Danse Macabre

Aubrey Burl, Author Sutton Publishing $18.95 (253p) ISBN 978-0-7509-2177-0
Fran ois Villon was a career criminal and a major poet, a priest killer (for which he was banished from France) and a recidivist thief who survived death row three times to write some of the most beautiful verses in the French language, including the famous refrain, ""O sont les neiges d'antan?"" This heartfelt biography, the first full-length study of the poet's life in 50 years, focuses on the discrepancy between the brief, sad but boisterous life Villon led and the technical genius of his writing (of which only 3,000 lines remain today). Born in 1431 in war-ravaged Paris, Villon attracted the benevolence of clergyman Guillaume de Villon, who exposed the precocious boy to gentlefolk and church learning. According to Burl (a scholar whose particular expertise is neolithic monuments: Great Stone Circles: Fables, Fictions, Facts), Villon ""remained a gamin of the Paris slums,"" consorting with prostitutes, drunks and a particularly sinister gang of desperadoes called the Coquillards--Burl suggests that Villon may have masterminded the gang's robbery of the College of Navarre. Villon's escapades were certainly colorful, but Burl never lingers over them unduly, always returning to the question of how, despite the constant chaos of his personal life, Villon produced his astonishingly controlled poetry. Readers will be struck by the freshness of Villon's language, presented here in the original French alongside uncensored English translation. Although the freewheeling chapters are sometimes hard to follow and Burl's purple prose can be distracting, this enthusiastic biography may reignite interest in a great poet with a checkered r sum . 8 pages b&w photos, not seen by PW. (June)
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
Genre: Nonfiction
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