Surrealist poet of the streets commemorated

 

If Jacques Prevert were alive today, he probably wouldn't think much of his 100th birthday celebrations. The anarchist in him might rage at the Ministry of Culture dedicating its "Springtime of Poets" to him, organising Prevert readings in lycees and town halls all over France.

With his droopy eyes and wool cap, the best-loved poet of the 20th century, the "surrealist of the streets", would rather sit on a cafe terrace with his shaggy dog Erge, a glass of gros rouge and a pack of Gauloises Bleues, than receive literary honours. It was the cigarettes that killed him in 1977, but true to character, Prevert said on his deathbed: "A life like mine, I'd wish for a lot of people".

Nor would the publication of Yves Courriere's 700-page biography - on the best-seller list for the past month - and at least four other new books by or about Prevert, have moved him. Prevert's first book, Paroles (words) came out when he was 46 years old, just after the second World War ended.

That it was printed at all was a fluke, due to the persistence of an aspiring editor named Rene Bertele. Prevert scattered his poems like the autumn leaves he wrote about. He scribbled them on bistro tablecloths, or on bits of paper that he handed to pretty young women. Bertele scoured obscure literary reviews and Prevert's belongings to assemble the 79 poems.

Paroles was phenomenally successful: 5,000 books were sold in the first week and more than 2.2 million copies have been sold since. Yet the whole book has never appeared in English. Paradoxically, Prevert's simple, everyday language and slang are difficult to translate. A New York publisher has sold only 4,000 copies of Blood and Feathers, the most complete selection of his poems in English.

More intellectual poets despised Prevert, calling him a clown and a phoney proletarian. But the public loved him: 400 French schools have been named after Prevert, more than for Victor Hugo.

His poems are about love at first sight and love that has died, contempt for the military, the clergy and the bourgeoisie. They are filled with scorn for politicians and empathy for the poor, yet Yves Montand sang Prevert songs at the White House for Jackie Kennedy.

Prevert inspired Popular Front demonstrators in the 1930s and supported the revolt of May 1968; his themes were so etched on 20th-century French national character that it's not clear whether Prevert influenced the French or whether he was a distillation of them. The poem Je suis comme je suis (I am as I am), about a woman with high-heeled shoes and dark-circled eyes who loves a little too freely, became a mantra for the post-war cafe society of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, a street expression of Jean-Paul Sartre's quest for "authenticity". Although Prevert never went to university, he kept company with philosophers like Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus.

In the 1930s and 1940s Prevert had become a scenarist, working with the directors Marcel Carne and Jean Renoir on cinema classics that included Quai Des Brumes, Le Jour Se Leve and the magnificent Les Enfants De Paradis. His characters were draft-dodgers, petty criminals on the run, fallen women. Actors like Jean Gabin and Jean-Louis Barrault, Michele Morgan and Arletty made his lines famous.

"I'm fed up with men who talk so much about love that they forget to make it," Arletty said in Le Jour Se Leve. Prevert seemed doomed in love, and a mistress had left him with those words.

Prevert's background was the sort of anti-hero story that the French find romantic. The son of an alcoholic, failed-writer father, he grew up a street urchin, like Victor Hugo's Gavroche. In his youth, the Courriere biography reveals, Prevert did some pimping and was probably a thief. "The blankness of my police record remains a mystery to me," he often said. He tried to avoid military service by feigning mental illness, to no avail.

Former army comrades led Prevert to the surrealists in the mid-1920s, but Prevert infuriated their leader Andre Breton by writing a nasty article about "the Pope of Surrealism". Through his flirtation with the movement, Prevert forged lasting friendships with artists like Picasso, Giacometti and Chagall.

Although he wrote against the Nazis and the collaborationist Vichy government, helped Jewish friends and transmitted messages for the Resistance, Prevert never belonged to any movement or political party.

"The least intellectual of French artists knew how to show solidarity and generosity without getting involved with groups," Pierre Billard wrote recently in Le Point. Most French writers cannot resist the temptation to espouse causes and pontificate. Perhaps they should learn from Prevert's example.