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

The Sound of Silence: Unpacking Uncertain Family Relationships in Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance

Shapiro’s memoir of discovering her true paternity is a moving meditation on genetics and family identity. However, it also cements an alternative silence relating to her newly discovered relatives, which begs the question: how much truth can a family handle?

In a 2014 article for the New Yorker, Dani Shapiro wrote that literary memoir is ‘born of the powerful need to craft a story out of the chaos of one’s own history. One of literary memoir’s great satisfactions- both for writer and reader- is the slow, deliberate making of a story, of making sense, out of randomness and pain.’

In addition to her three previous memoirs, Shapiro has also written five novels, all dealing in some way with family secrets and identity. Inheritance lifts the curtain on the conscious and unconscious roots of this preoccupation, delving into her emotional turmoil upon discovering at the age of fifty-four that the Orthodox Jewish father who raised her was not her biological parent. After taking a DNA test on a whim, Shapiro learns that she was conceived via a sperm donor, and that both her parents, now dead, had withheld the truth about her conception from her. Despite over half a century elapsing since her birth, she deploys some quick detective work to track down her biological father, who turns out to be – ironically- a retired doctor specialising in medical ethics whom she calls Ben Walden. They exchange emails and, after a few false starts, eventually meet and embark on a tentative relationship.

Shapiro describes both her existential crisis and the more practical aspects of processing this new information. When the DNA finding first comes to light, she is packing for a trip to San Francisco, and reflects on how her life was divided after that moment: ‘there would now forever be a before.’ Over the course of a year, she frequently finds herself experiencing something akin to an anxiety attack; at the onset of dizziness both at home and in public she has to steady herself, feel the fact of her body. ‘You’re still you,’ she tells herself in these moments.

Despite having moved away from Orthodox Judaism earlier in her life, she retains a strong cultural identity from her upbringing. In light of the Holocaust, Shapiro has also always had an acute sense of both the fragility of her lineage and the tenacity of her ancestors in rebuilding the family, and the refrain ‘be fruitful and multiply’ rings in her head. Yet now the black and white photographs of her ancestors that adorn the walls of her house seem strange, and she has to contend with an emerging image of her parents as co-conspirators in withholding the truth from her, which competes with her guilt about their decision to bring her into being. Amid all of this, she also worries that her relationships with her surviving family members may be severed and that her friendships may suffer due to her newfound identity. There are also health considerations. While her son quips that he is unlikely to go bald (Ben Walden has a full head of hair), Shapiro has to consider afresh what diseases she may be genetically predisposed to, and is concerned that for the entirety of her son’s life she had unknowingly deprived his doctors of his full medical history.

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Reading Inheritance I was palpably reminded of the book Oranges and Sunshine, which explored the devastating impact of the British Government’s child migration scheme that operated from the 1920s to the 1970s. This scheme sent British children to Australia after they were surrendered by their impoverished families to church-affiliated charities. It furthered the aims of the White Australia Policy and subjected the children to abuse and trauma. Officials routinely told the children that their parents had passed away or didn’t want them, when in fact their families had tried to protect them by asking the Church for help. By the time some of the scheme’s victims discovered their true heritage, their birthparents had passed away, foreclosing the possibility of reconciliation or healing.

One of my great grandmothers was a child put through this scheme, and the ripple effects are still felt in our family today. A number of her children were ravaged by alcoholism, including my mother’s father. When I witnessed my grandfather’s agonising death from complications of liver cirrhosis and type two diabetes in 2016- the same year in which Shapiro undertook her fateful DNA test- I made the connection for the first time between his life trajectory and his mother’s childhood experiences. It also forced me to consider that some of my mother’s personality traits likely stem from the now-obvious trauma her family carries.

Feeling the weight of my family history gives rise to conflicted feelings when I read memoir. As a reader, it is possibly the literary form I enjoy the most. The best memoirs are sophisticated mysteries that reveal how individual lives can be profoundly shaped by historical events the author may not even have experienced firsthand. They uncover a historical record residing in the body, and the uncanny abounds. For instance, when they view a clip of her biological father on Youtube, Shapiro and her husband are astounded at the physical resemblance and shared mannerisms between them, though they have never met.

As a critic, however, I feel burdened. I know that trauma is simultaneously universal and intensely personal. I know that having control over their life story is critical to survivors of trauma, and that delegitimising their version of events compounds their suffering. How does one critique the interpretations and conclusions the author posits when one has not lived the life the author has, and cannot lay claim to their experiences?

So it was with some trepidation that I realised about two thirds of the way through Shapiro’s book that I was becoming mildly frustrated. Initially, it is a gripping read and her descriptions of her turbulent emotions amid her burgeoning relationship with her biological father and his family are beautifully rendered. But as the narrative progressed I had a sense of being short-changed, and felt that the depiction of Shapiro’s emotions was becoming repetitive at the expense of opportunity for cultural critique. In turn, this means the moral dilemmas surrounding her story and the ongoing use of reproductive technologies are not fully explored.

This is partly the result of personal and literary decisions Shapiro made in order to protect her fledgling relationship with the Waldens. When Shapiro emails Mr Walden, his wife learns for the first time that her husband of fifty years has biological children outside their relationship. While permitting Shapiro to have a relationship with her family, Mrs Walden is clear that there are limits to how much she can take before her marriage is endangered; she dreads the possibility of other children conceived with the use of her husband’s sperm materialising at her front door. At one of their dinner dates, Mrs Walden takes Shapiro aside and says firmly but without malice: ‘If any others come, you won’t tell them. You’ll stay private.’ Their agreement to let the matter lie opens up another salient question: how much truth can a family handle? In cracking open the silence around her conception, Shapiro has to learn to live with an alternative silence.

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It would be unfair to criticise Shapiro for acquiescing to the Walden family’s wishes, however it does constrain the narrative, especially as Shapiro acknowledges early on in the book that she has always had a lingering curiosity about her identity. As a child and a young adult, her ‘non-Jewish’ appearance had often been questioned by acquaintances, both casual and those close to her. For example, when Shapiro was five, a longstanding family friend suggested to her that given her blonde hair she could have helped to save Jews during the Holocaust. Similarly, at a writing workshop, a fellow participant she had only just met repeated to her emphatically that she could not possibly be Jewish.

This constraint on the narrative is exacerbated by Shapiro’s decision to wear her research lightly. While she makes passing references to conversations with other individuals conceived via sperm donor and alludes to reading many papers on the issue, Shapiro doesn’t delve into cultural commentary. It is possible this is for stylistic reasons; the book is full of vivid imagery that conveys the visceral nature of her disorientation, and is rounded out with a pleasing circularity, albeit one that belies the half-truths that now underpin her identity. If she broke off to explore academic research and others’ experiences, the book would certainly have had a different tone.

This difficulty in striking the stylistic balance highlights the tension in memoir; it is a form devoted to personal experience, but when is the author too much at the centre? Returning to Shapiro’s words in the New Yorker, she notes that ‘[i]t is the complicated, abiding pleasure… of finding the universal thread that connects us to the rest of humanity, and, by doing so, turns our small, personal sorrows and individual tragedies into art.’ The most profound memoirs attempt to reconcile the personal and the universal; while suffering occurs on an intensely personal level, there is also the broader social context in which stories such as Shapiro’s play out. Additionally, reflecting on the legacy of historical practices raises moral questions about the use of reproductive technology in the contemporary context.

The clinic Shapiro’s parents used undertook work that was off the books; unregulated, unethical, and the last resort for desperate couples. It transpires that it was common practice for medical students in the 1960s, like Ben Walden, to donate sperm anonymously for use in what was then cutting-edge work in reproductive technology. The current head of the clinic tells her that every year a significant number of Americans discover their paternity is not what they were raised to think it was. The number of other children Ben Walden fathered remains an open question. Thus, while she feels intensely alone- and reckoning with her parents’ silence is a solitary task – a number of people of her generation and younger are in the same situation. It is still common for sperm donors to remain anonymous, and Shapiro has argued in media interviews that this option is outdated, especially given the availability of DNA kits such as the one she used.

The book could also have taken a dramatic turn when Shapiro reveals that she and her husband had considered using reproductive technology to conceive a second child. Having married her husband at the age of 34 and giving birth to her son Jacob just after she turned thirty-seven, by the time Shapiro considered having another baby she needed medical intervention, including an egg donor. The reasoning behind their decision to abandon this option is not explicitly detailed, but Shapiro makes it clear that the thought of allowing doubt to cloud her child’s understanding of their origins was too much of a burden for herself and her husband to carry.

The lack of depth to the cultural commentary in Inheritance is disappointing given that, over the last five years, donor conception and surrogacy have received considerable international media attention, such as in the case of baby Gammy. As far back as 1992 the British social anthropologist Marilyn Strathern critically examined the implications of such practices on notions of kinship in her book Reproducing the Future, and reproductive technology continues to garner significant academic interest. Watching Shapiro and the Waldens feel their way towards each other was heart-warming but I am not convinced, in the absence of cultural critique, that it was enough to sustain a book-length memoir, especially as Shapiro has revealed so much of herself in previous works. I felt the narrative fizzled out.

Despite these reservations, the book remains though-provoking and beautifully rendered. John Berger once asserted that ‘the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.’ Despite scrutinising our faces in the mirror and repeating our origin stories to ourselves and to our children, we would do well to remember that our identities are contingent upon unseen historical currents; that our past may lie secretly within us, or be masked by even bigger secrets. Shapiro reminds us that allowing such uncertainty into one’s life is an act of grace.