Of Beck­ett and de Beau­voir

Self-pro­claimed ‘ac­ci­den­tal bi­og­ra­pher’ Deirdre Bair re­turns to her first for­ays into memoir writ­ing, but fails to fully ‘set the record straight’

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Parisian Lives: Sa­muel Beck­ett, Si­mone de Beau­voir and Me

By Deirdre Bair

AAt­lantic Books, 368pp, £18.99

self-pro­claimed “ac­ci­den­tal bi­og­ra­pher”, Deirdre Bair has doc­u­mented the lives of sub­jects as var­ied as Anaïs Nin, the graphic artist Saul Stein­berg and gang­ster Al Capone. In this memoir, she re­turns to her first for­ays into the form: the seven years she spent writ­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of Sa­muel Beck­ett (pub­lished in 1978) and a decade ded­i­cated to cap­tur­ing the life of Si­mone de Beau­voir (1990). Bair re­counts what it was like pro­fil­ing these two “lit­er­ary giants” and the hur­dles she faced in fund­ing, facts and – above all – pro­fes­sional respect.

Con­trary to the text-cen­tric crit­i­cal the­ory preva­lent at the time, Bair be­lieved that un­der­stand­ing Beck­ett’s life would shed light on his work. When she first ap­proached him about a bi­og­ra­phy, he fa­mously said he would “nei­ther help nor hin­der” her ef­forts. Al­though ini­tially elated, Bair came to sus­pect that Beck­ett had agreed so eas­ily be­cause he did not take her se­ri­ously, ex­pect­ing her to write “a puff piece, a ha­giog­ra­phy of ‘Saint Sam’”.

Bair de­picts in great de­tail her quest to se­cure sources, in­clud­ing cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Beck­ett and his con­fi­dant Thomas McGreevy, and shares colour­ful anec­dotes about Beck­ett’s en­tourage. Al­though elu­sive at times, Beck­ett was true to his word: he signed off on the pub­li­ca­tion of all the quo­ta­tions Bair had gath­ered, save for one child­hood poem.

Sa­muel Beck­ett: A Bi­og­ra­phy won the Na­tional Book Award. Bair was un­nerved, how­ever, by the neg­a­tive re­sponse from a co­hort of Beck­ett spe­cial­ists whom she dubbed the Beck­et­teers. In the wake of their “un­re­lent­ing hos­til­ity”, Bair vowed that her first bi­og­ra­phy would be her last. An ed­i­tor en­cour­aged her to re­con­sider; in brain­storm­ing pos­si­ble sub­jects, they alighted on de Beau­voir – “the only mod­ern woman who made a suc­cess of every­thing” in Bair’s eyes. De­spite shar­ing the same Parisian stomp­ing grounds, Beau­voir and Beck­ett “cor­dially de­tested each other” af­ter fall­ing out over a story Beck­ett had sub­mit­ted to the lit­er­ary jour­nal run by Sartre and de Beau­voir.

De Beau­voir was con­tent to col­lab­o­rate with Bair: she wel­comed a bi­og­ra­pher in­ter­ested in cov­er­ing not just her 1949 mag­num opus The Se­cond Sex but the en­tirety of her oeu­vre. The two women met for monthly in­ter­views at de Beau­voir’s home for five years pre­ced­ing her death in 1986. While Bair’s re­la­tion­ship with Beck­ett re­tained a level of for­mal­ity, she de­vel­oped a more in­ti­mate bond with Beau­voir. Over scotch, she asked de Beau­voir ques­tions about her sex­u­al­ity that she hadn’t dared broach with Beck­ett, al­though de Beau­voir con­tin­ued to un­der­play her sex­ual re­la­tions with women.

The post­hu­mous pub­li­ca­tion of de Beau­voir’s let­ters to Sartre, as well as ac­counts re­leased by some of their lovers, chal­lenged the nar­ra­tive de Beau­voir had re­layed in her mem­oirs and Bair’s bi­og­ra­phy. De Beau­voir and Sartre had been sex­u­ally in­volved with sev­eral of her fe­male ly­cée stu­dents who, al­though above the age of con­sent, were mi­nors eas­ily in­flu­enced by their teacher. Rev­e­la­tions about the pla­tonic na­ture of their part­ner­ship and de Beau­voir’s ac­tive in­volve­ment in other re­la­tion­ships painted a more com­plex por­trait of their “es­sen­tial” union, and the cou­ple’s treat­ment of their “con­tin­gent” part­ners was in­con­sis­tent with her phi­los­o­phy of eth­i­cal free­dom.

Sub­se­quent bi­ogra­phies have up­dated, and on some points con­tested, Bair’s work, no­tably James Knowl­son’s au­tho­rised 1996 bi­og­ra­phy of Beck­ett Damned to Fame: The Life of Sa­muel Beck­ett and Kate Kirk­patrick’s Be­com­ing Beau­voir: A Life (2019). In the pref­ace of Parisian Lives, Bair writes that one of her mo­ti­va­tions for re­vis­it­ing her sub­jects was “to set the record straight” af­ter other biog­ra­phers “twisted or sub­verted” in­for­ma­tion she had shared with them. She does not di­rectly ad­dress the dis­crep­an­cies, how­ever, per­haps tak­ing Beck­ett’s ad­vice to her to “never ex­plain, never com­plain”.

Bair ad­mits to only one fac­tual er­ror in the Beck­ett bi­og­ra­phy, about how he had met his wife, Suzanne. She also down­plays her de­ci­sion to pub­li­cise the name of Bianca Bienen­feld Lam­blin, a lover whose anonymity de Beau­voir had pro­tected with a pseu­do­nym. As Janet Mal­colm ob­served in The Silent Woman, her 1994 study of the “af­ter­life” of Sylvia Plath, “bi­og­ra­phy is the medium through which the re­main­ing se­crets of the fa­mous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world”.

What emerges in­stead of an ad­den­dum is a pic­ture of the per­sis­tent sex­ism Bair en­coun­tered through­out her ca­reer. One in­ter­viewer for a teach­ing po­si­tion said he would prob­a­bly hire a man be­cause Bair had a hus­band “to pro­tect” her. Af­ter shar­ing chap­ters of her Beck­ett man­u­script with Vi­vian Mercier, a prom­i­nent lit­er­ary critic, to check “things Ir­ish”, he sug­gested that as an “es­tab­lished scholar”, he would be do­ing Bair “a great favour”if she handed over her re­search to him to in­cor­po­rate into his own crit­i­cal study.

A col­league at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia told Bair that she’d been “overly ag­gres­sive and am­bi­tious” to take on the Beck­ett bi­og­ra­phy. “Didn’t I think I had over­stepped the bound­aries for women?” Her re­search of­ten in­volved del­i­cately turn­ing down drunken passes from friends of Beck­ett’s at the bar at Buswells Ho­tel. De­spite de­clin­ing such in­vi­ta­tions, sex­ual in­ti­ma­tions plagued Bair’s rep­u­ta­tion: she was asked re­peat­edly (as re­cently as 2017) if she had slept with Beck­ett to get the scoop.

Bair has a ten­dency to de­rail into de­tail, with a writ­ing style that can charm but mostly grates. There’s a lack of rigour in Parisian Lives that is trou­bling from some­one whose cur­rency is ac­cu­racy: the book would have ben­e­fited from an in­dex, and an as­ser­tion that Bair be­came a bi­og­ra­pher when she was “not yet thirty” does not square with the dates.

Still, as a glimpse of the art of bi­og­ra­phy in a by­gone era, the book is not with­out its plea­sures. We see Bair wrestling with botched record­ings, study­ing mi­cro­film, mak­ing calls from pub­lic tele­phones and com­mu­ni­cat­ing via pe­tits bleus (mes­sages dis­patched through a pneu­matic tube net­work in Paris). It gives one pause about the fu­ture of the genre, in an age in which word pro­cess­ing wipes away traces of the cre­ative process and in­ter­per­sonal ex­changes are ephemeral. De Beau­voir ded­i­cated an hour a day to cor­re­spon­dence, shar­ing what she called “the daily dust of life”. One dares not con­sider the ba­nal­i­ties a cache of text mes­sages might have con­tained in­stead.

Most im­por­tantly, Parisian Lives serves si­mul­ta­ne­ously as a re­minder of how far women have and have not come. De­spite hav­ing writ­ten the bi­ble of the move­ment, de Beau­voir only adopted the la­bel of fem­i­nist when she be­came frus­trated by the lack of so­cial progress. Her own legacy would con­tinue to be be­lit­tled in com­par­i­son to Sartre’s. Bair re­calls at­tend­ing “con­scious­ness-rais­ing get-to­geth­ers”, “small groups of women who gath­ered to talk about things we could not name un­til years later, such as why we could have credit cards only in our hus­bands’ names, or why it was so hard to get a job in the first place and then why the man at the next desk was paid more than we were. Most trou­bling of all, we won­dered how we could get al­most ev­ery guy we met to keep his hands to him­self.” Plus ça change.

“I guess what I want is im­pos­si­ble: a sat­is­fy­ing per­sonal AND pro­fes­sional life,” Bair wrote in her diary in 1975. “Did any woman ever have both?”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: JAC­QUES PAVLOVSKY/SYGMA;

Left: Si­mone de Beau­voir in her Parisian apart­ment in 1976. Be­low: Sa­muel Beck­ett at a re­hearsal of Wait­ing for Godot in Paris, 1961. ROGER VIOLLET VIA GETTY IM­AGES

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