting your hands in the clay when your workers… you stick them to work but you put the final touch to their marbles. And me, being an artist, you are surprised that I refuse that system?
Rodin Ca va ! Arrête avec tes ragots ! C’est des calomnies ! Arrête avec tes salades !
Rodin Okay. Stop with your gossip! Those are calumnies ! Stop with your nonsense!
Camille Des salades ?! Parlons-en de tes salades ! Tu as besoin d’appuis politicards pour défendre ton travail ?
Camille Nonsense ? You talk about nonsense! You need the support of some political shenanigans/scheming to help your work?
Rodin Mais je ne suis ni dreyfusard ni anti dreyfusard si c’est ça que tu veux dire ?!
Rodin But I am neither Dreyfussard or anti-Dreyfussard, if that is what you mean.
Camille Toi, au moins si tu choisissais ton camps par conviction ! Mais moi quand j’ai appris que tu étais avec les dreyfusards, que tu les soutenais uniquement pour intérêt personnel, pour pouvoir enfin exposer ton Balzac, enfin exposer ton Balzac, mais moi, je suis devenue anti dreyfusard !
Camille You, you could at least choose your camp by conviction! But me, when I learned you were with the Dreyfussards, that you supported them just for selfish reasons, to be able to finally exhibit your Balzac, me, I became an anti-Dreyfussard.
Rodin Ca suffit comme ça ! Arrête !!!
Rodin That’s enough of that! Stop it !

Tout deux s’arrêtent et regardent en silence la sculpture de la petite Châtelaine.

Both of them stop and look in silence at the sculpture ‘La Petite Châtelaine’. Rodin walks away towards the back of the studio.

Rodin C’est ridicule. Quel gâchis ! Quand je t’ai rencontrée, tu étais pour moi la femme la plus sexuellement désirable dans ce monde.
Rodin This is ridiculous. What a mess. When I met you, you were for me the most sexually desirable woman in the world.
Camille Toi, le sculpteur, toi qui as caressé mon ventre nu, tu n’as même pas pu voir ce qui avait changé.
Camille You, the sculptor, you who caressed my naked stomach, you weren’t even able to see that it had changed.

Camille s’assied. Rodin est à genou.

Camille sitting down. Rodin on his knees before her.

Rodin Si j’avais su que tu attendais un enfant, je t’aurais épousée.
Rodin If I had known you were pregnant, I would have married you.
Camille Pendant des années, tu n’as pas voulu… Tu n’as jamais voulu choisir. Tu n’as jamais rien décidé.
Camille Over the years, you didn’t want… you never wanted to choose. You never decided anything.
Rodin Je n’ai jamais aimée que toi.
Rodin I never loved anyone but you.
Camille Je ne pouvais pas te partager. C’était un combat pour moi.
Camille I could never share you. That was a battle for me.
Rodin Que veux-tu que je te dise ? Tu t’es trompée, y a rien à dire. C’est fini. C’est fini, les complications sentimentales. Je ne veux plus. Je ne peux plus rentrer dans la tyrannie des émotions. Je ne peux plus.
Rodin What do you want me to say? You are mistaken, there is nothing to say about it. It’s finished. It’s over, my complicated love life. I don’t want any more. I can’t go back to the tyranny of the emotions. I can’t do it any more.
Camille Au moment de mourir, tu hésiteras encore !…
Camille At the moment of your death, you will still hesitate!

Rodin la quitte. Camille effondrée et brisée pleure.

Rodin leaves her. Camille collapses and breaks down, crying.

Camille Pourquoi ?
Camille Why?

Une petite histoire d’Adèle Hugo

After failing to learn much French at school (or anything else for that matter), it seems that I have spent the remainder of my life trying. Over the years I have studied it intermittently, formally and informally, with and without teachers. My current teacher is definitely the best I have had ( and she uses film and song along with the more traditional methods.

Around the same time I started with Muriel, I also got interested in the films and biography of François Truffaut and bought a box set. I already knew about a couple of his more famous films, such as Jules et Jim and Le Dernier Metro, but one film that surprised me was L’Histoire d’Adèle H. which is based on the journals of Victor Hugo’s second daughter Adèle.  Briefly, she was unstable from a fairly young age but was highly creative musically and as a writer (her journals are in three long volumes). In her twenties she developed an obsession with an English lieutenant-colonel, Albert Pinson. Although he originally proposed to her, she rejected him but when his regimental duties took him to Canada she pursued him. She stayed in a lodging house in Halifax, Nova Scotia, her behaviour becoming ever more bizarre and disturbing, all documented in her journals and in the letters sent to her father by her landlady.

But now, Pinson was no longer interested in her and was ‘given to a life of debauchery’, which was the nineteenth century euphemism for sexual enjoyment outside of marriage. When his regiment was transferred to Barbados, she followed him there, where she descended fully into madness, living in rags on the streets, having stones thrown at her by the boys of the town, scattering to the wind banknotes sent to her by her father. She was eventually taken in and nursed to a form of health by a liberated slave called Madame Baa, who eventually returned with her to Paris to deliver her to her family: “an emotionless, dark-haired woman of forty-one chaperoned by a cheerful Barbadian.  Adèle Hugo failed to recognise her brother.”

The above is a brief sketch of a complex and amazing history which has many significant aspects. It is significant because she was the daughter of Victor Hugo and that relationship cast both a shadow and spell on her; it is significant because of the constraints she suffered as a 19th century unmarried woman; it is significant because she documented her own madness and obsession with an impossible and unrequited love, because she was as obsessed with the love as much as the loved.

There are many aspects to the story and Truffaut could only concentrate on one of them in his powerful film, with Isabel Adjani playing a truly astonishing film début as Adèle. The other thing that makes this story personal to me is that most of the events took place on Guernsey, in the Channel Isles. I grew up on the neighbouring island of Jersey. When Hugo fled France to live in exile after Napoleon III’s coup d’état in 1851, he firstly went to Jersey and then to Guernsey, where he stayed until 1870, writing many of his best works there, including Les Miserables. Hauteville House, in St Peter Port, where he lived (and which he largely designed and decorated – he was an accomplished artist and painter as well as a writer) is preserved as a museum and is  recommended if you ever visit Guernsey.

Truffaut and his crew moved to Guernsey for a couple of months in the 1970s to make the film. Much of it was filmed on Castle Cornet, including the scenes set in Nova Scotia. (By coincidence, Castle Cornet was also the inspiration for the castle in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels; Peake lived on the nearby island of Sark for two periods in his life). There are a few scenes filmed in Hauteville House, or at least from the garden towards the house.

There are many things about these combined stories and histories that affect me, not simply because the presence of Victor Hugo could still be felt in the Channel Islands when I was a child there one hundred years later. Hugo loved the islands and in many ways his exile by the sea released another wave of creativity in him. Several of his works from that period are set in the islands (Le Travailleurs de la Mer, and L’Archipel de la Manche, for example); the latter is both a history and a record of his impressions of the islands in which he captures the unusual character of the place and people. The people have changed but the incredible geology and the mysterious effect of the sea has not.

All of the above was by way of an introduction to the real subject of this post. Every so often my French teacher asks me to write an essay on any subject I like. Since we had been talking about Truffaut and L’Histoire d’Adèle H. I decided to write about that. I think my French is very poor and writing in it for me feels like how it must be when someone is recovering from a stroke, when every word is an effort. I can only express myself laboriously and what I say is completely constrained by my limited vocabulary and grammatical knowledge. Typically I write a first draft by hand, then correct it while typing it up, then correct it again while proofing it. Then I show it to my teacher and she, depressingly, finds numerous small errors and several larger ones where I have tried to literally translate English sentence structure into French. Anyway, normally by the end of that, I have something half decent although nothing approximating what I would have said in English. When I try to write French, je is definitely un autre.

My sources for this essay are mainly Graham Robb’s biography of Hugo and the biography of Truffaut shown in the bibliography at the bottom. Robb is probably the best biographer in English of recent years, particularly his biographies of Balzac, Hugo, and Rimbaud. He writes with deep knowledge, a wry humour, and always manages to discover unusual but pertinent aspects to his subjects, often ones overlooked or not considered important by other biographers. For example, other biographies of Rimbaud tend to consider that his story ends when he supposedly stops writing poetry at the age of nineteen and pursues a ‘doomed career’ as an African trader. Robb provides balance to Rimbaud’s life and discovers a lot of information about his African years and makes a convincing case that the received story about Rimbaud’s curtailed life is a myth that was more suited to the contemporary image of the poete maudit than it was to the facts.

Anyway, read Robb, watch Truffaut, and try Hugo. Also try to get the biography or journals of Adèle Hugo (they are still in print in French), and if you do, please lend them to me.

Note: The translations of  Robb from English into French are my own and probably execrable. I have also attempted to translate the extracts from Adèle Hugo’s journal (translated by Robb from French to English) back into French – I would be surprised if they even approximated the 19th  century French of the originals.

Adèle Hugo, fille

Il y avait deux Adèle Hugo, la femme de Victor Hugo et sa deuxième fille qui est née le 24 Aout 1830. Mais neuf mois plus tôt, Mme Hugo était au milieu d’une aventure avec le critique Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. Sainte-Beuve s’est vanté dans un poème qu’Adèle lui appartenait, mais dans un autre poème VH le dénié, disant que Adèle lui ressemblait et qu’elle était, « le fruit des longes de ton père, les longes d’un lion furieux. »

Donc, Adèle H. est née sous un nuage de soupçon, ce qui aurait eu un grand effet sur sa vie. Apres la découverte  de l’infidélité de Mme Hugo, « il a eu l’effet de transmettre l’antagonisme des parents à leurs enfants. Hugo a fait sa fille ainée, Léopoldine, le fondement de son bonheur ». En même temps, Hugo lui-même, après avoir perdu confiance dans son mariage, a pris une maitresse, Juliette Drouet, qui l’a accompagné (souvent à la distance) sa vie entière.

La vie de petite Adèle a commencé avec une intrigue et elle a grandi sous l’ombre de sa sœur, avec l’indifférence de son père. Quand elle avait 13 ans, l’événement le plus décisif de sa jeunesse s’est produit, la mort de Léopoldine, qui s’est noyée dans le Seine avec son fiancé. Toute la famille, VH en particulier, a été profondément marquée et Adèle elle-même a conservé la robe dans laquelle Léopoldine s’est noyée. Il semble que l’image d’une femme se noyant avec son amant, et tombant sous l’eau, a hanté l’imagination d’Adèle pour le reste de sa vie.

La mort de Léopoldine avait deux aspects pour Adèle : elle l’a libérée de l’ombre de sa sœur, et elle s’est épanouié comme une fleur noire, intense, étrange, absorbée dans la vie imaginaire et la fantaisie. Mais d’autre part, VH a demandé que ses autres enfants « suivent l’exemple impeccable de leur sœur divine. » (Robb, 245) VH a demandé continuellement à petite Adèle de « ne pas bégayer. »

Elle était tres belle, avec une intensité ardente. Balzac était étonné de sa beauté. Il y avait toujours ses admirateurs : Clesinger, Balzac, Auguste Vacquerie (le frère du fiancé de Léopoldine) et, le plus signifiant, à Guernesey, Albert Pinson, un jeune lieutenant-colonel anglais, qui a demandé Adèle en mariage mais elle lui a refusé. Elle a écrit dans son journal (presque s’il était dans la chambre avec elle), « Vous êtes un anglais qui aime une française, un royaliste qui aime une républicaine, un blond qui aime une brunette, un homme du passé qui aime une femme du futur, un homme du monde matériel qui aime une femme idéale… je vous aime comme le sculpteur aime l’argile. » (Robb, 358)

Dans ce période elle était déjà malade. Son écriture démontrait un type de dysgraphie, des erreurs intermittentes, et des syllabes inversées. Son visage est devenu long – la beauté qui avait étonné Balzac s’est flétrie sous la grande ombre de son père. Elle écoutait la mer, composait des chansons au piano, mélancoliques et sans mots. Ses émotions se sont manifestées par des maladies psychosomatiques : les fièvres, le délire, la constipation, l’anorexie. Mme Hugo a dit à VH que Adèle doit quitter Guernesey pour Londres ou Paris : « Un petit jardin, du travail d’aiguille n’est pas suffisant pour une femme qui a 26 ans. » (Robb, 359)

Cinq ans plus tard (après qu’elle ait rejeté cinq soupirants) Adèle a fuit la France pour suivre Pinson à Halifax, en Nouvelle-Ecosse (au Canada). VH finalement s’est rendu compte de ce qu’il avait fait à Adèle : sous prétexte qu’elle était ‘contaminée’ par Sainte-Beuve il lui avait refusé son affection. Mme Hugo lui a demandé, « Comment peut-on refuser à la fille ce qu’on ne refuse pas à la maitresse ? » Pour VH le remède était pour Adèle de retourner à Hauteville House, Guernesey, où son père la soignerait, célébrerait son retour, et lui trouverait un mari : elle deviendrait Léopoldine, en effet.

Mais Adèle est déjà devenue Léopoldine. Elle croyait à sa sœur morte, plus que Hugo lui-même. Elle portait la robe dont Léopoldine s’est noyée, effectivement envoyant des messages d’un autre monde, poursuivant son « homme du passé. » Elle a sombré peu à peu dans la folie. Elle portait toujours des vêtements noires, et occasionnellement des vêtements masculins. Elle a suivi Pinson à Barbade où les enfants de la ville jetaient des cailloux à la femme folle. Elle était totalement dans la misère jusqu’à ce qu’une esclave libérée, Mme Baa, l’ait pris en pitié et lui a offert une chambre, sauvant sa vie.

Finalement, VH a envoyé de l’argent à Mme Baa et le deux femmes sont rentrées à Paris, « an emotionless, dark-haired woman of forty-one chaperoned by a cheerful Barbadian.  Adèle Hugo failed to recognise her brother. » Physiquement, l’insanité a eu un bon effet sur la santé d’Adèle, elle mangeait et faisait de l’exercice vigoureusement, mais elle passait ses jours à se quereller avec les voix dans sa tète, jouant sans motivation au piano, et écrivant page après page dans un journal qu’elle ne montrait jamais à personne.

Avant qu’elle ait fuit Guernesey, elle a écrit dans son journal : « Ce serait une chose incroyable si une jeune femme, qui est si asservie qu’elle ne peut guère sortir de la maison pour acheter du papier, si elle traversait l’océan, passant du monde ancien vers le Nouveau Monde pour chercher son amant. Cette chose je vais la faire. »

Un enfant endommagé. Un enfant à qui est refusé l’amour de son père. Un enfant artistique avec une imagination forte, forcé de vivre en privé. Une femme obsessionnelle qui rejette toutes les choses pour chercher l’amour, en particulier un amour fou, irréalisable. C’est pourquoi, je suppose, Truffaut a trouvé dans cette histoire un scenario près de son cœur.

Adèle Hugo, fille, est morte dans un somptueux asile de fou en 1915, à Suresnes, près du Bois du Boulogne, « une vielle dame qui portait un chapeau aux longs rubans. »

Bibliographie :

Victor Hugo, Graham Robb, Norton and Company, New York, 1997
François Truffaut, Antoine de Baecque et Serge Toubiana, Gallimard, 1996