GAINSBOURG, The Biography
A fascinating story deserves a deft storyteller. The best biographer paints an endearing and relatable portrait of his subject and draws universal connections to even the most lukewarm life trajectory. Giles Verlant’s biography of Serge Gainsbourg is the exact opposite. This tale of one the twentieth century’s most fascinating and unusual characters has been rendered unreadable by the triple punch of terrible translation, lack of proofreading, and mediocre writing.
When I was asked to critique this chronicle of singer, poet, actor, director, and composer Serge Gainsbourg, I was told it was the “definitive Gainsbourg biography.” Apparently, it is the only one that has been translated into English, having been originally written in French in 2000 and recently published by TamTam Books in the USA. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I am a scholar, translator and interpreter of French singer Georges Brassens, who was a contemporary of Gainsbourg but chose a very different path. Their experience of the German occupation of France was a definitive milestone for both of them, but their personal and artistic trajectories could not have been more opposite. Brassens’ towering presence in the world of French chanson hovers over this tale, and it is interesting to see his influence played out in the work of Gainsbourg.
The story of Gainsbourg is primarily one of a man completely in love with words, obsessed with language, enamored of the kaleidoscope of meaning emanating from the prism of double-entendres between the French and English languages. Unlike Brassens, Gainsbourg cultivated media attention and scandal, and explored a wide array of musical genres, often at the expense of good taste. That this particular tome is so awkwardly written, so clumsily translated, and so unforgivably and inexplicably rife with typos, misprints, and grammatical oversights is all the more inexcusable.
Reading this book is like trying to watch “Casablanca” on a five inch screen through a dirty shop window, or like trying to listen to a Beethoven symphony through a telephone speaker in a hail storm. I threw the book down in frustration countless times, but I was called back by a desire to know what happens to “our hero” (a cliché used repeatedly by the author) and I persevered.
Gainsbourg was a true innovator in the world of music, a consummate ladies’ man with a roster of conquests unrivalled in history or fiction, and a truly unapologetic original. Sadly, he became a horrendously abusive, sadistic, and slovenly alcoholic who caused suffering to all of those in his close orbit. His personal trajectory from fugitive Jewish boy during the Nazi occupation of France, to aimless art student, to cabaret pianist, to “serious” songwriter, to self-described pop sellout, to French cultural icon, mirrored the historical trajectory of his time. Gainsbourg lived through and adapted to countless turbulent epochs with an oddly cold self-regard. It is hard to imagine the psychic damage caused by being forced to wear a yellow star as a boy in Nazi-occupied Paris, and fearing for the life of his family. Whatever the cost, Gainsbourg let this pathology serve him in later life. He knew he was better than most, and he knew people hated him for it. He knew he was ugly and weird, and he knew he drove women wild. He had a towering ego, which doubtless aided his agility with female conquests. Unfortunately, it also led to his physical and moral deterioration. This high-wire act between haughty arrogance and wounded inferiority informed his life and his work and made him so endearing and frsutrating.
Gainsbourg’s mastery of language, composition and melody were on par with the greats of his time, yet he consciously flirted with lowbrow pop culture and sold his songs to any fluffy starlets and ingénues who he felt would sell records, or let him bed them, or both. As a result, he forged a path through modern music that was at times completely original and ahead of it’s time, and at times totally derivative and moronically inane.
That’s the story of Gainsbourg, and it is an action-packed and juicy tale. Now back to Verlant’s book. In all fairness, this is a comprehensively researched study of Gainsbourg’s life. The author apparently had extensive access to Gainsbourg himself as well as his archives, and interviewed a huge array of friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. Every major phase of the singer’s life is explored and put in context with the recordings released and the players involved. This is no small undertaking, considering the singer’s penchant for self-exposure. From the beginnings of his fame in the early 1960’s till his death in 1991, Gainsbourg kept up an exhausting schedule of television appearances and interviews, many of which are chronicled here. The book is also finely peppered with tales of drunken debauchery and boorish excess, as well as a compulsive parade of seduction and conquest.
But Verlant’s apparent intimacy with Gainsbourg is also what makes this so hard to read. It assumes knowledge of Gainsbourg’s work that some may not have, and the tone is one of hep, 1950’s swagger that brings to mind what it must have been like to be married to Dean Martin while he was out partying with Frankie and Sammy. The reader is at once alienated by and embarrassed for the out-of-touch author. There is a bemused complicity with Gainsbourg’s misogynist, abusive, racist, drunken ethos that is hard to stomach. Though Gainsbourg was a persecuted Jew who sometimes flirted with homosexuality and explored African music, that doesn’t excuse his pathological need to offend and provoke.
The majority of the problems with this book would be fixed if its publisher, TamTam, hired a copy editor. Almost every page has at least one misspelling, grammatical error, or typo. One gets the feeling that the translator, Paul Knobloch hastily dashed off his manuscript to meet a deadline, then rushed it to the publisher who in turn sent it off to the printing press without so much as glancing at it. Or if the publisher did read it, English is not his first language, and he has very little knowledge of the basic rules of spelling, punctuation, and accepted style. This is not an exaggeration. I catalogued a random sample of errors for ten pages, until I remembered that I am not being paid to proofread this book. Here they are:
P. 106: “spicy stuffy” should be “spicy stuff.”
P. 107: “pails royale” should be “Palais royale”
P. 108: “a little, red, ten cent balloons” should be “balloon.”
P. 109: “one of the eras most…” should be “one of the era’s most.”
P. 111: period missing after “tenderness.”
P. 112: after “Perros-Guirec” there is a comma instead of a period.
And on and on and on, page after page of the book is rife with mistakes. I went so far as to check if this was an editor’s proof, but I was told this was the published version.
Another case of abhorrent lack of copy-editing is a shifting standard of punctuation that creates total confusion as to which voice is speaking. In some cases, the author announces an anecdote told by a character in the story. This is followed by an indented paragraph, the teller’s name in bold, quotation marks, and italicized type. It is clearly evident that someone other than the author is speaking. Unfortunately, at random intervals throughout the book, the author foregoes this convention. He mentions someone in passing, and then in the next sentence, that person is apparently telling his or her story, without the benefit of any punctuation to tell the reader that the voice has shifted. The effect of this is to mislead the reader into thinking that a quoted source is actually the author. This often is followed by a clear quote with the convention mentioned above, with no warning. This kind of writing would garner a failed grade in high school English class. It is impossible to know if these errors were made by Verlant in the original or a result of non-existent proofreading.
One of Gainsbourg’s earliest songs, “En relisant ta lettre” (“While re-reading your letter”) is a clever proofreading of a desperate love letter. In the song, the hard-hearted lover interrupts the woman’s anguished plea for love by pointing out the letter’s grammar and spelling errors. In a tone of derisive and exhausted scorn, the narrator reels off the many mistakes in the letter like a tired language professor. One can only imagine the tongue-lashing he would unleash on this slapdash edition.
Secondly, there is the matter of Paul Knobloch’s translations. The art and object of translation is not simply to render the original text in another language and convey its literal meaning. A good translator brings the original text to life and transposes its lilt, its spirit, and the nuances of tone, idiom, and context that inform it. Knobloch’s translation is made up of mostly English words strung together to form sentences, but it is still essentially French. Page after page is full of constructions that do not exist in English. Clearly the translator is not a native English speaker, and does not have the benefit of a proofreader who can tell him when he is simply rendering French sentences verbatim into English words while ignoring English grammar and style.
This brings me to a curious and frustrating choice made by the translator. This is a biography of an iconic French songwriter who wrote his songs in French, and whose contributions to the cause of French poetic songwriting are the central theme of his life. Why then a translator would choose to omit the original French lyrics from this book is beyond comprehension. It’s true that Knobloch‘s attempts to translate Gainsbourg’s lyrics are commendable in a way. He tries to maintain the rhyme scheme and meter of the originals in most cases, thus staying faithful to the “musicality” of the texts. These translations would probably scan well and sound good sung in English. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of meaning. In fact, a series of footnotes throughout the text explain that the translations of the lyrics often have little correlation to the French. Case in point: on page 413, the translator’s note flat-out declares “This is nowhere near the original.” This begs the question of why the original is missing from the book, and what is the point of reading random adaptations of foreign poetry? In a very few cases, the original French text is cited by the translator, who explains that these lyrics are untranslatable, usually in reference to the puns and wordplay within. I would argue that all of the lyrics in the book are translatable, but one has to choose a philosophy. Either you are trying to convey the exact meaning of the text, or you are trying to render poetry that scans in its target language and fits the rhyme scheme and meter of the original. The true art is to do both at once, but unfortunately Knobloch fails.
Why not print the original lyrics? Even non-English speaking readers will be familiar with the French texts if they are fans of the music. The titles of the songs are left in French, but it is up to the reader to recall or find the original lyrics. Confusion and frustration reign. On rare occasions, the translator explains his reasoning, which only reinforces the fact that he is being extremely cavalier with meaning. For example on page 84, an early musical sketch is translated as “That’s that! I can see that I’m fucked!” In the notes, the translator explains that “There (sic) other possible translations, such as ‘you really made a fool of me.’ But given the sarcastic context created by the author, I think this translation gets to the point much more realistically.” This leads the reader to try to imagine a French expression that could straddle the wide canyon of meaning between fucked and fool. Simply printing the original French text would allow the reader to solve this puzzle.
Other times, the translations are simply incorrect. “Je t’aime, moi non plus,” arguably Gainsbourg’s biggest hit, is translated as “I love you, not me.” This completely misses the subtlety of the unexpected turn of phrase. Literally, “moi non plus” means “me neither.” The unexpected catch in the phrase lies in answering an affirmative statement, “I love you,” with a negative reply, “Me neither.” That is the whole trick of the song, and in fact one of the key concepts of Gainsbourg’s oeuvre. He directed a film by the same title, starring his muse Jane Birkin, which attempted to bring this concept to life in its twisted complexity. “Even if you think you love me, you can’t love me because love is impossible.” Responding to “I love you” with “not me” is an old, stale story. Responding with “me neither” means that I actually know better than you that you don’t love me. Knobloch completely dropped the ball on this one. If one is familiar with the song in French, it’s easy to catch the error. Unfortunately the book is filled with page after page of similarly stretched, distorted, and confused interpretations.
As mentioned above, the attention to detail in this book, once it has been properly translated and proofread, will be a delight to hard-core fans. Unfortunately, it also meanders into tedium, as Gainsbourg’s later career veers into an endless string of inane collaborations with vapid pop stars and lurid self-destruction. Gainsbourg himself was fascinatingly candid about his desire to sell out at all costs, which is part of his appeal. We want to be hip enough to be in on the joke. Given his start as a struggling cabaret pianist in post-war France, this desperation to make a living is understandable. But there is a cold, abusive flippancy to Gainsbourg’s career choices that makes one feel a bit ripped off. Even at his shallowest, Gainsbourg offered neat little flights of language that floated him above the froth of the pop world. Unfortunately, I can’t help but wish he had maintained the work ethic that pushed him to create the beautifully crafted odes of his early career like “Le Poinconneur des Lilas” and “La Chanson de Verlaine.”
It is interesting to explore the parallels between Gainsbourg and his contemporary, Georges Brassens. This biography mentions Brassens in passing on numerous occasions and hints at the elder singer’s influence. One of Gainsbourg’s first career boosts came when Brassens, already a national phenomenon, attended Gainsbourg’s concert at Theatre des Capucines in 1963, causing a sensation on which Gainsbourg capitalized. At one point, Gainsbourg is quoted comparing Brassens to a “classical painter,” in the context that Gainsbourg struggled to come up with new forms and melodies, while Brassens generated an endless spring of original forms and themes. Gainsbourg borrowed from everyone, including Brassens, from whom he liberally borrowed on at least two occasions. In 1967, Gainsbourg wrote and performed a moronic ditty called “Dents de lait, dents de loup” on a TV program of the same name with France Gall. This song simply lifted one of the key images from Brassens’ gorgeous and haunting 1957 hit, “Je me suis fait tout petit.” Gainsbourg’s “Requiem pour un con,” also from 1967, is an indirect citation of Brassens “Le temps ne fait rien a l’affaire” from 1961. Perhaps Gainsbourg spent a lot of time listening to Brassens records for inspiration in 1967.
Like Brassens, Gainsbourg’s worldview was shaped by the cataclysmic events of the second world war. Gainsbourg had a rough go of it, being forced to wear a yellow star and having to hide his identity in a boys’ school, away from his family. This set him apart as an outsider and likely ruptured his trust of the adult world that was meant to protect him. His response was to be a “naughty boy” and do his best to provoke and break the rules. Throughout the book, his closest confidants describe his indiscretions as the escapades of a little boy trying to see if his Mommy will notice him and punish him. Gainsbourg seemed forever stuck in a juvenile state of rebellion. In the best cases, this made him push the boundaries of musical exploration, as when he decided to record a reggae record, or stretch the limits of sexual repression, and take huge risks with language. In the worst cases, it just makes him take his pants off in public and act like a clown.
Brassens spent a large part of the war in a German auto factory in a youth labor camp. He escaped and hid in a Paris squat, and remained there even after his fame exploded. He separated himself from the world of pretense and hypocrisy, the adult world that had betrayed him. Unlike Gainsbourg however, Brassens rejected all the trappings of fame and money. He rarely appeared on television, and his one experience with acting in a film (Porte des Lilas, 1956) made him swear it off forever. His dedication to fighting pretense kept him away from the starlets and ass-kissers. They were very different birds, and this book is about Serge, not Georges. But it is hard not to question the fascination with some of the more sordid and ill-conceived ejaculations of Gainsbourg so beloved by his fans.
In conclusion, this book should not be published in its present form. No one should have to be subjected to slogging through it, as I have done in sacrifice for you, dear reader. And, dear publisher, if you decide to put all of these changes into effect, please credit me in the revised edition.