Home > Literary Escapades, Personal Posts > Literary Escapade: Sète, France

Literary Escapade: Sète, France

Sète is a city on the Mediterranean Sea, in France.

It is where Paul Valéry (1871-1945) was born and where he is buried. I’ve never read anything by him. I know him by name, he was very famous in his time, a contemporary of Proust. I browsed through his books in a bookstore in Sète but nothing seemed to be my cup of tea, except a book of maxims. We visited the marine cemetery where he is buried and here’s his tombstone:

Nice view, eh?

For me, poetry and Sète don’t mean Paul Valéry but Georges Brassens, who was born and buried there too. If Bob Dylan can be a Nobel of Literature laureate, Georges Brassens (1921-1981) could have been a contender too.

Brassens was a French poet and songwriter. An anarchist, his texts are cheeky and extremely well written. According to his Wikipedia page, his songs have been translated into twenty languages, Japanese and Esperanto included. For Australian readers, there is tribute album entitled Mountain Men chante Georges Brassens.

He’s a master of the French language, mixing old words and argot, playing on words and making our language sing. I was raised listening to his unorthodox songs, like The Gorilla, Bad Reputation or The Trumpet of Fame. He was a bit of an anarchist and certainly a free spirit. The song Mourir pour des idées (To Die for the Sake of Ideas) is a song against fanatism of any kind. The chorus says, “To die for the sake of ideas, ok, but let’s die slowly”, in other words, let’s not put ourselves at risk and be blind followers of extremists who exhort us to fight until death but stay safely behind the scenes.

I love his beautiful song about friendship, Les Copains d’abord (Friends First), and our Book Club, Les Copines d’abord, is named after it. Brassens was a faithful friend, he kept in touch with his childhood friends his whole life.

His repertoire also includes more tender songs like, Lovers Sitting on Public Benches. In the Non-Proposal (La non-demande en mariage), he explains to his long-term partner Joha Heiman (“Püppchen”) that he doesn’t want to tie her to him through marriage. He doesn’t want the quotidian to spoil their love and he says he doesn’t need a housewife or a servant but just a lover. They’ll stay fiancés forever.

Supplique pour être enterré à la plage de Sète is a plea to be buried on the beach in Sète, to spend his death on holiday. It makes you want to visit the city and see its beach with your own eyes.

Brassens also sang poems by Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine, François Villon or Paul Fort. To me, Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage was a song by Brassens before it was verses by Joachim du Bellay.

We visited the Georges Brassens museum, with masks and all. It’s a lovely museum that tells Brassens’s life and puts it in perspective with what was going on in France at the time.

Brassens is buried in Sète, in the other cemetery, along with his life partner Joha Heiman. His fans have put reminders of his songs on his grave.

Non-French readers, did you know about him?

I’ll leave you with a last picture of Sète, the fishermen quarter. (Sorry guys, no trout fishing, guys, as trout live in rivers, not in the sea)

  1. June 18, 2020 at 11:22 pm

    Ah, we were in Sète a little less than a year ago. What a treat to read this.

    If people want to hear a little Brassens plausibly adapted into English, there is a superb album from 2010, “Bad Reputation: Pierre de Gaillande Sings Georges Brassens. Ah ha, here it is, available for free, more or less.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 19, 2020 at 7:02 am

      Did you go to the Brassens museum?
      Thanks for the link!

      Like

      • June 19, 2020 at 4:00 pm

        No, we hardly did anything in Sète except see it and decide we needed to come back.

        I have read a fair amount of Valéry in both English and French. One of the fun things about learning French is that I now fail to understand Valéry in two languages.

        Like

        • June 20, 2020 at 2:27 pm

          *chuckles*

          Valéry’s books seemed too old fashioned for me, like full of references to Greek and Roman lit that were natural for educated people of his time but totally lost for today’s average reader.

          Too many thoughts, not enough story, that’s what I thought when I browsed through his books. They’re certainly very good, just not for me.

          PS : I don’t know any reader around me who has read him.

          Like

  2. Vishy
    June 18, 2020 at 11:32 pm

    Loved your post, Emma! I haven’t heard of Georges Brassens before. So nice to learn about him! Thanks so much for sharing! I want to listen to some of his songs. They sound wonderful from what you have said. Loved all the pictures you shared. Glad you had a great time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 19, 2020 at 7:03 am

      Hello Vishy, look at Tom’s comment : he put a link to an English version of Brassens’s songs.

      Like

      • Vishy
        June 19, 2020 at 6:23 pm

        Thank you, Emma. Will listen to those songs soon.

        Like

        • June 20, 2020 at 2:27 pm

          I hope you’ll like them!

          Like

  3. June 19, 2020 at 1:27 am

    Thanks for speaking about Brassens, such a great artist.
    Paul Valéry has some cool passages in Le cimetière marin. Enjoy your summer

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 19, 2020 at 7:05 am

      Thanks.
      I’ll have a look at Le cimetière marin.
      When I browsed through his books they sounded well written but dated. You know, like Anatole France.

      Like

  4. June 19, 2020 at 5:49 am

    Lovely post, Emma. Brassens is by far my favorite singer (poet I would even say). Les trompettes de la renommée is unequaled. I copied its lyrics on a personal notebook and reciting them to our book club. There’s a book of his songs, Les Paroles d’Abord maybe? Recommended when listening to his songs as they’re quite complex (and very funny). To the songs you mentioned, I would also recommend Grand Chêne and Tempête dans un Bénitier, which I only recently discovered. Glad you enjoyed your escapade. Funny how Verlaine seems to have been eclipsed in this post -and maybe in Sète?- by Brassens.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 19, 2020 at 7:13 am

      I love Brassens and Les Trompettes de la renommée is a gem. Do you know Ma chanson leur a pas plu de Renaud ? There’s a reference to Brassens in it.
      I also love Hécatombe, La chasse aux papillons….
      I love Renaud too, inspired by Brassens.

      I don’t know the connection between Verlaine and Sète. For me, Verlaine is linked to Metz, where he was born.

      Like

      • June 19, 2020 at 8:38 am

        How clumsy of me, I meant Valéry 🙂
        I don’t know much about Renaud only the old and famous songs. I will listen to this one; pretty sure, I will like him. Hécatombe, I will add it too. Thanx!

        Like

        • June 20, 2020 at 2:28 pm

          There’s also the album Renaud chante Brassens and it’s good.

          Let me know what you think about Hécatombe. 🙂

          Like

          • June 21, 2020 at 4:04 am

            Every time I listen to a Brassens song I don’t previously know, I make a sound of “tsk tsk tsk” while laughing because they always catch me off guard and this one is no different. I recently heard on French public TV that his songs wouldn’t”pass” these days because of their misogyny. I think he tackled everybody.

            Like

            • June 21, 2020 at 9:09 am

              I knew you’d love this one. It’s so funny and you can picture the scene so well. Quel conteur!

              The question of misogyny of his songs is addressed by Brassens himself in an interview that visitors can hear at the museum. He says that he loves women but some of them get on his nerves.
              I don’t think he’s misogynous in the strict sense of the term. (like: women are inferior to men and should stay home and take care of housekeeping and kids) He said that women are more compassionate than men and that they are wonderful. For me, it’s the rosy side of misogyny. Women are humans, like men. I don’t think they have an inbuilt softness. Brought up in the same conditions, they’ll be as violent as men can be.

              Like

              • June 21, 2020 at 9:19 am

                I fully agree and I never took him for a misogynist. Violence, corruption, greed, you name it, are what make us humans 🙂

                Liked by 1 person

  5. June 19, 2020 at 6:54 am

    That’s a beautiful photo by the sea:)

    Like

  6. June 19, 2020 at 8:29 am

    Adore Brassens, had a collection of his songs on tape which accompanied me throughout my student days in 3 countries. And doesn’t Valery have a long poème Le Cimetière marin?

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 20, 2020 at 9:05 am

      Brassens is a marvelous writer. I love his wit, his way with the French language. He has his own language a mix of words used in poetry and rude words that he manages to turn into poetry.

      Yes Valéry has written Le Cimetière marin. I’ve never read his poetry or studied it in class, btw.

      Liked by 1 person

      • June 20, 2020 at 2:19 pm

        I remember being very modest about my French back in the mid-1990s (I’d only studied it a bit at school, and it was much worse than my other languages). But then when a Frenchman heard that I listened to Georges Brassens, he said I must be much more fluent than I thought!

        Like

        • June 20, 2020 at 2:30 pm

          I totally agree with him.

          You need to be a very good French speaker to understand Brassens fully. There are so many play-on-words, allusions and poetic images in his texts.
          And he has an accent.

          Like

          • June 20, 2020 at 2:49 pm

            Well, half of it probably washed over me at the time, and I only got to understand him later. But I did enjoy reading lots of French authors in my teens (in the original) so that must have helped.

            Like

            • June 20, 2020 at 2:51 pm

              Certainly. Did you share him with your sons?

              Like

              • June 20, 2020 at 2:59 pm

                N’ont pas intérêt 😔

                Like

              • June 20, 2020 at 3:05 pm

                Too bad. R. likes him, he enjoys how he plays with the language.

                Like

  7. June 19, 2020 at 10:50 am

    Lovely literary escapade. I really don’t know more about Brassens, and unlike you Heureux qui comme Ulysse is definitely a poem before it is a song (thank you, school!). Well, I know what I’m going to listen to today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 19, 2020 at 10:52 am

      I meant to add: I love that your book club name has this inbuilt reference to Brassens.

      Like

      • June 20, 2020 at 2:34 pm

        Les copains d’abord is really a beautiful song about friendship and fidelity to old friends.

        Like

    • June 20, 2020 at 2:33 pm

      I hope you’ll have time to listen to Brassens and discover his texts. He was quite irreverent for his time.

      Listen to La légende de la nonne, written by Victor Hugo, music and vocals by Georges Brassens. It’s a gem.

      Like

  8. June 19, 2020 at 4:57 pm

    How lovely….. I’d never heard of Brassens in my English-speaking bubble but he sounds wonderful. And that view in the first picture….

    Liked by 1 person

  9. June 20, 2020 at 2:37 pm

    Tom put a link to an album in English. Bad Reputation: Pierre de Gaillande Sings Georges Brassens. Maybe you can find some songs on YouTube if you’re curious about him.

    PS: We have a French singer who translates and sings Bob Dylan in French.

    Liked by 1 person

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