They "cordially detested each other." So says Deirdre Bair of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. And Bair should know. She spent years working on their biographies — Beckett's in the 1970s, Beauvoir's in the 1980s — when she was a young academic who, as she often mentions, struggled to balance family and her academic career.
Both biographies were well regarded, but audiences wanted more. "What were they really like?" readers often asked Bair. She resisted writing a personal book for years, but when other biographers misrepresented information she had given them, she had to offer a corrective. This memoir is the result.
Bair devotes the first two-thirds of the book to Beckett, whom she met in Paris in 1971 after completing her doctorate. At that first meeting, "he made the remark that has since come to haunt me: 'I will neither help nor hinder you. My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.' "
He was right. The Beckett chapters sometimes get bogged down with name dropping, yet they're genuinely suspenseful, as subjects decline interview requests, Beckett sort of cooperates one minute but writes "I prefer not to see you" the next, and her publishing house declares the book "unpublishable."
Bair endured considerable sexism in the process, from male "Becketteers" who criticized the book to the female journalist who asked, "How many times did you have to sleep with Beckett to get this scoop?"
In response, Bair chose for her next subject "a woman who made a success of every aspect of her life." Beauvoir was impressed that Bair "wanted to write 'about everything and not just my feminism or Sartre.' "
The final third of this memoir chronicles their many meetings and Bair's attempts to shatter the "Lucite curtain" Beauvoir would erect when asked about sensitive topics, including her sexuality and the way "she had colluded with Sartre in the seduction of one of her pupils."
Readers who aren't writers may not care about the minutiae of writing a biography that Bair details here: the grants she applied for, the word processing software she used. But even readers uninterested in going deep into the weeds will find the broader landscape breathtaking.
And some of those weeds are worth admiring, as when Bair notes that, to create an outline for the Beckett book, she bought "rolls and rolls of white paper that thrifty housewives who kept spotlessly clean homes used to line the shelves in their kitchen cabinets."
At its best, the book is a unique glimpse into a bygone literary era. Whether you adore the works of Beckett and Beauvoir or cordially detest them, this memoir will deepen your appreciation of the impassioned feelings they provoked.
Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Newsday and BookPage.
By: Deirdre Bair.
Publisher: Nan A. Talese, 347 pages, $29.95.