Front Row Q&A/David Burke

Waterbury-born documentarian and longtime Francophile David Burke, 73, discusses his book "Writers in Paris" in Connecticut in June.

 
David Burke

David Burke

David Burke will be giving three talks in Connecticut this month, all based on his research for Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light (Counterpoint;$19.95): June 17 at 7 p.m. at the Oliver Wolcott Library in Litchfield (owlibrary.org), June 25 at 7 p.m. at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison (rjjulia.com) and June 26 at 4 p.m. at the Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury (scovillelibrary.org).

How long did it take to put this book together?

I started my research in the summer of 2001. It was a very convoluted process, but the final manuscript went to the publisher at the end of 2006—actually, the day after New Year's in 2007. One of the challenges was that the manuscript I originally submitted was 200,000 words long. The publisher said he loved it, but he could only handle a book of 95,000 words, otherwise it wasn't feasible financially. He wanted to include a lot of photographs, and I was up for that because my background is really in film. I love the visual; I love pictures.

Luckily for me, my wife Joanne is an editor—a film editor, and a great one—she has many, many years of experience and an innate talent. She jumped in with both feet and we managed to edit the book in four months. But we left out a lot of descriptive passages of Parisian locations in order to focus on the writers.

Did you travel to various sites as you researched?

Absolutely; I took myself everywhere. The last chapter deals with locations outside of Paris proper, from Montmorency where Jean Jacques Rousseau lived all the way out to Maison de Pampelonne where Proust used to go as a boy. They're both very important places in their writings.

When I undertook this, I had been living in Paris 15 years and had already written two travel books, including one for HarperCollins. There are at least 1,000 places in that HarperCollins "Access Paris" guide; if you're doing an honest job you do actually have to go to each one, even if you're only updating from a previous edition—you have to be sure they're exactly as you describe them. And you want to add your own places, too. At the time I was writing those guides a lot of new museums were opening up. The number of museums that have opened since we've been here is just staggering.

For Writers in Paris, I became attuned to a lot of literary history. I read of lot of biographies of French writers and expatriate writers as well. I always tell people, if you want to read one book about the American expatriate experience in Paris in the 1920s, make it Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation by Noel Riley Fitch, who has become a good friend of mine. Also, when I was in college at Yale, I took French and a course on The Modern French Novel in Translation. It spanned from Gide and Proust to Mauriac and Malraux to Sartre and Camus, who were contemporaries during my college years. I'm a huge fan of Molière and Beckett plays. I saw the first Broadway production of Waiting for Godot in 1956, starring E.G. Marshall and Bert Lahr.

Did you find any new and exciting places?

One place I really loved once I discovered it was Oscar Wilde's room in the hotel in which he died. That was fascinating. He was destitute and living in this terribly run down, shabby hotel, which he made jokes about, and he still couldn't even afford that. He said he was "dying beyond my means." The hotel is now a very chic, five-star accommodation, probably one of the leading small hotels on the Left Bank. What they've done as a wonderful memorial to Wilde is to recreate the lovely apartment he had in London, with heather green walls and photos of him. And they've hung the bill that shows the money he owed when he died.

I have a friend from Australia who's an expert on Baudelaire; she's here planning a Baudelaire event back home and wanted to take a little Baudelaire walk around Paris with me. One place that I wanted to show her was the room at the Hotel du Quai Voltaire in which he lived for two years while writing and editing a number of the poems for Les Fleurs du mal. So I called the hotel and asked, "Can I come back and see that room again?" because I had seen it while working on my book, and it's just this sad little room at the back of the hotel with a window looking out on an air shaft. It's just as moody as can be. I wanted to bring this friend there but the room was booked with a guest. Also, the room has been renovated, so it's no longer the way it was when I saw it. So that was a big disappointment.

Of the writers in your book, who do you personally find most compelling?

Oh, Beckett, definitely—from the time I first knew of him and read Waiting for Godot. The first time I came to Paris, in 1957, I saw the first production of End Game. I bought the play and read it in advance, so I could follow the dialogue. Before I started the book, all I really knew about him was that he was born in Ireland, moved to Paris and began writing in French rather than English. Through doing the book, I learned he led a very dramatic life in Paris, including being stabbed in the chest by a guy who was crazy. He came within a centimeter of having his lung punctured and dying; this was 1938.

I was also impressed with his work during the Resistance. That was very dramatic, and there again, he was really risking his life. One exciting thing was finding the address where the first production of Waiting for Godot took place: in a little courtyard, alleyway off the Boulevard Raspail on the Left Bank. I learned that that location is now a language school. The room is like a multipurpose room, the size of a good-sized apartment, and holds 200 people.

What about Beckett's writing speaks to you in particular?

It struck a note for me in my youth of a kind of disenchantment, a sense of the enormous difficulty of finding the true meaning of life. Why are we living? Y'know, when you're 19 or 20, you start thinking about things like that.

Did the process of writing the book change your opinion of any of the authors you covered, for good or bad?

There's a writer named Gérard de Nerval in the book, who was a very important writer in his era. Proust was a tremendous admirer. He attributed his own use of mixing memory and dreams to his having read Nerval as a boy. Nerval was a master of that. His tragedy is that he was mentally unstable, and he eventually committed suicide in a particularly grim way: He went out on a freezing night and hanged himself in a dark alley. Initially, for me, that overshadowed everything about him. But then I began to read him, and his writing is so warm and wonderful, so fresh and enchanting. I just love his stories and read a lot of him now.

I'd read a number of books by Gide, but didn't know much about him personally. I learned a lot about him—he was a very strange man in many ways, but also quite admirable.

It was interesting to read your account of Hemingway. He seems to have had an axe to grind with most everybody.

He was nasty, terrible. The only person he really wrote about favorably was Sylvia Beach, and she wasn't a writer. A Moveable Feast was just a hatchet job on anybody who had helped him, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein in particular. John Do Passos was a good friend, and Hemingway totally trashed him, too.

When I was in college, Hemingway and Fitzgerald were just huge, Hemingway in particular—he was much more in vogue, the dominant writer at that time. Fitzgerald was making a comeback, he had been sort of forgotten sometime in the 1930s.

Let me ask you about you: You mentioned attending Yale; didn't you also get a degree from the Yale School of Drama?

No, I just went there for two years. I had to go to work, I couldn't goof off any more. I had been in the army, then entered drama school, where I had a few plays staged in workshops. But I decided I wouldn't be able to make a living as a playwright. I loved photography and film, so I went to New York City and got into documentary filmmaking, which I still work on with my wife. Several of our films have been for a series Joanne created about women doing inventive and unusual things in third-world countries [Ed. note: the series title is New Directions], countries where they're generally treated as second-class citizens. We've done films in Zimbabwe—before everything went to hell—Thailand and Guatemala.

We also did what turned out to be quite an important film in Mali about women who contracted HIV and who had joined forces in a small health-care center devoted to the treatment of HIV and AIDS. It was really about the social problems of women in Mali; these women were excommunicated from their families, blamed for being women of the streets, when it was really their husbands who were infecting them. We did a film on this health center, working with the women themselves—it took a long time to gain their confidence, even though we met twice at great length in Paris with the guy who founded the center. But they finally opened up to us, we got absolutely wonderful interviews. It ended up being an hour-long film, while the others in the series were half-hours.

Anyway, it's been shown many, many times throughout Africa. We're very pleased, because that's what we wanted; the idea was that they should be exposed through the countries where they were made.

By the way, is your wife the "Joanne Burke" who edited the films Gimme Shelter and The Anderson Tapes?

Yes. She's a whiz.

You yourself were a producer on "60 Minutes."

Yup—Dan Rather first, but he abandoned me for the nightly news when he took over for Walter Cronkite, so I then worked with Ed Bradley. I still miss Ed a lot. All the guys that I'm used to are gone now—actually, that's not true, Morley Safer's still there.

What would the average viewer of "60 Minutes" be most surprised to learn about that program?

How much fun it was to work on. It was serious, hard and a real challenge, but the atmosphere there was also very exciting. There was a lot of competition between the producers to get the best stories. Sadly, Don Hewitt—The "Don"—has died. He was an incredible man to work for, full of energy and extraordinary talent.

Do you have a favorite story that you did for the show?

The one I liked the best was called "Queen Lear." It was about the widow of Bill Lear, the inventor of the Lear jet—on his deathbed he asked his wife, Moira Lear, to take over and see to it that a plane he had designed—quite a revolutionary plane—be completed and flown. So she took over that mission, even though she had never actually worked in the business, and she was quite a spirited lady with an interesting background. Her father was Ole Olsen of the Olsen & Johnson comedy team. So she grew up in this kind of show business atmosphere.

It was a very moving story about her and the problems she faced in taking over this project he wanted her to do. And the complicated personal life they had had, because he was a notorious ladies' man. When she told her children she was going to go forward with this project, two of the three of them were opposed, because they thought it was a huge waste of money that threw away millions of dollars.

When we first screened it, it was a triumph for me. Don Hewitt got up and came over to me and said, "You know what's wrong with this story?" Of course, I almost threw up. And he said, "Nothing." Everyone in the room gasped, because that almost never happened. He said, "There's more in this 15 minutes than you see in most full-length made-for-TV movies." That was great.

You and Joanne went to Paris in 1986 to spend a year "away from it all," and according to what you've said, never came back—but I've never seem an explanation of why you didn't.

That's kind of an exaggeration. We do come back to Connecticut every year, because our children and our family are here. I have a sister and brother-in-law in Middlebury. So we spend lots of time here. And furthermore, we have a residence in New York. That's our actual real home, but we do spend loads of time in Paris every year, often more than half the year.

Originally, we came to Paris because we were a bit tired and worn out. We felt we needed a year off. We planned to return to the States after a year, but we had such a fabulous time that we decided we could afford to stay another year. Then we started doing films and writing in Paris. I'd actually never written any prose for print. I'd written proposals, but just for selling story ideas; all the writing I'd done was for spoken word projects. So I started writing for print publications, doing travel material—initially magazine articles and later books.

Do you have any projects in the works?

 Our big project is a film project Joanne and I are working on—it's an hour-long documentary that's coming along very well, called When Harlem Came to Par-ee. It's a film about African American writers, artists, musicians and entertainers in the period from the end of World War I to the outbreak of World War II, when they established a real presence in the city.

Front Row Q&A/David Burke

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