Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simon de Beauvoir and Me

Deirdre Bair

Atlantic, £18.99

Review by Hugh MacDonald

This is self-anointed as a “bio-memoir”, which brings unbidden sensations of one of those tiny yoghurt drinks that, in this case, have the capacity to come back on one.

This is memoir redux, memoir reflux. Deirdre Bair has revisited the time of her writing the biographies of Samuel Beckett and Simone Beauvoir. The first took most of the seventies, the latter all of the eighties. There is, then, much to mine.

Bair describes the “bio-memoir” as: “A curious hybrid...that does indeed tell my story, but only as it first tells the story of my subjects and how I wrote their books”. The form, of course, has been used before, most notably in Robert A Caro’s Working and Richard Ellman’s Golden Codgers.

Bair’s chronicle can be divided into three areas of interest. The first is the perhaps prurient but nevertheless very human impulse on behalf of the reader to consume all the stories that could not be told when the subjects or sources were alive. Parisian Lives is somewhat disappointing in this regard.

It has its moments, though. Beckett describing Albert Finney as the “worst Krapp I ever had” after the latter’s performance in Krapp’s Last Tape raises a smile. The awful, marvellous Peggy Guggenheim, benefactor to the arts, makes an appearance in a Fortuny dress with her dogs “snorting, drooling and leaving traces of their scabrous skin diseases all over its beautiful fabric”. Lillian Hellman is at the same dinner party, “revealing a hideously wrinkled décolletage”. Kenneth Tynan shows up briefly as a journalist wanting to be paid for an interview, Patrick Magee as a drunken philanderer and Alexander Trocchi as a junkie in need of a fix. None of the above, of course, are anecdotes to be placed in the box marked “surprising”.

Bair’s accounts of meetings with many of the sources confirm the reality of the maw of civilisation, whether they be friends of genius or not. They are alternately grasping, generous, drunken, sober, unreliable, honest and flawed to varying degrees. Bair’s trials with letters, meetings, deadlines and lawyers are the least compelling episodes of a book which grips in the second and third areas of interest.

The second, of course, is the subjects themselves. Beckett and De Beauvoir changed the way people thought. There is an immense power in that and a fascination, too. The exiled Irish writer is revealed as a character of soft sensibility, easily bruised but ultimately tough enough to live his mantra of “never explain, never complain”.

De Beauvoir is a wonderful study. She has always been bracketed with Jean-Paul Sartre and often placed in his shadow. Bair’s biography banished these impressions and the “bio-memoir” adds weight, if it were needed, to an appreciation of the gifts and genius of the French writer. Indeed, this observer has always believed De Beauvoir to be the greater philosopher and certainly a more lucid writer than her soul mate. Bair’s tribute – full of testy meetings and regular gestures of kindness – adds flesh to the bones of a revolutionary thinker.

De Beauvoir can be fully explored in her own four volumes of memoirs and, of course, in her ground-breaking treatise The Second Sex, but there is something oddly edifying in reading accounts of her unfurling her story in a suitably regal fashion in a Paris apartment.

There are, too, the odd details that stick in the mind. The vision of Beckett walking across a boulevard, lost in thought and bound for bistro is a perfect encapsulation of Bair’s ability to witness but also leave alone. She spied her subject when working on the De Beauvoir and let him go on with his life without need to accost. She had moved on and it was time to allow Beckett the same freedom.

The detail of De Beauvoir is more poignant. A fridge opens in her apartment to reveal only a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label. Two whiskies are poured – one large for De Beauvoir, one not so large for Bair. This becomes their evening ritual after an interviewing session. It does not need a psychotherapist to divine the loss and sadness in De Beauvoir, marked by the death of De Sartre, and symbolised by a bottle.

The most powerful area of interest lies in the third category. This is a memoir of sexism, even misogyny. Bair, once a newspaper reporter, launched herself into a new career with a heady mixture of bravery and naivety. She admits she knew nothing of biography – had never read one – before she decided to make Beckett her first subject.

This innocence was soon dispelled by the practical difficulties of pursuing a subject while having two children, no job and little money. But there was a darker side that cast an awful shade on her efforts. She was routinely propositioned sexually, dismissed chauvinistically, derided and verbally abused by academics she terms the "Becketteers".

Beckett had avoided attempts to chronicle his life and when the Bair project became known she was regularly asked how many times she had to sleep with the author to gain his approval for the project. Bair always denied such allegations but gradually became aware that, no matter the strength and validity of her repudiations, the snide comments persisted, even gaining strength merely by repetition.

Slowly, Parisan Lives thus becomes a memoir not just of the biographies of brilliant writers and thinkers but a recreation of a time when women were not supposed to do such high profile, non-fiction work and would be brutally challenged if they made the effort. Bair was accused of being unfaithful to her husband, using sex to advance her career, abandoning her children for long periods and, finally but dismissively, being incompetent in her work.

She was and is, of course, a biographer of substantial gifts. Her distinct style of leaving herself out of the narrative makes Parisian Lives a dramatic contrast to her books on Beckett, De Beauvoir, Carl Jung, Anais Nin and Saul Steinberg. It shows the loneliness, despair and frustration of being a woman in the late 20th century seeking to do important, non-fiction work in a world ruled by a "boys’ club".

Bair, of course, triumphed. Her Beckett biography won the National Book award in the US and her career has prospered. Yet she still found opposition in academic circles and was never fully admitted to the salons where male intellectuals declaimed on Beckett and others.

Parisan Lives is about Beckett and De Beauvoir and how they changed the world. But it is also about Bair and how, despite her best efforts, the world around us now can seem depressingly similar to the one that sought to destroy her early promise.