But what were they really like? A review of Parisian Lives by Deirdre Bair

Whenever I meet someone new and tell them that I have written biographies of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir, their first question is usually “What made you choose those subjects?” I’ve honed a ready answer over the years one designed to be brief and polite and to let me change the subject. “They were remarkable people,” I say. “Truly extraordinary. Great Privilege to have known them.” Most of the time I don’t get away with it, and the question what routinely follows is ‘What were they really like?” That one is never easy to answer.

In her writers’ manual The Writing Life, Kate Grenville states that ‘[l]ife only has a plot in retrospect.’ And so it is with Deirdre Bair, the ‘accidental biographer’ who famously won the National Book Award for her 1978 debut, a biography of Samuel Beckett, and subsequently went on to chronicle the lives of other intellectuals including Simone de Beauvoir and Anais Nin. ‘Call it serendipity, synchronicity, happenstance, or accident,’ Bair writes, ‘whatever it was, I became the biographer of two of the most remarkable people the world has ever known.’

The circumstances that led Bair to undertake the Beckett biography were themselves vague and circuitous. In 1968, aged in her late twenties, Bair had left her job as a journalist for the New Haven Register to return to university; her husband was a graduate student and they had two young children. Tired of ‘trying to have it all’ before the phrase had even come into popular consciousness, Bair enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University as a ‘circuit breaker.’ After receiving a fellowship from the Danforth Foundation, which was intended to improve the career prospects for women in academia, Bair wrote her year-long master’s thesis on Joyce, which led her to Beckett, and to a ‘financially practical’ decision to write a biography of him; a choice arrived at by shuffling index cards with the names of early twentieth century writers written on them.

Bair had never read a biography, and instinctively bucked against the dominant literary theory of the time, which held that ‘[t]he only valid interpretation of literature came from the work itself, not from the author’s life or the world in which he lived… Never mind that a work might have been produced in haste by a writer who could not pay his rent or take his sick child to a doctor… or by a frustrated person who had to live a deeply closeted life and could only hint at sexual preferences in carefully guarded references.’ Bair’s hunch that Beckett’s work was more ‘deeply rooted in his Irish heritage’ than previous critics had suggested. Undeterred by a professor who believed that investigating the how, what and who would be ‘professional suicide,’ Bair forged ahead and contacted Beckett, who agreed to meet with her in Paris.

The rest, as they say, is history, but it was very nearly not. At the close of her first meeting with Beckett, he told her: ‘I will neither help nor hinder you. My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.’ And, Bair tells us, ‘[i]n the seven years to come, those people did exactly what Beckett had said they would.’

She ploughed through significant challenges, which ranged from funding shortfalls, balancing her family life with constant travel to Paris, poor representation by her agent whom she eventually fired, and the continual fluctuations of biographical writing – re-writes every time new information came to light. Initially Beckett didn’t take her seriously (you can consult Beckett’s published letters to find his opinion of Bair), and despite his assurance that he wouldn’t hinder her, exploded in an early interview: ‘No pencils! No paper! We are just having conversations. We are two friends talking. You must never write anything that we say. And don’t even think of a tape recorder… And you must not tell others that I meet with you. Ever!’

Beckett had the odd habit of compartmentalizing his friends, many of whom sought out Bair in order to convince her that they were his primary confidante, and Bair, intimately acquainted with Beckett’s life and schedule, wades through many false claims about time these so-called friends had spent with him. While she has access to Beckett, she needs to fight for access to unpublished and un-archived correspondence, especially the cache of letters between Beckett and Thomas MacGreevy. After much to-ing and fro-ing, she finally gets a sliver of access, and realizes that without them the book would have been not only incomplete, but a false portrait.

Money is a perennial problem, with Bair spending an inordinate amount of time applying for grants and seeking bottom-rung employment at various universities in which she takes on a teaching overload. Eventually, despite winning the National Book Award, her employer embarks on a protracted process to obfuscate her tenure application process, and she resigns in disgust and exhaustion to become a full-time biographer. Such details make Parisian Lives a salutary lesson for aspiring writers.

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Bair envisaged Parisian Lives as a ‘book about the writing of the books.’ Originally intended as a scholarly manual, the book evolved into a memoir after she received the same response from everyone she consulted: ‘Each time I suggested this possible project, even to fellow biographers or academics, the response was always “That’s all very nice, but please just tell us what Beckett and Beauvoir were really like.”’ This is a curiously paradoxical element of the biographer’s existence- despite being an authority on a number of famous figures, she spends time dodging intimate questions about her subjects in an attempt to remain above the fray.

In Parisian Lives, however, the gloves are definitely off. Bair had to go against her biographer’s instincts to ‘make myself both subject and object, to discover those selves as I went along in real life and on the page.’ Having joked that ‘I could not write a sentence saying “It was a nice day” until I checked weather reports for three weeks before and after that day in every newspaper published in Beckett’s immediate area,’ Bair maintains her meticulous approach to detail by consulting, and quoting from, her daily diaries that she kept while working on the biographies.  

Despite her extraordinary professional life, ultimately Parisian Lives is a conventional affair, progressing chronologically through the nitty gritty of her writerly existence. It is also necessarily gossipy, and satisfyingly settles some old scores, especially against the many long dead chauvinists who actively tried to destroy Bair’s career and reputation. This group, whom Bair calls the Becketteers, excluded her from academic conferences, gave negative reviews in bad faith, and some of its members even confronted her directly with sexist abuse and put-downs about her ability as a writer. One academic baldly tried to pass off Bair’s research as his own, resulting in a flurry of legal intervention.  

Unfortunately, Bair passed away of a heart attack in April 2020 at the age of 84, but this memoir ensures she got a semblance of the last word on her own curious and well-lived life.

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Parisian Lives was published by Atlantic Books in 2020

Author: The Armchair Critic

I'm Amy, a Canberra-based reviewer, writer, reader and general culture vulture. The mission of The Armchair Critic is to stimulate critical cultural conversation in an engaging and accessible way.

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