Poems by Francois Villon, translated from the French by David Georgi, Northwestern University Press, 272 pages ($21.95 paperback original). You might well want to paraphrase Tolstoy: all respectable artists are (somewhat) alike; all reprobate artists are reprobates in their own way. It is, of course, an absurd generalization (it is with families at the beginning of “Anna Karenina,” too) but there is a sense in which “respectability” is generic and always congruent to itself but when you’re talking about those undeniably great artists who ran afoul of society, there is an almost inexhaustible variety of ways to do it: Caravaggio’s way, Gesualdo’s way, Catullus’ way, Petronious’ way and, above all, Francois Villon’s.
It is now a virtual certainty that much, if not most, of his life was spent, if not firmly on the wrong side of the law, colluding with it at every opportunity. There was, for instance, that priest who died from a knife wound inflicted by Villon. He was pardoned for it. But there were miscellaneous robberies and burglaries where he was in the neighborhood, as well as a stabbing of the “Pope’s Paris notary” as Villon’s new translator David Georgi puts it. Villon didn’t do it but having so many conspicuous friends in low places got him condemned to hang and then commuted to 10 years’ banishment from Paris.
While he was “the young man with the quick blade and sharp tongue” in 15th century Paris, he was also, in Georgi’s words, a man who “wrote some of the most hilarious, scathing, tender and vibrant lines in Medieval literature … stuffing 15 ballads into a mock testament, swerving from solemnity to biting sarcasm to outright filth in the space of a few lines and making a prayer stand so close to a sex farce that it would be a close contest whether his priests or his whores would blush harder.”
Georgi, who grew up in East Amherst and now works at Vanity Fair, isn’t, to be frank, as exquisite as some Villon translators (how’s this for a current colloquialism “I’m not his serf and I’m not his bitch”?), but when you’re dealing with “outsider art” which describes Christmas time as “the dead season when wolves live on wind alone,” you’re in the magnificent work of an archetypal poète maudit.
– Jeff Simon