Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971)

L’hôtel particulier


In the fifth track on Melody Nelson, Serge brings Melody to a fancy underground brothel.

Paroles de Gainsbourg

Au cinquante-six, sept, huit, peu importe
De la rue X, si vous frappez
À la porte
D’abord un coup, puis trois autres
On vous laisse entrer
Seul et parfois même accompagné

Une servante, sans vous dire un mot
Vous précède
Des escaliers, des couloirs sans fin se succèdent
Décorés de bronzes baroques
D’anges dorés
D’Aphrodites et de Salomés

S’il est libre, dites que vous voulez le
C’est la chambre qu’ils appellent ici
De Cléopâtre
Dont les colonnes du lit de style rococo
Sont des nègres portant des flambeaux

Entre ces esclaves nus taillés dans l’ébène
Qui seront les témoins muets
De cette scène
Tandis que là-haut un miroir
Nous réfléchit
Lentement j’enlace Melody


Musically, my favourite song on Melody. The mood is dark, the performances are sharp.

The song describes a trip to a bordello — I mean, I think that’s what this hôtel particulier is. (Disregard all the lazy literal translations of the title as “The particular hotel” or “The peculiar hotel” — the compound, in French, means mansion or townhouse.)

The atmosphere in this bordello is very fin-de-siècle, very Huysmans, very Wilde. This is Gainsbourg’s own preferred style of decoration: ever since a surreptitious visit to Dali’s apartment in his youth, he’d been obsessed with excessive ornamentation — which is how he did up his own place on rue de Verneuil when he could afford it. (And his earlier apartments, too: see this amazing documentary from 1965, showing the apartment he shared with his second wife Béatrice.) And there are plenty of literary references, or near-references, to his literary Aesthete idols: Huysmans, Wilde, and Beardsley haunt this particular peculiar hotel.

Lyrically, the song is made up of long, wandering sentences, one for each stanza. It’s like Serge is trying to distract us — to get us lost in a fog of luxury, or just an opium fog — only to snap us back into reality in the terminal lines. The best example of this is the last stanza: “Between the bedposts / [Blah / blah / blah / blah] / I embrace Melody.”)

But, distracting as these stanzas are, they are also instructions. Serge is telling us how to be like him, how to recreate his experience with our own Melodies. Like Nabokov in Lolita, he’s calling out our voyeuristic position: hey you out there, smugly watching me from a distance, thinking you’re morally above me — given the opportunity, you’d do the same as me. If you’re so offended by this, why are you still listening? “Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!”

This is the first song I translated for this site with the word “nègre” in it. Please see my separate discussion of this and other racist language in the Gainsbourg canon.

Traduction de “Fluid Makeup”

The Townhouse

Number fifty-six, -seven, -eight, whatever,
On X street, if you knock
At the door
First one knock, then three more,
They’ll let you in,
Alone, and sometimes even with a friend.

An attendant, without saying a word,
Leads you in.
Stairs first, then hallways without end,
Decorated with baroque bronzes —
Golden angels,
Aphrodites, and Salomés.

If it’s free, say you want room
It’s the one they call
Where the bedposts, rococo style,
Are Black slaves carrying torches.

Between these naked figures carved from ebony,
Who will be the mute witnesses
Of this scene,
While up there a mirror
Reflects us —
Slowly, I embrace Melody.

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