Wednesday, February 17, 2010

There are few people more given to repentance than poor Francis - Stevenson's story of François Villon

Thirteen years before "The Beach of Falesá," with no hint of the South Seas in the forecast, Robert Louis Stevenson was spending every minute he could in France, for which I cannot blame him.  His first two books are French travel books, and a number of his early stories have French settings.  If not for his health, or finances, he might have become England's greatest French writer.

My favorite French story, out of a number of good ones, is "A Lodging for the Night" (1877), which can be found in New Arabian Nights (1882).  It's an imagined episode from the life of François Villon, "student, poet, and housebreaker," as Stevenson calls him in the title of an essay on Villon's biography, published just a few months before the story.  Stevenson had Villon on the brain for a while.

The Villon of the story is twenty-five or so, not yet the author of The Testament.*  He does work on a "Ballade of Roast Fish" early in the story, just before he witnesses a pointless murder, is robbed, and finds himself freezing to death in a Paris blizzard.  This is not romantic Paris, but rather a Paris where people are attacked by wolves in winter.  Or, it is Romantic Paris, Hugo's Paris.  Here's Notre Dame:

If there were any belated birds in heaven, they saw the island like a large white patch, and the bridges like slim white spars, on the black ground of the river. High up overhead the snow settled among the tracery of the cathedral towers. Many a niche was drifted full; many a statue wore a long white bonnet on its grotesque or sainted head. The gargoyles had been transformed into great false noses, drooping towards the point. The crockets were like upright pillows swollen on one side.

The style is very typical of Stevenson.  The frame of the story is visible, and then it is all worked up, filled out, decorated, but imaginatively, thematically.  Villon is not out in the snow yet, with his own white bonnet, looking for a pillow.

"A Lodging for the Night" has three pieces, quite different: Villon pals around with his no good thieving buddies; Villon wanders frozen Paris, haunted by death, by cold or hanging; Villon finds shelter with a charitable old knight.  They debate the meaning of life.  Stevenson gives us Villon's philosophy of life, the poetry of thievery, which is not very poetic:

"You may still repent and change."

"I repent daily," said the poet. "There are few people more given to repentance than poor Francis. As for change, let somebody change my circumstances. A man must continue to eat, if it were only that he may continue to repent."

I'm not sure that Stevenson does not agree with the knight, not Villon.  He, and Villon, let the knight make his case:

You are attending to the little wants, and you have totally forgotten the great and only real ones, like a man who should be doctoring a toothache on the Judgment Day. For such things as honour and love and faith are not only nobler than food and drink, but indeed I think that we desire them more, and suffer more sharply for their absence.

Both men are stubborn; neither understands the other.  The reader, and Stevenson, have a chance of understanding both.

*  Is there a better translation than Galway Kinnell's, in The Poems of François Villon (1965/ 1977)?  I ask because it seems impossible.


  1. No, there is no better translation of Villon than Galway Kinnell's - unless someone has come along very recently and done it. I fell in love with Villon as a teenager - don't we all, including Stevenson? Galway Kinnell's translation was by no means the first I read, but I knew as soon as it came out that it was the one. Villon is very hard to translate, as hard as Verlaine. Galway Kinnell is a good poet in his own right, too.

  2. Recently, here, some well-meaning commenters expressed doubts about the value of translated poetry. The first thing I thought was "But - Kinnell's Villon! Ya gotta read Kinnell!" Readers of medieval French might want ot defer, I guess.