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Literary Escapade: Sète, France

June 18, 2020 33 comments

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)

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