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The Hard Life

Ann Kennedy Smith

Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me, A Memoir, by Deirdre Bair, Atlantic Books, 288 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1786492654

Halfway through her book Parisian Lives, the American biographer Deirdre Bair confesses to a crime. For years she had tried to get her hands on Samuel Beckett’s personal letters to Thomas MacGreevy, sure that they held the key to why Beckett left Ireland in October 1937 and moved to France. At last she got her chance, when MacGreevy’s nieces reluctantly permitted her to read them under strict conditions. But as she sat typing in their home that wintry Sunday in Dublin, listening to the family having lunch in the next room, Bair knew that she did not have enough time, in the limited hours the sisters had allowed her, to transcribe all of the correspondence she needed. “I made the only dishonest decision of my professional life that afternoon,” she admits. She discreetly tucked away a selection of the correspondence into her handbag to take back to her hotel room.

“The biographer at work,” Janet Malcolm writes, “is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.” Malcolm’s book The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (reissued by Granta in 2020) insists that writers and readers of biography are equally guilty of “voyeurism and busybodyism”: they tiptoe down the corridor together and gaze through the keyhole. The apparatus of serious scholarship in a literary biography is simply a veneer that lends respectability to the snooping.

Deirdre Bair returned the stolen letters to the MacGreevy collection the following day, and no harm was done. Yet it’s a revealing admission, showing that, like the trained reporter she was, she was prepared to go to any lengths to get a scoop. And a scoop it certainly was. When Samuel Beckett: A Biography was published in 1978, it caused a sensation and put a lot of academic noses seriously out of joint. Beckett scholars queued up to write sneering reviews of it, pointing out its errors and gaps. Fair as some of these criticisms were, Deirdre Bair’s real crime was that she, an unknown woman, had written the book about Beckett that none of the professors and academics had dared to.

It is extraordinary, but apparently true, that in 1970 Deirdre Bair made the decision to connect her life to Samuel Beckett’s with no more forethought than that of choosing an item from a lunch menu. She had spent the previous ten years working as a newspaper reporter, supporting her husband through graduate school and bringing up two young children. When she got the chance to spend a year studying literature at Columbia University she seized it, thinking it would help with her career as a journalist. She picked Beckett as a subject for her dissertation simply because his name came first in the neatly organised alphabetical index cards of writers that she had made. Her academic adviser warned her that if she wrote about the Irish writer’s life, as she was planning, she would never get a PhD or a university position. “It’s not scholarship; it’s only biography,” he told her.

But Bair “knew the tingle that came from identifying a good story” and decided to write to Beckett himself, asking his permission to write his biography. He replied a week later, telling her his life was “dull and without interest” and that “the professors know more about it than I do”. Then he scrawled, almost as an afterthought, one extraordinary and unpunctuated sentence. “Any biographical information I possess is at your disposal if you come to Paris I will see you.” In this way her life in biography – and her troubles ‑ began.

As Bair made plans to visit Paris in November 1971, things looked promising: a generous travel grant, a keen literary agent and the prospect of a publisher. Of course that didn’t last. A New York friend of Beckett’s, the writer John Kobler, insisted on giving her two enormous bottles of Bushmills whiskey to bring to Beckett. As she later discovered, Beckett didn’t even like Bushmills, and she had struggled to fit them into her suitcase and carry them to Paris for no good reason. The unwanted gift was symbolic of the misunderstandings and hazards that would attach themselves to Deirdre Bair, and drag her down, over the next seven years.

“I will neither help nor hinder you,” Beckett told her when they first met. “My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.” What Deirdre Bair hadn’t expected was that Beckett’s friends and enemies would be sometimes hard to tell apart, and over the seven years it took her to research and write the book, her subject himself was elusive. For all his open-handed generosity ‑ spending time with her, giving her introductions to his circle, allowing her to ask any questions she wished ‑ Beckett often mysteriously disappeared from Paris, leaving no forwarding address, during the very week that she had travelled from America to see him. When he did show up, he set strict rules. No tape-recording, no taking notes. Bair had to compile her questions on her index cards beforehand, memorise them carefully and then, after their meetings, dash back to her hotel room to scribble her notes. “Whenever he felt that I was getting too close to something he was reluctant to make known,” she recalls, “he could become clipped in his speech, cutting in his comments and dismissive of my work.”

She suspected that Beckett did not take her seriously. She was told by his friend Con Leventhal, who was greatly amused by it, that Beckett had referred to her as “the woman with striped hair”, alluding to her fashionable blonde highlights. She was reminded of the casual sexism of her newspaper reporter days where instead of news features, “girl reporters” were expected to write about “recipes and clothes, bridge clubs and social circles”. Bair had refused to give in, either then or in her new profession of biographer. Her persistence paid off with Beckett. “My word is my bond,” he told her, and she believed him. She had a reporter’s hunch that he was also curious to see what posterity would make of him while he was still around to see it.

Deirdre Bair’s experiences with most of Beckett’s friends were less than happy. She witnessed their “snide backbiting” as they argued among themselves about who was in his inner circle. She bought endless Scotch whiskeys for George Reavey in New York in exchange for biographical tidbits (“a nightmare that lasted throughout the seven years to write the book”). The poet John Montague arrived at her Connecticut home uninvited, with his wife and small child, and expected to stay for weeks. There is a sense on almost every page of Parisian Lives of the biographer settling scores and airing long-suppressed grievances. “I was the only one who recognized such things as his portrayals of some famous Dublin characters,” she notes of her reading of Beckett’s works, but her recollections of research trips to Dublin are not pleasant. “I spent many exhausting evenings sitting on a bar stool, trying to move out of the reach of one after another drunken Irish poet, actor, playwright, journalist or professor,” she recalls. It’s a pity that the generosity and kindness of Seamus and Marie Heaney and others towards her is described only in passing.

Parisian Lives burns with Bair’s righteous rage at the sexist attitudes that dogged her at every turn during this period, and for years afterwards. When the biography was published in 1978, the discomfort that American male critics felt about a female writer taking on a serious literary subject was apparent. Richard Ellmann wondered in The New York Review of Books why Beckett allowed this unknown woman to write about him. “The question is quite as interesting as any problem propounded by the book, and answers may be guessed at.” His implication is as plain as that of the journalist who asked “How many times did you have to sleep with Beckett to get this scoop?” English reviewers were more fair, mixing their praise for Bair’s achievement with legitimate criticisms of the book. Strangely, Bair doesn’t mention Irish critics at all, but Brian Fallon in The Irish Times wrote (of the 1981 reprint): “The best sections are probably those dealing with Beckett’s life in France, his work for the Resistance (for which he was decorated) and the circumstances in which ‘Godot’ was written and produced, ending decades of obscurity and struggle. Ms Bair’s grasp of Irish literary life in the 1930s and 1940s is a good deal less impressive, and there is a smattering of irritating slips and blunders. For instance, O’Casey is credited with writing a play called ‘The Dreams of Father Ned’, ‘Con’ Cremin’s christian name is given as Constantine instead of Cornelius, the myth that Joyce was banned in Ireland is repeated, etc.”

The experience of writing Beckett’s life, before and after publication, left Deirdre Bair battle-scarred and weary, but she recalls some bright moments. After seven years of work, just before her book went to press, she was told that she had to obtain Beckett’s permission for every individual quotation from his letters and unpublished manuscripts. Distressed, she wrote to him to explain the situation, and asked him to place his initials beside every quotation that she planned to use, a total of twenty-three single-spaced pages. A week later she had his reply. He had initialled every single quotation except the poem he wrote as a twelve-year-old schoolboy at the Portora Royal School, wryly explaining that “it shows better your diligence as a researcher than my development as a writer”. Bair was deeply moved that after all the obstacles and hostile responses that she had encountered along the way, Beckett himself was as good as his word. “I have met many honorable persons throughout my long professional life,” she writes, “but there was never one whose integrity equaled Samuel Beckett’s. His word was indeed his bond.”

The success of Samuel Beckett: A Biography was Bair’s reward. The public queued up to buy it, and she received the National Book Award in 1981. One publisher offered her a contract to write about anyone she wanted, convinced she could “tackle anyone Irish or even Virginia Woolf”. Bair had sworn never to write another biography but found her next subject not far from her first. Her acclaimed Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography was published in 1986, and since then she has written over half a dozen well-received biographies, of Carl Jung, Anaïs Nin, Saul Steinberg and Al Capone, and had a successful career as an academic. But, she tells us in the introduction to Parisian Lives, after so many books and so many years, all anyone is interested in are the two Paris-based writers Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir, who cordially detested each other. Wherever she goes, whoever she talks about, she is always asked about them, and it is always the same question. “What were they really like?”

So, almost fifty years after she first looked into Beckett’s pale blue “gull’s eyes” in a run-down hotel lobby in Paris, Deirdre Bair has answered the busybodies’ burning question, while also turning the spotlight on herself. In her introduction she describes it as a “curious hybrid of a book, a ‘bio-memoir’”, and Parisian Lives is as much about herself as a biographer as her encounters with Beckett and de Beauvoir. Her biographical life is portrayed through the prism of her most famous subjects, so it’s deeply poignant that Deirdre Bair died in April 2020 at the age of eighty-four, not long after her book was shortlisted for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for biography. Parisian Lives wasn’t meant to be her final word ‑ she was working on her next project, a biography of TS Eliot, when she died. But as it is, her book poignantly closes the circle of her lifelong professional relationship with Beckett and de Beauvoir and puts on record her own troubling, transgressive pursuit of other people’s lives.

In the end Parisian Lives is not about the rights and wrongs of biography, or the crimes that are committed in its name. It is about the price that one woman paid to achieve success in her chosen profession despite all the odds. After the difficulties she encountered writing about Samuel Beckett, Bair describes how the words of the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois gave her the courage to keep writing biography. “No woman has a place as an artist until she proves over and over that she won’t be eliminated.”

1/6/2020

Ann Kennedy Smith studied French and German at Trinity College Dublin and is now a freelance writer based in Cambridge. Her reviews and essays have been published in The Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and Slightly Foxed. She has written on writers and their mothers for the drb https://drb.ie/essays/sons-and-mothers
More details on her website at https://wordpress.com/view/akennedysmith.com

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