The Édith Piaf I never knew . . .
Madeleine Coorey, writing for Yahoo News, "Piaf biography invites new look at French icon" (May 29, 2011), reports that the Australian writer Carolyn Burke, author of the recently published biography No Regrets: Edith Piaf, has revealed something not previously known about this famous little French 'songbird' who died in 1963:
Burke's book is among the first to draw on more than 100 letters written by a young Piaf to one of her mentors, the scholarly Jacques Bourgeat, held in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and only recently released to scrutiny.That's somehow touching . . . to me, anyway. I also had a hunger for knowledge, upon leaving the Ozarks and discovering as a freshman at Baylor University just how dismally ignorant I was. I didn't have some Jacques Bourgeat for a mentor, unlike Piaf, for I had no mentors -- I was too much of a 'wildman' for that, not the sort to put myself under another man's tutelage, seeking approval of my writing -- but I did get some advice from professors and started reading everything literary that I could get my hands on, taking up with Russian literature as a sophomore because I'd written a short story on an underground man, and my creative writing professor Morse Hamilton asked me if I'd ever read Dostoevsky. I replied:
"Those letters reveal aspects of Edith Piaf that we couldn't have known about," Burke explained.
"You see her desire for an education, to better herself. We learn about her emotional and spiritual development even, because she had a strong wish . . . to not only study poetry but philosophy."
Burke said the letters reveal a tenderness between Piaf and the middle-aged, poetry-writing Bourgeat who instructed the young woman with scant education after a hand-to-mouth existence on what to read and how to improve her French.
"So the next thing she's reading Baudelaire, she's reading Rimbaud, she's reading Plato. It's so moving to find out about this," she explained.
"I was sitting there reading Edith Piaf's handwriting, seeing her mistakes in spelling and grammar and she says things to him like, 'I'm making progress aren't I? Is this a better letter?' He's trying to help her learn proper French. It's so important to know that."
The unlikely pair, who were not lovers, corresponded for the next 25 years and Burke believes the letters provide "the very best source for a deeper look at who she was and how she developed."
Piaf began writing lyrics shortly after meeting Bourgeat at a Paris nightclub, and Burke believes it was in part with his help that she acquired enough confidence and experience with the language to become a lyricist.
"Who's Dostoevsky?"That motivated my reading of the Russian classics. Later, as I read through one of Dostoevsky's most famous novels, it seemed oddly familiar, and I suddenly recalled leaning against the magazine stand in my hometown drugstore and paging through a Classics Illustrated comic book that had condensed the story: Crime and Punishment. I had read Dostoevsky, after all, but not as a novel . . . just in a rather novel form.
There's always some sort of paper trail leading back into the wild lands of childhood, but also forward toward some distant, obscure literary city, a pilgrimage that all readers and writers undertake, including Piaf, and even me . . .