Jacques Prévert, excerpt from the poem ‘Barbara’, 1946.
The poet Jacques Prévert (1900-1977) visited Brest on several occasions during the interwar period. This city by the ocean was for him a place of joyful meetings with artist friends, writers and other intellectuals. Returning to Brest after the war, he discovered it in ruins. It was whilst still suffering from the shock of this experience that he wrote one of his most famous poems: Barbara.
Structured by the anaphora “Remember Barbara”, this poem reminisces about pre-war Brest where, during a downpour, the poet observed a beautiful unknown young woman who was in love. She was approached by a man in the Rue de Siam. But gradually this memory of simple and ephemeral happiness gives way to the implacable reality of tragic history: “the happy rain” is replaced by “the storm of iron of steel of blood” (bombings). The result is a city destroyed by bombs, a city ‘of which nothing now remains’.
Barbara was set to music by Joseph Kosma and sung by Yves Montand. Jacques Prévert himself recited the poem several times and it now holds a strong place in the imagination of Brest. Rue de Siam has become an important topographical landmark, an urban thoroughfare which was redesigned during the Reconstruction period and has come to epitomise the eventful history of Brest in the 20th century. As for the name Barbara, it was Annie Noël’s resistance fighter name. Annie Noël was one of Jacques Prévert’s friends from Brest.
Sonia de Puineuf