- - Thursday, February 27, 2020

Deirdre Bair had never written a biography when she sent a letter to Samuel Beckett in 1971, suggesting she write his. At the time, she was a 31-year-old journalist, married, with two children. “I had the grandiose idea that Samuel Beckett was not … a writer steeped in alienation, isolation, and despair, but rather one who was deeply rooted in his Irish heritage and who portrayed that world through his upper-class Anglo-Irish background and sensibility.” 

Amazingly, Beckett replied immediately, suggesting Bair come to Paris to meet with him. Over the next seven years, she did so. “Parisian Lives, Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me” is the memoir of how Ms. Bair went about researching and writing her biography of Beckett and, subsequently, her decade-long preparation for the biography of Simone de Beauvoir

The book is a lively, incisive and personal exploration of her excitement for, and dedication to the project. It is an account of difficulties a young and inexperienced biographer encountered on her way: the continuing problem of raising funds to finance frequent trips to Paris, London and Dublin; her feeling of inadequacy for the task at hand; the difficulty in dealing with her subjects, publishers, research, and taking care of her family and teaching responsibilities at the same time; and the jealous reactions in the literary world once the book was published. 

The Beckett biography began in a drab Left Bank hotel and neighboring cafe where author and subject met. Beckett greeted Ms. Bair, “So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am” but promised that he would “neither help nor hinder you. My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.” 

Because Beckett was adamant about “‘No pencils! No paper!. We are just having conversations,’” Ms. Bair wrote her questions on three-by-five note cards, placing them in the order for which she wanted answers, and then rushed back to her hotel to transcribe from memory everything she remembered. She also kept what she called her Daily Diaries, her “DD,” in which she recorded “everything and anything connected with the work [she] did for the biographies.”

The book is filled with the names of countless Beckett friends and family interviewed, many of whom had never met one another and who turned to her for information about Beckett. She managed to get Beckett’s acolytes (whom she called “Becketeers”), friends and enemies to talk about him in detail. For every fact set forth, she sought three corroborations.

“Parisian Lives” offers a glimpse into Beckett’s and de Beauvoir’s personalities. For example, Beckett, who was a talented mimic, is described as “a courtly Old World gentleman with impeccable manners who sometimes shocked me with his sharp, accurate, and devastating portrayals.” “Some of his imitations were simply funny, but there were others that … verged on cruelty and ridicule.”

Ms. Bair knew that Beckett hated Simone de Beauvoir ever since she had refused to publish one of the young Beckett’s stories in Les Temps Modernes, Jean-Paul Sartre’s literary magazine, which de Beauvoir edited. “I found it curious that after so many years, the animosity he held against her and the indifference she showed toward his resentment had never changed,” notes Ms. Bair. Nevertheless, she wrote to Mme. de Beauvoir, suggesting that her biography would focus on de Beauvoir’s complete oeuvre and not just on her feminist writings, then popular.

They met in de Beauvoir’s apartment. She was “dressed in what looked like a shabby old red bathrobe over a nightdress … This robe became familiar, as she wore it for many of our conversations during the next five years. She also wore a turban, which I unkindly came to call ‘the ubiquitous rag’ because I never saw her without it.” In her DD, Ms. Bair describes de Beauvoir as “lumpy, grumpy, frumpy, and dumpy.” The biography, however, was about “the accomplished woman in the fullness of her life.”

Unlike Beckett, de Beauvoir was delighted with the question and answer cards; “her eyes actually lit up when she saw the first pile presented. It proved to her that I took the forthcoming book seriously … .” Ms. Bair developed mutual trust and a genuine friendship with her subject, and was deeply moved when she died.

Samuel Beckett, a Biography” received the National Book award, and the biography of Simone de Beauvoir was chosen by The New York Times as a Best Book of the Year and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. What “Parisian Lives” makes clear is that Ms. Bair is a gifted storyteller with the ability to recount not only what happened with whom and where, but what motivated her subjects and what made them the fascinating people they were. Now 84 and no longer young and naive, Deirdre Bair retains her unique talent for biography and autobiography.

• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer, critic and frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

• • •


By Deirdre Bair

Doubleday, $28.95, 368 pages

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