Book Reviews - Winter 2020

A Biographer Looks Back

A noted practitioner reveals her tricks of the trade

By Ann Jefferson | December 2, 2019
(Everett Collection)
(Everett Collection)

Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me by Deirdre Bair; Nan A. Talese, 368 pp., $29.95

One of the questions confronting biographers is the extent to which they should write themselves into the lives of others. Like an accompanist playing too loud alongside a musical performer, an intrusive narrator runs the risk of drowning out the star. And yet, biographers are implicitly called upon to demonstrate that they are the right person for the job—a requirement usually met by a brief preface and an acknowledgments page. This is precisely the material that Deirdre Bair scales up in her new “bio-memoir,” in which she recalls the writing of her biographies of Samuel Beckett (which won the 1981 National Book Award) and of Simone de Beauvoir (selected by The New York Times in 1990 as one of the year’s best books), and more particularly the effects of that work on her own life.

Both of her subjects were still alive when, as a novice, she embarked on their biographies (1971 for Beckett, 1980 for Beauvoir), and a central part of Bair’s story concerns her very different personal dealings with each. On their first meeting, Beckett greeted her by saying, “So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am,” and declared, “I will neither help nor hinder you.” Meetings between “Mr. Beckett” and “Mrs. Bair” would be formal, with Beckett prone to silence and occasional anger. He forbade her to use a tape recorder and would not allow her to take notes—“No pencils! No paper!”—so her carefully prepared questions itemized on index cards had to be memorized in advance. Beckett’s answers in the course of what he insisted were just “conversations” she later dictated into the recorder she kept in her hotel room. Beauvoir, by contrast, insisted on the tape recorder, proposed to use one of her own, was adamant that they work their way through all the index cards Bair brought to each of their meetings, and announced that she would, in effect, dictate the contents of the biography, until Bair made it clear that she could not agree to this. Beauvoir surprised her by being much smaller in stature than she had imagined.

Much of the research done for the two biographies took the form of encounters with individuals who had stories to tell or letters and other documents to show. Archival material had to be coaxed piecemeal out of its owners, and in one nail-biting moment in the Beckett biography, the two nieces of Beckett’s friend Thomas McGreevy dither over their cache of letters. They finally agree to allow Bair to transcribe them, which she does at frantic speed before a delayed message from Beckett arrives—too late—with instructions to destroy the correspondence and show it to no one. Several informants would part with information or materials only in return for alcohol (Bair’s shoestring budget was swallowed up along with the whiskey); others expected sexual favors. Beckett’s lover Barbara Bray warned Bair against so much as mentioning her name, and multiple academics spuriously claimed to have spent nights carousing with “Sam” in the bars of Montparnasse. All this has long since changed: there is a dedicated Beckett archive at the University of Reading in England created by a later Beckett biographer, James Knowlson, and the letters to McGreevy can be freely consulted in the four-volume Letters of Samuel Beckett, which also documents the playwright’s affair with Bray.

Bair’s stories are more colorful in the case of Beckett, and the whiskey consumed during the course of the research for the Beauvoir book came mostly from the bottle her subject would produce at the end of each of their working sessions, secretly watered down by her adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon, concerned about Beauvoir’s alcohol intake. Bair details basic practicalities of biographical research in a pre-Internet era as she recalls messages that received no reply (her first meeting with Beckett was delayed without explanation for 10 days); travel arrangements forcibly rearranged; communication in Paris carried out by means of pneumatically transmitted messages, and telephone calls in cafés requiring tokens bought at the bar. Ready cash depended on having a sufficient supply of travelers checks. Head colds, flu, and gastric upsets suffered by biographer, informants, and biographees sabotaged arrangements, and death intervened as Beauvoir’s former lover, the American novelist Nelson Algren, succumbed to a heart attack before Bair was able to meet him. Beauvoir herself passed away five years into the project, imposing a retrospective focus on what Bair says had been a “living, breathing” document.

Such material makes for a gripping read, and from Henry James’s Aspern Papers to A. S. Byatt’s Possession, biographers’ tales have been the stuff of fiction. Bair knows how to tell a good story, and she shifts the spotlight onto the material circumstances of the biographer’s own life. In her case, she moved from a job as a newspaper reporter to graduate school at Columbia to undertaking a biography at a time when the practice was disdained in literature departments enthused by continental theory. Books that were “only biography” also suffered by comparison with traditional scholarship, and women—especially women who were wives and mothers—regularly lost out to men, whether for graduate fellowships, jobs, or tenure. Bair vividly conveys her hand-to-mouth existence during the Beckett years as she juggled domestic and professional responsibilities, surviving on short-term academic posts and the occasional equally short-term fellowship to fund research trips to Paris, Dublin, and London. She was unnerved when it was reported back to her that after their first meeting, Beckett had exclaimed to a friend: “Good God, the woman has striped hair!”—highlights applied with too heavy a hand by her hairdresser—which she took as a sign that he considered her an intellectual lightweight. The view was later replicated by the (mostly male) “Becketteers.”

Her decision to write the life of Beauvoir was, in part, a response to these gendered circumstances, since Bair saw in her the example of a woman who had succeeded in combining her personal and professional lives without compromising either—an interpretation partially undermined by Bair’s own account. But Beauvoir admired Bair’s biography of Beckett and took her entirely seriously, making it possible for Bair to become the seasoned professional that her subsequent biographies have confirmed her to be. This bio-memoir is testament to a certain moment in the social history of women, but most of all, by allowing the biographer to move center stage alongside her subjects, it illuminates the realities of life for those who, for good or ill, devote themselves to writing the lives of others.

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