The tangled legacy of Jacques Brel

He was the most popular French language singer ever, but an auction of his papers has exposed the acrimony left behind after his death

The 30th anniversary of the death of the greatest popular singer in the French language has generated an avalanche of tributes this week – and an unseemly legal row. Sotheby's Paris will today auction 94 objects which once belonged to the Belgian singer, song-writer and actor Jacques Brel, including a fountain pen, pipe, and manuscripts of his best-known songs.

The hand-written texts of classic Brel numbers, such as "Amsterdam" and "Mathilde", have been on display since Saturday at Sotheby's Paris auction house. The lyrics, scribbled in school exercise books, are jumbled with fascinating, corrections and second thoughts by Brel.

Fascinating – but also frustrating because, for legal reasons, the texts have been partially obscured by sheets of paper or photographs.

Sotheby's has been asked to sell the memorabilia on behalf of 30 nephews and nieces of Brel's deceased mistress, Sylvie Rivet. Brel's widow, Miche, and his three daughters, who lost a long legal battle to block the sale, own all the publication rights of his songs. They have declined permission to Sotheby's to display the manuscripts in full, either at the auction house or in the catalogue.

The singer's family has several times attempted to buy up the entire collection of 94 guitars, discs, photographs, posters and manuscripts. The massed ranks of nephews and nieces of Brel's mistress have refused to sell. They expect to make far more money – up to €500,000 (£390,000) – from the auction, the first ever held in France for the belongings of a popular singer.

"It's odious and mean," the singer's daughter, France Brel, said yesterday. "We have tried all kinds of ways to stop the sale."

Brel, who died 30 years ago tomorrow at the age of 49, would doubtless have found the row amusing – or possibly the subject for a song. Several of his best-known song-poems, delivered in his gritty, breathless, anxious voice, are satires on the material obsessions of the middle classes.

The refrain of one celebrated song, "Jojo", is: "Les bourgeois c'est comme les cochons. Plus ça devient vieux plus ca devient bête." (The bourgeois are like pigs. The older they get, the more stupid they become."

Apart from the manuscripts, the most telling lot in today's auction is a giant poster from a Brel appearance at the Carnegie Hall in New York in the 1960s.

Brel, who left Belgium as a young man to escape the disapproval of his wealthy, bourgeois family, is the most popular "dead" singer in the French language. He still sells more than 200,000 albums a year, significantly more than Edith Piaf. Many of his foreign fans – many of his French fans – assume he is French.

His wry, tortured songs were written not to be sung but to be performed. He delivered them with such pained and profound emotion that he, famously, ended each concert dripping with sweat.

The 30th anniversary of his early death, from cancer, has been marked in France and Belgium with a cascade of albums, books and television and radio programmes.

Brel left his family in 1960 and spent the next decade – the decade of his greatest success – living in a villa at Roquebrune Cap-Martin on the French Mediterranean coast with Sylvie Rivet, the former press officer of his record company. It was during this period that Brel wrote many of his best-loved songs, including "Amsterdam", "Mathilde", "Jacky" and "Les Bonbons".

Brel has often been described as a poet as well as a singer songwriter. On the evidence of the manuscripts in the Sotheby's auction, his songs did start as poems, written in cheap spiral-bound exercise books, and worked on again and again. The music was added later.

When Mme Rivet died six years ago, she left her collection of Brel possessions to her nephews and nieces. A first attempt to auction the collection was blocked in 2003 by Brel's wife and daughters, Chantal, France and Isabelle. They claimed – successfully at the time – that the memorabilia and manuscripts could not be sold separately from the copyright to Brel's work, which was left to his family.

Similar attempts to block the sale in recent weeks have failed.

"All that is going to be sold is bits of paper," France Brel, director of the family publishing company, Editions Brel, said yesterday. "They are manuscripts written by Jacques but nothing can be done with them, because we have the sole copyright."

She added: "Jacques lived for a few years with a woman whose first name was Sylvie, who always insisted that she had nothing belonging to him. When she died, with no children of her own, 30 nephews and nieces all wanted a slice of the cake."

The single most costly lot in today's auction is expected to be a large spiral notebook, containing the manuscript of the songs "Amsterdam", "les Timides", "Jacky", "Cheval" and "L'Age Idiot", written in 1964. This is predicted to fetch up to €70,000.

"Amsterdam", one of Brel's most celebrated songs, is a bleak anthem to the miserable lives of sailors and others in the grimy Dutch port, not the tourist-thronged streets of the picturesque city nearby. Brel said he wanted to create a "sea-song which resembled a Bruegel painting".

Love/hate relationship: Brel and Belgium

Belgium this week commemorates the 30th anniversary of the death of one of its few famous sons, but a new documentary exposes Jacques Brel's love-hate relationship with what he called " le plat pays" (the flat country). Brel could move audiences to tears with his heart-rending ode to the low skies and melancholy beauty of the Belgian landscape, while being booed off stage for his savage caricatures of Belgians in his lyrics.

Newly-released archive interviews for the film J'aime les Belges portray a man both obsessed by exposing the small-mindedness and the "nothingness" of his compatriots while also embracing their "madness". Born in French-speaking Brussels but raised by Flemish-speaking parents, Brel never fully felt at home in either language group – a sentiment increasingly echoed by many modern Belgians.

"We have been conquered by everyone, we speak neither pure French nor Dutch, we are nothing," Brel said in an interview in the 1970s.

"He went from hero to outcast for a while after he released 'Les Flamandes'," says France Brel, his daughter and the director of the documentary, referring to a song that depicts Flemish women as immodest, coarse and full-figured.

Vanessa Mock

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