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’
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?”
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