What miserable weather around here yesterday and today. The rain moved in Friday morning before I was astute enough to get outdoors and mow the yard, and pretty much itʼs been drizzling or pouring ever since. A soggy celebration for poor Will the Bard.
However, Shakespeareʼs birth has put me in a medieval/Renaissance frame of mind, and that made me realize I had a bit of writing about Paris and France from the later middle ages that I have been wanting to share. Itʼs the start of my Villon novel.
François Villon was a minor criminal, probably connected to the organized underworld, living most of his life in Paris in the fifteenth century. He had the good fortune that a benefactor — from whom he took the last name Villon (Françoisʼs actual surname is listed as either Montcorbier or des Loges, both small towns south of Paris from which his family probably came) — educated the boy and sent him on to the University of Paris, from which François Montcorbier acquired his Master of Arts degree. However, within a short time, the young man had committed a fairly major burglary of a church treasury (presumably amidst other crimes) and just previously had killed a priest in a brawl (eventually ruled self-defensive) that sent him into exile outside of the capital. On his return, Villon was caught up in other criminal activity, earning a second exile, during which he spent time in a hideous prison from which he was released only because the new king of France passed through the city (traditionally, the passage of the king was celebrated by a general pardon for prisoners in a community). Back in Paris again, the terribly aged man again got imprisoned on charges connected with the church burglary but again was near-miraculously released only to vanish from any records (presumably he died very soon, just over thirty years old). He lived with whores and crooks and apparently took delight in his wasted life. He was also one of the great poets of the French language, delineating in a rawly realistic style and language the actual life of late-medieval Paris.
I have been intrigued by him since just out of college (in fact a dual-language copy of his poetry attended me over the weekend that Janet and I got married). So it didnʼt surprise me that I started imagining a novel about his life a couple of years ago, which I penned into my little red Harrodʼs notebook as I concluded “Underground.” I worked on it much more last fall, and when Janet and I were headed to Wisconsin to visit her sister before Christmas, I read what I had completed at that time aloud as she drove us toward Dubuque and further.
Disappointingly, she didnʼt react well, finding my prose too literary to hold her interest. That response, of course, gives me excellent reason to inflict the current portion on you, faithful readers, seeking your feelings. The story begins with a Prologue…
Villon Novel, Prologue
The old man sat hunched like a blind miser, hanging his head close over the desk in front of them. But no golden horde lay there, simply parchment, old, abused and much used and reused, barely scraped clean enough to accept the words he was painfully scratching by the dying light of this day in the one room he did not own. He wrote:
“I knew him, this Villon, whose roundelay, still sung these fifty years on, heard by me this morning in the market street, still lingers in my ears.”
He stopped. The song did indeed ring in his aged and enfeebled memory. His dark eyes, crystalline with glaucoma, did not focus on that corner as his nearly toothless mouth moved, lips writhing to the remembered words. He recollected most of them.
His attention turned back to the palimpsest. He shook his head about something and continued.
“Youngsters remember his name — they think, as a rogue and wild man. They are wrong. He wasn’t a rogue. He knew such men, associated with them, admired some, feared others, feared some he also respected or at least admired. He yearned almightily to be like most of them, to be wild, to live dangerously but free.
“But he could not. Legends flourished once the man is gone, but the truth remains like withered grass in the shade of growing tree: the man was a coward.”
The wrinkled, dry lips hissed a long sigh as the final word was penned. In black — well, thinned as it was, really rather greenish — ink the word stood recorded. Recorded and therefore true?
Coward. François Villon, coward.
And it was true.
The blind eyes felt for a moment a glimpse of light, the smoky illumination of the yellow plaster walls of the Pomme de Pin, that Parisian dive so faraway, opposite the sacred walls of the Madeleine, on the corner of the Rue de Juiverie and the Rue de Lanterne. So far in time as well… Fifty years gone…
Chapter I follows next. But since 900 words for today gives me a decent post, we will save the actual start (and the part Janet thought went on too long) to begin tomorrow.
I feel a bit strange ending on the list of street names (sometimes that old research just overwhelms you when writing), which I think works better as a bit of local color in full context. So of course youʼll want to be back tomorrow to read some of the first chapter.
Any reactions are welcome …