NOVEMBER 14, 2019
AWARD-WINNING WRITER Deirdre Bair likes to call herself an “accidental biographer.” Apparently, she “had never read a biography before she decided that Samuel Beckett needed one and she was the person to write it.” One is inclined to call this a “happy” accident since the Beckett bio won the National Book Award in 1981 and started Bair on a prolific career. However, given the mortifying and fury-eliciting anecdotes laced throughout her new memoir, Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me, happy is not the word that comes most readily to mind.
Over 40 years have elapsed since Bair published that seminal Beckett biography, and almost 30 since her biography of Simone de Beauvoir. The question as to why Bair would write her memoirs now — and why they would focus only on two of her many famous subjects (who also include Anaïs Nin, Carl Jung, Saul Steinberg, and Al Capone) — is inevitable, and Bair is quick to preempt it. In her preface, she explains: “I wrote those two biographies [of Beckett and Beauvoir] during the most eventful years of my own life,” and after seeing her comments on these two highly discussed figures repeatedly “contorted,” she thought it best finally “to set the record straight as I remember it and to let future generations of readers assess it and decide for themselves whether I was an objective witness and a reliable narrator. Or not.”
This is a perfectly understandable rationale, to be sure. But it’s not the whole truth. The project is in part — or perhaps even most of all — an exercise in redemption after the repeated dismissals and denigration of her work by such established figures as Richard Ellmann, Hugh Kenner, Ruby Cohn, and Martin Esslin. Bair makes a point to remark multiple times throughout Parisian Lives that, before her, no one had known much, if anything, about Beckett’s life. “I was the only one,” she tells us, “who recognized” that the figures in Beckett’s plays were based on actual “Dublin characters and the actual places” with which Beckett was familiar. Later, she again reminds her readers: “Remember, nobody knew much about [Beckett] before I began, and in my view Beckett criticism had been languishing for some time.”
It’s hard to fault Bair for insisting on her own relevance and originality. While Bair’s writing in Parisian Lives can be stilted, hokey, and reflective of a rather rigid emotional intelligence, she tells a story that is nonetheless enthralling and leaves the reader marveling at her perseverance. Anyone familiar with the Beckett biography will remember the cryptic three words Beckett uttered at their first meeting: he would neither “help nor hinder” Bair’s project. In Parisian Lives, Bair relays the same scene — only now we see how this promise played out over the seven years it took her to complete the book. During this time, Bair found herself more or less benignly — but nevertheless eerily — stalked by Beckett’s closest confidants, Con Leventhal and Marion Leigh. She witnessed the “snide backbiting Beckett’s friends sometimes practiced as they jousted for favorable positions,” and she was at times the subject of Beckett’s inexplicable flashes of fury. When she arranged for interviews, Bair often found her sources either completely uncooperative or, alternatively, wielding a mirror of inquiry: “They all seemed to be looking to me to tell them how they should interpret his behavior as a boy and how to understand the man he later became.”
The stress she experienced was psycho-physical, too, including constant “difficulties with both time and money,” countless nearly missed flights (to which, on one occasion, she showed up “dripping with perspiration and starving”), her “projectile vomiting” after perusing the letters Beckett wrote to Thomas MacGreevy (without which, she rather bravely admits, she’d have published a “monstrosity of untrue information”), the dissolving of her original publishing house, and a (temporarily) debilitating car crash. All of this plays out over an undercurrent of suspicion: Beckett’s friends and Beckett scholars (mostly men) doubted the intellectual integrity of her work and encouraged pernicious rumors that she used sex to curry favor in the Beckett sphere. This, mind you, while in reality Bair was festering with guilt over leaving her husband and children back home in the States — where, she explains, her job was in constant jeopardy and her academic prospects looked bleak.
And yet, despite the sympathy Bair elicits, one still finds room to be enraged at her occasional naïveté and curious silences. In Parisian Lives, she talks for the first time about Beckett’s sexuality, which she calls “problematic.” We learn about the existence of letters in which Beckett hinted at “sexual encounters that he seemed to be saying were initiated not by him but by other men.” But did she inquire further into the matter? No, because she was too “embarrassed and nonplussed to ask about them in detail,” “did not want to deal with this information,” and “had no idea” how to handle the subject in the biography. On another occasion, Bair’s silence, after what can only be described as a brutal onslaught by the “sycophantic finks” at the MLA’s Beckett session, is astonishing. One man present told Bair that he “knew well what a bitch” she was, and another wondered aloud, with feigned ponderousness, “what [Bair] had to do to get [Beckett] to open up to her.” The insults went on and on. In this grisly group of giggling men, not one showed her any support. And yet Bair — to my shock — stayed silent. Here I put the book down and bit into my hand.
Bair’s relationship with Beauvoir was far more relaxing — which, unfortunately, makes for less engaging reading. Despite another unpropitious beginning (Bair showed up in Paris after a flight “delayed by bad weather and then turbulence, after which the airline lost [her] luggage”), the meetings between the two women went, for the most part, smoothly. Beauvoir — unlike Beckett — allowed their conversations to be recorded, and it is clear that Bair was less inclined to tiptoe around sensitive issues, such as Beauvoir’s sexuality. Actually, Beauvoir broached the topic for her:
When I arrived for our next session, I could see that Beauvoir was in a nasty mood. I found a festering, smoldering woman sitting in her little hollow on the sofa, her face a molten red and her conversation curt, abrupt, even rude. […] I was thinking I had never seen [her face] so mottled when she suddenly burst out, “You are going to write that Sylvie [Le Bon] and I are lesbians! You are going to tell the world!” When she said the word “lesbian,” she all but screamed it.
Beauvoir went on to clarify: “‘Oh sure, we kiss on the lips, we hug, we touch each other’s breasts, but we don’t do anything’ — and here another downward flick — ‘down there! So you can’t call us lesbians!’”
In the biography itself, Bair dealt with Beauvoir’s sexuality in a footnote, where she concluded, in the most scholarly fashion, that Beauvoir simply has a “complex sexual identity.” If Beauvoir didn’t herself identify as lesbian, Bair was not about to claim that she was one. Inexplicably, Bair doesn’t address why she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, approach Beckett’s complex sexuality similarly.
We get the feeling, though, that Bair’s newfound confidence in her dealings with Beauvoir was in large part a product of what she calls her “feminist awakening.” And, indeed, Bair uses this section on Beauvoir to elaborate on the transformation hinted at in her reflections on the Beckett years (what she calls her “prefeminist days”). By the time 1976 rolls around, and subsequently in her years with Beauvoir, we see Bair joining feminist groups, soliciting the help of a female analyst with whom she experiences an epiphanic “feeling of […] release,” and — in her new gusto — we even witness full-fledged cursing in her daily diaries (a rare occurrence, as Bair would typically use acronyms like “s.o.b.” or the euphemistic “you-know-what!”). This belated awakening is all well and good, but Bair’s harping on it grows rather tiring. Far too much attention is paid to a feminist conference that simply ends up dissolving, and Bair repeatedly reiterates — often reusing the exact same phrases — her burgeoning feminist frustrations, without actualizing them.
So, does this book succeed as a memoir? In a way. Throughout, Bair tries to twin the processes of subject-discovery with self-discovery: “I was in the thick of [writing the biography],” she tells us, “a process in which I was inventing myself, too, as I went along.” And, while this is clearly true, one can’t shake the feeling that, in certain of its revelations, the book wants to be a tell-all. In others, it is rightfully exculpatory. Most effectively, though, Parisian Lives is a testament to Bair’s strength. Putting aside the book’s structural unevenness as well as the author’s unconscious, compulsive hokiness and reductive binaries (pre-feminist versus post-feminist; “mousy girl” versus “brash American”), one cannot deny that Bair is perseverant: even when silent in the face of blatant misogyny, she does not give up. Her uncanny courage makes it hard to hold her failings against her, and thus hard to hold them against the book in which she explores her harrowing, transformative journey.