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Rust 9, 16” x 16” x 1.5”, Encaustic on Panel, by Daniella Woolf

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Carolyn Burke

Shakespeare with Rosy

Shakespeare and Company
Writer's Room
(George Whitman on the left)

When I lived in Paris I often wandered through Shakespeare and Company, a labyrinthine bookshop on the Left Bank opposite Notre Dame.  I was looking for memoirs of artists and writers of the twentieth century.  In the dusky light of those narrow book-lined rooms I would bump into other expatriates, travellers, writers, and dreamers to whom the owner, George Whitman, had extended his hospitality.* While I did not camp out there, as some did, I gradually unearthed what became the heart of the collection of out-of-print books on Paris that has inspired my biographies of Mina Loy, Lee Miller, and most recently, Edith Piaf: it keeps me company to this day.

It was not until a few years ago that I discovered George’s Little Versailles--since his death in 2011, the Writer’s Room.  This mirrored chamber, once reserved for published authors, became the inner sanctum of Shakespeare and Company’s recent festival on Life-writing, to which I was invited by the new proprietor, George's daughter Sylvia.  Then in the early stages of No Regrets, The Life of Edith Piaf, I accepted with glee: since I now live in California, it felt like a home-coming.

On the appointed day I read a draft of my introduction to the audience in the white festival tent in the park nearby then repaired to the bookshop for my appointment with the artist Rosy Lamb--to take part in her "Sleeping Author Project."  The title intrigued me; so did the Writer’s Room, which—for the duration—was her atelier.  What did she have in mind, I asked, arranging myself on the divan.  A collaboration that allowed her to see the self-forgetful side of authors, she said, the inwardness behind the public presentations.  She had thought of this idea when painting portraits of her bed-ridden sister during her illness.  We would take part in something like their engagement with each other.

Somehow, once settled beneath the tufted throw, I felt alert rather than sleepy.  I told Rosy about my student days in Paris, when I posed nude for a painter in Montparnasse, about my engagement to the young Frenchman who played Piaf’s songs for me, about the romantic nineteen year old I had been.  Some of my writers have gone to sleep, Rosy said tactfully.  I stopped talking.

Eyes wide open I mused about self-forgetfulness, as in the act of composition when language bears one along and the I drops away.  Gazing at the volumes mirrored in the ornate looking-glass on the opposite wall, I watched their faded reds, purples, greens, and blacks start to glow in the penumbra.

Meditating book by book, I moved slowly from one row to the next.  The space of the room seemed to open into the gilt-framed mirror above the divan, where its companion mirror was reflected.  A sense of peace overcame me.  It was so relaxing that all self-consciousness vanished.  Abandon de soi, I thought, my mind shifting between languages as my gaze hovered among the books and their reflections.

By the time that Rosy had finished the portrait it was difficult to leave this altered state and walk to the door, so deep was the trance I had entered there.  It was also very pleasurable.

The next day I returned to the Writer’s Room to find Rosy asleep on the divan.  I was mulling over a remark by the writer Siri Hustvedt at the previous night’s session: “There is no clear border between memory and imagination.”

Reversing our positions, I wrote while Rosy slept.  If we can construct our narratives from the materials of our lives, then I too might draw on memory to understand my beginnings as a writer whose imagination has long been nourished by Paris.  Gradually the details of my student days there filled the pages of my notebook.

At that time I was living in a different kind of small space, the sixth floor maid’s room on the rue des Sts. Pères that I occupied in exchange for giving English lessons.  It was in my chambre de bonne that I listened repeatedly to Piaf’s throaty tremor.  Often, after climbing the flights of stairs, I fell onto my bed and turned on the radio to hear her latest hit.  France was then gripped by the Algerian War, being waged in the casbahs of Algiers and the streets of Paris.  Unclear about the issues but aware that bombs were exploding in public places, I retreated to my attempt to learn French by singing along with Piaf.

I acquired a tolerable accent and a set of emotions I had not yet personally experienced--as if French culture had entered me viscerally by means of her music--but did not marry my French fiancé, who was drafted to serve in Algeria.  As he said, c’était la faute aux évenements: it couldn’t be helped, given the times.

As a student in the midst of these life-changing events, I could not have imagined that decades later I would find myself writing a life of the chanteuse whose voice still summons up that era.  I was amazed that I had become a biographer, one who transmits the pulse of another’s life, since my own was still mysterious to me.

In this mirrored chamber I was resting in the present, the opening of self to other that sustains the kind of “life-writing” that moves me.  This brief accord with the artist asleep on the divan was not unlike my engagement with the singer who gave her heart to her music, or the one who first introduced her to me.  Those days in Paris had shown me my vocation—painting the lives of others but with words.

Rosy woke up from her nap; I put down my notebook.  We left the room’s embrace to join the night's festivities, more encounters with unexpected sources of inspiration.

*Whitman named his bookshop, founded in 1951, after Sylvia Beach's famous 1920's literary center and lending library at 12 rue de l'Odeon, with her blessing.  He also named his daughter in her honor. 

Detail of portait by Rosy Lamb of Carolyn Burke for the Sleeping Author Project

Carolyn Burke was born in Australia, spent many years in Paris, and now lives in Santa Cruz, California. She is a member of the Authors Guild and the PEN American Center. Her books include Becoming Modern, The Life of Mina Loy, Lee Miller, A Life, and most recently, No Regrets, The Life of Edith Piaf, which has been translated into a number of languages, including French. Carolyn is currently writing a group portrait of four American artists from the early decades of the 20th century.

Wallace Baine
Elizabeth McKenzie
Jill Wolfson

Carolyn Burke
Patrice Vecchione

Stephen Kessler
David Allen Sullivan

Daniella Woolf

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