La Fontaine's Bawdy
of Libertines, Louts, and Lechers
Contes et nouvelles en vers
Norman R. Shapiro
Publisher: Boston: Black Widow Press
Number of pages: 305
Type of binding: Paperback
m a dirty old man. I've been a dirty old man since I was 12 or 13 years old. You don't need to be old to be a dirty old man. You don't even need to be a man. I know a few respectable ladies who could qualify. It's a question of mind and attitude. Being a dirty old man doesn't necessarily mean being a pervert. At least not in my understanding and use of the expression. It means being able to see the funny side of certain sex situations, a play on words, a double-entendre. A dirty old man is not necessarily vulgar in speech or manners. Witness La Fontaine.
The key words in La Fontaine's title are "en vers." The stories may be bawdy, but they are so elegantly narrated in verse, that one puts aside conventional morality to enjoy the tale and the wit of the characters as well as the narrator's. "Ah! qu'en termes galants ces choses-là sont mises!" exclaims one of Molière's characters in Le Misanthrope. When a story is well told, in rhymes, with humour, the reader is led to drop the usual defences that an educated intellectual person might raise against coarseness and vulgarity. And once again, Norman Shapiro's translation of La Fontaine does not disappoint. Not a single four-letter word, other than "love" in this translation of stories that deal with sex and smut, adultery, fornication, members of the clergy indulging in sexual acts, and other taboos of the Jansenist era, those French Puritans of the 17th century. I was brought up in a Jansenist-inspired culture. I know.
Not a single four-letter word, other than "love" in this translation of stories that deal with sex and smut.
What liberation when I discovered Rabelais and his gutsy stories of giants with erections so tall you could attach a sheet to them and use them as sails to power a boat. And what pleasure to discover that poets I'd read and learned to admire, like Verlaine, Apollinaire, or even the sacred Jean de La Fontaine, author of the celebrated fables, had also written verse that the good fathers in the private school I was attending would not let us read.
Most if not all of the stories in La Fontaine's Contes et nouvelles en vers are borrowed from somewhere else: Boccacio's Decameron or Petronius's Satyricon or some such tale going back to the Middle Ages. As far as I know, La Fontaine did not make use of Chaucer's bawdy stories, but he could have. Norman Shapiro's poetic translations in a sense re-translates in English what La Fontaine had translated into verse. Both their minds work in the same fashion. La Fontaine makes the stories even more amusing to read by giving them a poetic form that is usually associated with elevated feelings, thus creating a rich ironic contrast. And Shapiro takes this one step further by putting this verse in another language and allowing English readers the iconoclastic pleasure of smashing literary idols. No respect for the classics. We dirty old men can't be trusted.