“So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am.” This was the first thing Samuel Beckett ever said to me, on a cold November day in 1971 when I, a newly minted twentysomething Ph.D. who had never read biography and had no idea how to write it, decided that he needed one and that I was the person to write it.
Earlier, I had written a letter saying I didn’t believe he was only the “poet of alienation, isolation, and despair,” as all the critics so deeply steeped in French literary theory described him. I found so many resonances from my readings in Irish history and literature of real people and places in his writing that came from his upper-class Anglo-Irish upbringing. I didn’t keep a copy of the letter but it must have been fairly pompous; I presented myself as the perfect scholar-writer to set the literary record straight. To my amazement, he replied swiftly, saying that if I came to Paris, he would be happy to see me.
“So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan
that I am.”
Off I went, only to be confounded by his decree of how we would work together. I didn’t expect it when he asked how I intended to write this, which meant I had to create a method off the top of my head. I blurted that I would interview him, his family members, friends, and professional associates. I would expect him to provide correspondence, notebooks, and other documents. And I expected him to tell anyone who asked to cooperate with me.
He paused for a brief moment and then said two things that have stuck in my mind to this day. “My word is my bond, and my family and friends are free to do as they wish. My enemies will find you soon enough.” And then he added the phrase I innocently included in the first chapter that has haunted me ever since: “I will neither help nor hinder you.” Unknowingly, I had created the ideal circumstances in which to write biography.
Beckett jumped up in horror when I began to set out pen, notebook, and recorder at our first meeting. We were to be “just two friends in conversation over a glass of wine or cup of coffee,” and there was never to be anything visibly connected to writing. Anguish over how to hold everything he said in my head led me to create a working method I called “intellectual solitaire”: alone, before every meeting, I would write each question I wanted to ask on an individual file card, arranging and rearranging them, sometimes getting up in the middle of a restless night to rearrange them yet again. Fortunately, I have an excellent memory and I trained myself to hold them in my mind, along with the conversations they led to and his answers that followed.
Parisian Lives is the story of the many adventures these “friendly conversations” created as I taught myself to write his biography and, along the way, to mature into the feminist woman I am today. It was published in a hostile environment where male “Becketteers” did all they could to sabotage it. I think it caused a mini-breakdown—terrible, to be sure, but it led me to Simone de Beauvoir, which became one of the defining experiences of both my professional and my personal life.
The Beckett biography caused
a mini-breakdown, but it led me to Simone de Beauvoir.
Writing about Simone de Beauvoir was entirely different and it demonstrated definitively (at least to me) that no biography can serve as the model for any other. At our first meeting, she set out rules entirely opposite to Beckett’s as to how we would work together. We would each have a tape recorder and notebook; she would talk and I would transcribe everything she said into a manuscript, which would become, said she, clapping her hands together in delight, “my biography!”
“Oh dear,” I said as I lowered my head to my hands in fear that this book was finished before it ever began. I told her I needed the same agreement I had had with Beckett. When he was still an unknown writer struggling for publication, Beckett had submitted the first part of a story to Jean-Paul Sartre’s magazine, Les Temps Modernes, which de Beauvoir printed. She refused to publish the second half when Beckett showed up with it, saying the magazine had had “quite enough of that kind of nonsense,” and he never forgave her.
After I told her of the enormous freedom Beckett had given me to write about him, she said, “Well then, I suppose I must do the same.” And that was how I came to know two of the most remarkable figures of 20th-century life and letters, and to have the extraordinary privilege of spending several years in their company as I wrote their biographies.
Deirdre Bair’s Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me is out now from Nan A. Talese