A Valentine to Charles Trénet

A Valentine to Charles Trénet
Paris is touting love these days, having touched off Comme une Romance à Paris, a ten-day swath of February (10-20) celebrating all things amatory at a myriad of venues, including 50 cafés, where assorted musical appreciations of the theme will be ardently sounded, and in the Metro, where the system’s strolling balladeers will compete with the baladeurs (MP3 players) for the hearts and ears of their temporary audiences.     The idea of pairing love and Paris smacks of a coals-to-Newcastle redundancy – one would have thought the city’s repute for fomenting the passions had been ratified some time ago – but the fete is spread eagled across Valentine’s Day, after all, and it’s winter, besides, when tourist euros and dollars might otherwise take to hibernating in the toasty folds of their wallets. It’s called playing to one’s strength.     You can read all about it at www.commeuneromance.fr, an all-French site keyed to the event’s proceedings; click its Le Saviez-vous? link and you’ll be steered to an excerpt of the song “La Romance de Paris” by the singer/songwriter Charles Trénet  (1913-2001), additionally captioned with the year 1942, a bit of chronology that left me both bothered and curious. 1942 was a particularly inglorious year for Paris; and that juxtaposition of time, place, and sentiment yielded a disconnect for me, one that begged for a bit of sense-making. For who was singing love songs in Paris in 1942?     If your iPod bulges with the likes of Snoop Dogg and Fifty Cent, you’re not likely to have heard of Charles Trénet.  But in fact, Trénet enjoyed a long run in France as Next Big Thing, having been described by the British paper Guardian as “the most influential popular French songwriter of the mid-20th century”. Trénet continued to bob and weave across the cultural radar for many years, performing occasionally, and to no small approbation, into his 80s. (By way of cross-cultural reference, Trénet’s composition La Mer was americanized by Bobby Darin into Somewhere Beyond the Sea, and the song was covered by a raft of other singers as well, selling many millions all told.)     The war appears to have forced little more than a lateral career move upon Trénet, who was “mobilized” at the start of the conflict and relegated to a military base. But confinement ended swiftly for Trénet – in June of 1940, after he asserted that the plying of his vocation – potato farmer – was integral to the economy of Vichy France. Once free, Trénet appears to have rethought his calling with bewildering alacrity, bee-lining surreptitiously to Paris and refreshing his celebrity in a number of nightclubs, singing before audiences laced with an avid multitude of German soldiers. Among his favored boîtes: the Gaieté Parisienne and the Folies Bergère, the latter walking distance from Gare de l’Est, from which tens of thousand of Jews were consigned to fates that need not be recounted here.     Trénet also traveled to Germany to entertain French prisoners, another morally interstitial step that could be taken as acquiescence to Nazi rule (to be fair, Trénet apparently refused to consort with German soldiers after his night-club performances; it is also recorded he likewise refused to speak German, a tongue in which he was fluent).     The web site www.rfimusique.com adds     The collaborationist press tried to compromise his name and published that ‘Trénet’ was the anagram of ‘Netter’—a Jewish name. But the singer was able to show his family tree to the German authorities, proving he had no Jewish origin.   And when a mistaken report of his death found its way into a newspaper, Trénet published thousands of cards bearing these refutations: “I am not dead – and neither am I a Jew”.   When I e-mailed Commeuneromance to ask if a less impeachable figure might have more fitly inhabited its web site, the following remarkable reply beached up in my inbox:   “Thanks for your mail but Charles Trénet didn’t sing for the Germans just like many French – Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir for example- he kept working… in Paris”   I am quoting verbatim; whereupon I issued a prompt, if gentle, rejoinder to the above. I have not heard from Commeuneromance since, and as of this writing, Trénet’s lyrics and portrait remain duly copied and pasted to the site.   Of course, Trénet’s case is not necessarily the sort from which paradigms of unreconstructed evil emerge. Heroism was in short supply during the occupation, and Trénet’s self-serving feints could perhaps be read as not much more than an ungainly bit of triage practiced on a career imperiled by the war. After all – what Frenchman faced with the suggestion that he was a Jew, with all that portended during the war, could be expected to do anything other than try to contest the claim? There were others in France of course who did worse – a lot worse – during that unfathomably dark time, and in that comparative view Trénet’s moral stammering might qualify as merely ignoble – at best.   But a member of the Resistance he surely was not; and as such, I can’t help wondering if a slightly more pristine, irreproachable, ingenuous personification of love, Paris style, couldn’t have been recruited from the available pool. How about Serge Gainsbourg?   Web sources   The Associate of Jewish Refugees http://www.ajr.org.uk/pastjournal07.htm   The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4138675,00.html   RFI Musique   http://www.rfimusique.com/siteEn/biographie/biographie_6073.asp    
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