For the insatiable memorialists that we have become, every year is someone's centenary year. This year is special, though, in being the centenary of those luminaries who, born in 1900, were invariably described as being "as old as the century" and who were therefore credited, mostly by virtue of that fact, with having somehow epitomised it. Such was the case of Jacques Prevert, the poet of populist Surrealism, who was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, an affluent suburb of Paris, 100 years ago this month.
Since Prevert is as little known in this country as he is famous in France, probably the simplest way to situate him for British readers would be to propose a local equivalent. In one sense - but, as we shall see, only in one - he can be thought of as the French John Betjeman. Both were genuinely beloved poets, read by the kind of people who never normally read poetry and in consequence despised (Prevert more than Betjeman) by intellectuals. Both were national institutions, household faces as well as household names. And both not only versified but, as it were, diversified. Betjeman wrote social and architectural criticism, Prevert screenplays and popular songs; Betjeman metamorphosed himself into a much-loved television personality, Prevert became one of the emblematic stars of Parisian postwar culture.
There, however, the resemblance ends. Where their respective oeuvres are concerned, as also their "auras', their public personas, it would be hard to find two poets who had less in common. If either had ever heard of the other, each would have found the other's work virtually unreadable.
Let's begin with the aura. Prevert was a late developer in the household- name game, achieving widespread recognition only after the Second World War, during the heyday of Existentialism. That latter word, with its echoes of Kierkegaard, Husserl and Heidegger, sends such shivers down the spines of the pragmatic British that it's often forgotten what an incredibly hip philosophy it was once upon a time. In the Paris of the late Forties, Existentialism meant not just ploughing through Sartre's Being and Nothingness but zipping around the city in a garish souped-up sports car, gorging on the whorish pleasures of pre-war Hollywood movies and listening to le jazz hot in one of Saint-Germain-des-Pres' modishly subterranean nightclubs, where Juliette Greco sang velvety torch songs and Boris Vian played a mean trumpet solo.
Though no longer a young man, Prevert was very definitely part of that scene. Admired as the scenarist of some of the French cinema's evergreen classics, notably Marcel Carne's sumptuous melodrama Les Enfants du Paradis, he was frequently photographed mooching about the boulevards of Montparnasse in the company of Sartre and de Beauvoir, of Camus and Raymond Queneau, of Bardot and Arletty, Picasso and Chagall, Buster Keaton and Marcel Marceau.
Squat, tubby, with dark baggy eyes, he was almost never to be seen without a damp cornpaper Gauloise dangling from his lips. (It's literally true that there exist fewer snapshots of the much-snapped poet without that cigarette than with it: trivial, perhaps, but of such trivia is charisma made.) Both chic and down at heel, mischievous and blase, world-weary and ready for anything, he was the perfect emblem for an intoxicating era of France's contemporary sociocultural history.
His poetry, too, reflected the era's liberated and liberating style. Ludic, witty, provocatively unobscure, thumbing its nose at all the abstractions and austerities of Existentialism, it epitomised a precarious moment in the French Zeitgeist when socialism and Surrealism contrived to co- exist in what would prove to be short-lived harmony; a moment when, along with the Front Populaire of the Thirties, it became fleetingly possible to establish within the Surrealist movement what might be termed a Front Populiste. …