Books: He Had Time for Them All ; as a New Biography Is Published in France, Robin Buss Looks at the Life and Work of Jacques Prevert, One of the Most Lovable of French Writers in the Last Century
Buss, Robin, The Independent (London, England)
There are two reasons why the poet Jacques Prevert, who was born 100 years ago, may be more familiar to English speakers than other and greater French writers of the past century. The first is that, with the director Marcel Carne, he created the key films of what came to be known as French "poetic realism": two vehicles for the actor Jean Gabin, Quai des brumes and Le Jour se leve; and that rich evocation of 19th-century theatre and Parisian low life, Les Enfants du paradis, often cited as the best (or best-loved) French movie of all time. He also worked with Jean Renoir, Jean Gremillon and other leading figures in French cinema of the 1930s and 1940s.
Immediately after the war, he published a book of poems, Paroles, which became a bestseller - and this is the other reason why he is familiar here. Prevert's poetry is simple, witty and direct. Much of it is easy to understand, which means that imaginative French teachers have found it useful material for O-level/GCSE.
Consequently, many British teenagers have encountered Prevert's day-dreaming schoolboys, pompous bourgeois, authoritarian park- keepers and naive lovers, wrapped up in a characteristic mixture of whimsy and word-play. Children and animals, usually exploited or persecuted by the right-thinking, middle- class world, occupy an important place in the Prevertian universe. A few of the better- known poems, such as "La Grasse matinee" and "Dejeuner du matin", distil the essence of the Carne-Prevert melodramas.
Poetry for Prevert was a matter not so much of rhyme or metre, as of surreal or "poetic" ideas, decked out in various rhetorical devices, particularly lists and other forms of repetition. His lyrics often work better spoken or sung than read; his greatest single success was the song "Les Feuilles mortes", performed by his friend Yves Montand (who had his first starring film role in what proved to be Prevert's last collaboration with Carne, Les Portes de la nuit). A light touch and a sprinkling of surreal humour explain the charm of Prevert's poetry, as well as the reason why some critics - Albert Camus, for example - dismissed it as superficial.
Charm was something that Prevert did not reserve for his work. Even apart from the inner circle, known as la bande a Prevert, he collected friends in such quantities that Yves Courriere's new biography threatens, towards the end of its 700 pages, to become little more than name-dropping: an almost Prevertian list of acquaintances, in the film world, in literature, in art and in the cafes of the Latin Quarter and Montparnasse. Think of a name, it could easily be here: Braque and Picasso, Sartre and de Beauvoir, Man Ray, Matisse, Mir and Montand drift in and out. Like everyone else, Prevert fell out with Andre Breton, while Aragon, apparently, was annoyed when Prevert refused to contribute to a magazine he was editing; but otherwise, everyone had time for him, and he for them. …