As I was spending some time in Normandy recently, I couldn’t resist the temptation to visit the last home of the legendary French scriptwriter, lyricist and poet Jacques Prévert. I have a copy of his book “Paroles” somewhere around the house. I am also a huge fan of his films such as “Quai des brumes” (Port of Shadows) and “Le jour se lève” (Daybreak). I wasn’t sure what to expect going there, not being a Prévert expert. But the last thing I expected was: a clean desk.
Prévert was a committed surrealist whose success came from his incredible turn of phrase and trademark “poetic realism” in his better movies. He spent most of his life in Paris and the south of France, but followed the advice of a colleague and bought a house in the tiny Norman village of Omonville-la-Petite in his later years. Like me, many people know one facet of Prévert – usually the scriptwriting – without knowing that he was a best-selling poet, writer of children’s books, collage artist and, yup, a highly successful lyricist.
Prévert the lyricist
By far his most successful song is “Les feuilles mortes” (literally, dead leaves but translated as “Autumn Leaves” by Johnny Mercer). The music is by Joseph Kosma, a French-Hungarian remarkable composer with whom Prévert often worked, most notably on films he wrote as a scriptwriter. AS Kosma was blacklisted by the Germans during the Occupation, Prévert organised for other musicians to “front” his writing.
As well as becoming a standard in chanson française sung by Yves Montand and Edith Piaf, “Les feuilles mortes” was then very widely recorded worldwide by artists such as Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Artie Shaw, Miles Davis and Roger Williams. It has also become a standard in jazz.
The house has been slightly re-arranged to allow for exhibitions around Prévert and his many co-writers, artist friends and acquaintances. The surprise comes on the first floor, where his workshop – the largest room in the house – features a giant desk neatly split into different areas, presumably to handle the different things that kept him busy. The tidiness struck me – nothing like the mild chaos that reigns at my desk. I thought that this was probably due to the fact that the house is taken care of by the local authorities. But no, contemporary photos show that in general Prévert seems to have been that rarest of things: a writer with a sense of order.
I thought I might take some time to write some stuff I’m working on in his cottage garden. But it started raining, so I dropped by his graveyard before heading back to Cherbourg.
Jacques Prévert’s house can be found at Omonville-la-Petite, west of Cherbourg. Take the scenic coast road D45 towards Cap d’Hague, or the faster inland D901. Website: Maison Jacques Prévert.