Confessions of a chanteuse

MY LIFE, by Edith Piaf (Penguin, $90). WHEN Edith Piaf died in 1963 at the age of 49, her farewell was an outburst of weeping from the gathering of 100,000 Parisians who had turned out to mourn her passing.

It is easy to see why everyone loved Piaf so passionately. Reading My Life is like reading a letter from an exuberant friend who writes as she speaks, thinks and feels.

A thousand exclamation marks litter the text, her effervescence spills over on to the paper and she communicates with an eerie immediacy. Yet she has been dead for 30 years.

Left in the original until this translation into English by Margaret Crosland, who also wrote the singer's biography, My Life was written by Piaf on her deathbed from cancer, cirrhosis of the liver and all the by-products of bad living that had seen her in and out of detoxification units and morphine clinics throughout her later life.

It is less of an autobiography than a sentimental journey through non-chronological territory; Edward Behr's preface supplies a badly-needed context to the historically parched no-man's land of Piaf's reminiscences. But her disdain for fact and circumstance is understandable in the light of her success in surmounting them.

Born and brought up in a Paris brothel, having been abandoned at four months by her mother (who, after an overdose of morphine, was packaged by a neighbour and put out for collection by the bin men), and dependent on the immoral earnings and kind hearts of prostitutes for her survival, Piaf's achievement is a slap in the face for nurture-over-nature theorists.

Piaf became an overnight success when Louis Leplee discovered her singing in the street to supplement the haphazard earn- ings of her acrobat father.

Within six months, the extraordinarily powerful, larger-than-life voice that issued from her improbably minute figure had made her famous.

Piaf does not bother to document her rise to fame in any detail, at least not in a conventional fashion. Infatuation was her inspiration: she lived on a constant knife edge of raw emotion. She had a voracious appetite for man-eating, which sprang less from a lustful disposition than from insecurity.

As she parades her pageant of lovers and husbands through My Life, there is something of the proud award-winner in Piaf paying tribute to the devotion of her men, without whom her success as a chanteuse realiste, and the credibility of her gritty, haunting lyrics would not have been possible.

Charles Aznavour (whose career Piaf launched), Theo Serapo (whom, 20 years her junior, she married a year before her death), Georges Moustaki (unnamed and lurking darkly between the lines, for his caddishness) - and many more - have their place in Piaf's memoir.

Dominating them is Marcel Cerdan, the champion boxer whose spirit Piaf tried to summon by spiritualism after his death in an aeroplane crash on his way to visit her in 1949.

Circumventing unpalatable memories and fudging issues to present a favourable image, Piaf's approach to her memoir recalls Marlene Dietrich; though unlike Dietrich, whose embellishment of her life story went far beyond a subjective interpretation of the facts, Piaf writes more to perpetuate her idealised self-image than to glorify it for others.

She is rarely prepared to throw off her rose-tinted spectacles.

Piaf could have spent her life in a bungalow in Jakarta for all the cognisance she takes of the flavour of her turbulent times, stepping over world events with blithe unconcern as if there had never been anything in her life but singing, men, drink anddrugs.

Her ''Occupation, what Occupation?'' attitude is odd considering her bravery in working for the Resistance.

My Life does not pretend to be a literary masterpiece. Piaf consumed life raw, and as a sincere record of her emotions, it conveys that.

Crosland's close but never literal translation reproduces the breathlessness of the prose, while leaving Piaf's emotional presence to speak for itself. It conducts straight from the page to the reader's heart. Pure Piaf.