Jacques Prévert and the Cat

The power of images is astonishing. To evoke moods, events, people, yes, but also the other way around: the way moods and events can evoke images. Today it is a photograph of Jacques Prévert in Paris in 1942. I think I know why, though I could not say, or won’t. To insist on putting words to things implies that something always exists behind them. But since the words don’t come out of the things in the first place, it’s always a matter of opinion. It can lead you to overlook the way words can bring into being something that never existed. Marguerite Duras, in the beginning of her book The Lover, writes of a timeless moment she can never be sure occurred because a photograph was never taken to capture it, but that at the same time existed timelessly for just the same reason. She was fifteen, on a ferry, crossing the Mekong River. The day was sultry and unrelieved. She was wearing a man’s flat-brimmed, brownish-pink fedora, a plain dress, gold lame shoes. A long black car – a Morris Léon-Bollé – had pulled on to the deck beside her. Just so. And some things will only ever exist – will only ever continue to exist – because they are never spoken. Other things. Things behind these things.

Suddenly I realise that this is not going to be easy, and how careful I must be. Everything must be lightness, diffraction. Already I have stepped out ahead of myself.  I should go back.

The photograph of Jacques Prévert is on a postcard I bought in Paris. I can’t find it now, and I think I must have sent it to someone soon after I acquired it. But the image is still very clear in my mind. In it the poet is sitting at a small round table outside a café. I like to think that it is morning and he has just had one of his favourite breakfasts, a long, thin slice of brie or camembert on a section of fresh baguette with a large cup of strong black coffee, although in fact there is no evidence of any such thing. On the table instead is a large kitten or small, delicate cat, crouching, its back slightly arched, looking intently off to the side as Jacques Prévert runs his fingers, the tips of them, gently along its spine.

Prévert has written many marvellous poems, and there are several that such a picture might bring to mind, although for me it is always the same one, a poem some friends of mine once translated as ‘The Song of the Funereal Snails’. It is late autumn. Two snails are going to the funeral of a dead leaf. It takes them so long to get there that by the time they arrive it is already spring again and the leaves which were dead have all come back to life. The snails are disappointed, but the sun tells them to cheer up, and relax, and not take things so seriously. Have a beer, it suggests, or a glass of wine, or take the late coach to Paris. The snails follow the sun’s advice, and although they don’t take the late coach, they do have several bocks, and then, quite drunk, crawl homeward though a beautiful late-summer evening, the harvest moon watching over them. I don’t know what season it is when they arrive. Maybe it’s thinking of the two snails that makes me so convinced that the café the poet is sitting outside is Les Deux Magots, although I’m all too well aware that that is very likely not so. I think it was just a few doors down from Les Deux Magots that I bought the postcard. I know, at least, that I bought another one there, of Jean-Paul Sartre sitting quietly at a desk, looking out an upper-storey window. I imagined, perhaps fancifully, that he was thinking of his friend Simone de Beauvoir. I sent that card to someone who had always reminded me of her. On it I wrote, ‘How can I not think of you, on the Boul St Germain, looking at postcards like this?’

Prévert is wearing a dark suit, the kind I have always thought of as serge – the kind one might well wear to a funeral – buttoned over a broad tie and crisp white shirt. He is also wearing one of those narrow-brimmed black hats I think are called Homburg, thinking at the same time, as I write ‘Homburg’, how strange it is that words can come to seem so much more resonant than the things they represent. He is not young, though the expression on his face and the soft clarity of his eyes make me hesitate to call him old. I’d say fifty-five or sixty, or I would have, until I checked just now in my copy of his Collected Poems and found that he would be more than a decade younger – in fact exactly my own age as I write. But he does, in the photograph, appear older somehow. Something has aged him. Although as yet there are not many of them, and those that there are are still fairly faint, lines have begun to enter his face, like the arrows one used to find on maps of wartime Europe, showing the direction of invading armies, the 18th under von Kűchler approaching along the main highway from Senlis, or the divisions of Guderian and von Kleist sweeping the countryside – that wide pincer movement. His expression is whimsical, puzzling, as if his mind is at once there and far off somewhere, thinking of something quite different. Beyond this, and that there is a cigarette smouldering between the fingers of his right hand, the hand not stroking the cat, there is very little else about the photograph that I can remember.

I don’t know why Emmyline Lévy should come to mind, but she does. Or perhaps I do know but couldn’t readily say. Certainly I’ve never known anyone of that name, and there’s no way of telling whether Prévert ever did. But a name is a name, and maybe this one has been waiting for someone to fill it. It’s only that, just now, suddenly, I realised what it is about the expression on Jacques Prévert’s face; that he is not really stroking the cat at all, or, rather, is and is not; that, as he runs his fingers over the soft fur and delicate calibrations of its spine, he is thinking not of the cat itself but of the soft, smooth skin and gentle undulations of the spine of someone who might well have had such a name, twenty or twenty-five years before, and that the look upon his face – wistful, amused, resigned – has come about because, just now, suddenly, in the midst of one of the simplest of acts, the gentlest glissando of the fingers, he is finding himself once more having to accept a thought he knows he will have to accept again and again. It is autumn, 1942. The armies have entered Paris. Sometimes – not every day, but sometimes, and today is one of those days – it seems that they will never go away.

© David Brooks
Black Sea, Allen and Unwin, 1997