Review: Parisian Lives; Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and me: a memoir, by Deirdre Bair

Updated on Apr 16, 2020 04:11 PM IST

Deirdre Bair’s memoir of writing the biographies of Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett is a compelling story of an early feminist’s struggle to be taken seriously

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in their first picture together at a fair, Porte d'Orleans in June, 1929 in Paris, France.(Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in their first picture together at a fair, Porte d'Orleans in June, 1929 in Paris, France.(Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Hindustan Times | ByVrinda Nabar
373 pp; Nan A Talese/Doubleday
373 pp; Nan A Talese/Doubleday

At 84, Deirdre Bair has authored six biographies but the subjects who continued to arouse the most interest were the two she first wrote about: Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. Beckett and Beauvoir were also the biographical subjects she grew most attached to, and her recently published memoir Parisian Lives; Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me: A Memoir tells us why this was so. Though she had long toyed with the idea of writing a book about how these biographies evolved, publishers were only interested in what Beckett and Beauvoir “were really like.” And so Parisian Lives became a “hybrid of memoir and biography”, and Bair an “artist under oath”: there could be “no hiding, and sometimes it was painful.”

Bair had been a journalist and written a dissertation on Beckett when she wrote seeking his consent. She first met him in Paris in November 1971, and began the Beauvoir biography a decade later. If Beckett’s concurrence was quick (“I will neither help nor hinder you”), so was the flood of disparaging responses from people who claimed to be close to him, and even from established academics and scholars. Lewd rumours about what she must have done to get him to “open up” proliferated both during the writing process and for years post publication, along with repeated insinuations that she was one of those “American Women’s Libbers” in a “free marriage”. People she interacted with claimed they hadn’t talked to her, while others who were obstructive claimed she could never have written the book without their help. The biography itself generated professional envy, resentment, and hostility, with the “Becketteers” (uniformly male) banded together in a symposium to “rescue Beckett from Bair”. Even her daughter was not spared, her headmaster waving Richard Ellman’s review at her and saying “Oh boy, but your mother has really done it this time!” The hard work and research that went into her writing notwithstanding, colleagues at Penn University rubbished her achievement – “She’s not a scholar; she’s only a biographer” – to stop her getting tenure. The stress of coping with career and domesticity resulted in a minor breakdown and by the time the book was out (1978) she was determined never to write another biography.

Playwright and writer Samuel Beckett (1906 - 1989). (Reg Lancaster/Getty Images)
Playwright and writer Samuel Beckett (1906 - 1989). (Reg Lancaster/Getty Images)

It took Dick McDonough, an editor at Little, Brown and Company, to persuade Bair that Simone de Beauvoir could be the woman she had said was an impossibility: someone who had made a success of every aspect of her life, personal and professional. The Second Sex had been an important coming of age book for Bair and Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre had not yet come under the scanner. To Bair she was “paragon and icon” but, revealingly, her agent and Mary Kling (her Paris representative) both saw Beauvoir as passé, Kling even claiming that without Sartre she was “nothing”. Despite this Bair wrote to Beauvoir and received her consent. From the very first she felt a personal closeness to Beauvoir that she never shared with Beckett though she had to navigate carefully to ensure that “lumpy, grumpy, frumpy, and dumpy” Beauvoir (as she was to exasperatedly refer to her once in her diaries) did not direct what she wrote. Since Beauvoir and Beckett “cordially detested each other”, Bair secured her autonomy by telling Beauvoir that he had never interfered with her writing. Perceptive, frequently ironic, she describes Beckett’s circle as more eclectic and Beauvoir’s, surprisingly, despite her travels and writings on other cultures, as curiously restrictive and much less diverse. Yet, paradoxically, Beckett’s world was backbiting, sycophantic, while people who admired, respected and loved Beauvoir were not afraid to stand up to “their monstre sacré.”

Bair’s memoir, based to a considerable extent on her Daily Diaries, combines humour, irony, frustration, exasperation, exultation and disappointment, triumph and defeat. She writes movingly of the time Beckett (who could be fractious and evasive) listened to her emotional outburst, only to say “You must never explain. You must never complain.” Of his insistence that “only the writing matters”, and that he “could not have gone through the awful wretched mess of life without having left a stain upon the silence.” Of how he faithfully initialed every quotation to ratify it as her publishers demanded: “His word was indeed his bond”. Of how, despite Beauvoir’s outspokenness about many things including her lovers, certain topics were decidedly taboo: what she and Sartre did during the Nazi occupation of France, her dissertation on Leibniz and, surprisingly, even her sexuality. With Sartre gone Beauvoir seemed liberated, eager to have her whole story told. She had been “slotted into the niche of feminist icon” and was afraid of staying there in perpetuity, her fiction, politics, philosophy and autobiography forgotten. Unlike Beckett’s death (1989) which triggered no emotional reaction, Beauvoir’s death in 1986 while the biography was still in progress devastated Bair and she joined the procession of mourners to the Montparnasse cemetery where Beauvoir was buried beside her lifetime partner Jean-Paul Sartre.

Author Deirdre Bair in a picture taken on January 1, 2006. (Getty Images)
Author Deirdre Bair in a picture taken on January 1, 2006. (Getty Images)

Denied promotion despite her successes, Bair resigned from Penn University and has never regretted abandoning the world of petty academia for what she loved: her writing. Bair’s memoir draws one in because Beckett and Beauvoir were icons even in one’s faraway context but largely because, despite some repetition and tediousness, it is a compelling story of an early feminist’s struggle to be a spouse, a mother, a young academic in a hostile environment, and above all a scholar who would be taken seriously despite her youth and gender, not just by her subjects but by the worlds to which they belonged. It is a no-holds-barred story, which should resonate with women young and old.

Vrinda Nabar is the author of “Caste as Woman” and “Family Fables & Hidden Heresies: A Memoir of Mothers and More”, and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.

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