Parisian Lives, page 1
ALSO BY DEIRDRE BAIR
Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend
Saul Steinberg: A Biography
Calling It Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over
Jung: A Biography
Anaïs Nin: A Biography
Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography
Samuel Beckett: A Biography
Copyright © 2019 by Deirdre Bair
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.
DOUBLEDAY is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC. Nan A. Talese and the colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Cover image: Samuel Beckett by Thierry Orban/Sygma and Simone de Beauvoir by François Lochon/Gamma-Rapho, both Getty Images; (skyline) Stockleb/Shutterstock
Cover design by Michael J. Windsor
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Bair, Deirdre, author.
Title: Parisian lives : Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and me : a memoir / Deirdre Bair.
Other titles: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and me : a memoir
Description: First edition. | New York : Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2019.
Identifiers: LCCN 2019006879 (print) | LCCN 2019021111 (ebook) | ISBN 9780385542463 (ebook) | ISBN 9780385542456 (hardcover)
Subjects: LCSH: Bair, Deirdre. | Women authors, American—Biography. | Authors, American—20th century—Biography. | Autobiography—Women authors. | Biography as a literary form. | Beckett, Samuel, 1906–1989—Psychology. | Beauvoir, Simone de, 1908–1986—Psychology. | BISAC: BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Personal Memoirs. | BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Literary. | BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Women.
Classification: LCC PS3602.A5635 (ebook) | LCC PS3602.A5635 Z46 2019 (print) | DDC 818/.5403 [B]—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019006879
Ebook ISBN 9780385542463
Also by Deirdre Bair
A Note About the Author
FOR AILEEN WARD,
Mentor and Friend
Whenever I meet someone new and tell them that I have written biographies of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir, their first question is usually “What made you choose those subjects?” I’ve honed a ready answer over the years, one designed to be brief and polite and to let me change the subject. “They were remarkable people,” I say. “Truly extraordinary. Great privilege to have known them.” Most of the time I don’t get away with it, and the question that routinely follows is “What were they really like?” That one is never easy to answer.
Over the years I wrote several other biographies about equally fascinating people, but the interest in Beckett and Beauvoir remained out of proportion to all the rest. With every lecture or seminar, I found myself fielding questions about what was it like to be with them, and what did we talk about, and why did I write the books as I did. I was bombarded with remarks along the lines of “Weren’t you awestruck, terrified, humble, wowed”—you pick the adjective here—“to be in the presence of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir?” Yes, I admit; yes, I felt all those emotions and many more besides. I can’t count how many times I was asked to sing for my supper at dinners and parties, or relate how hard I searched for anecdotes to amuse other guests without inappropriately revealing anything personal I had come to know about these literary giants.
But the questions persisted, and I began to think that perhaps—someday in the far distant future—perhaps I might write a little book, a “book about the writing of the books.” The original idea was to write something primarily for scholars and writers that would cover all my biographies, to concentrate on the decisions I made when dealing with structure and content, or how I worked in foreign archives and languages, or how I dealt with reluctant heirs and troublesome estates. Each time I suggested this possible project, even to fellow biographers or academics, the response was always “That’s all very nice, but please just tell us what Beckett and Beauvoir were really like.” And for many years that was something I simply could not bring myself to do.
I wrote those two biographies during the most eventful years of my own life, and to write about Beckett and Beauvoir meant that I would have to write about myself as well. If I described the professional decisions that I made, I would also have to describe the brash young woman I was then: a journalist not yet thirty who became an accidental biographer, one who had never read a biography before she decided that Samuel Beckett needed one and she was the person to write it. And I would have to tell of a somewhat wiser woman a decade later, who formed a feminist consciousness during tumultuous years when she worked hard to stay married, raise children, keep a household running, forge an academic career, and scrounge enough money to go to Paris to confer with Simone de Beauvoir—because Simone de Beauvoir appeared to be the only contemporary role model who had made a success of both her personal and her professional lives, and I was searching desperately for someone to tell me how to do the same.
My writing life began as a reporter for newspapers and magazines. Even though it was the era of the New Journalism, I never adopted those techniques and kept myself scrupulously out of everything I wrote. That decision was largely made for me by the fact that I wrote hard news much of the time—from actions of the zoning board of appeals to city council shenanigans, the sort of thing that allowed me to concentrate on the story at hand and not on the role I played in getting it. When I began to write biography, a biographer friend who also started in journalism told me how she melded her old career with the new one: “Biographers are essentially storytellers. So, then, tell the story, but stay the hell out of it.” Since that was my natural impulse, this approach suited me just fine until I became both source and subject.
In the last several years, I was contacted by several biographers w
And yet I was still not ready to confront my own story. I am sure I bored my sister-writers in the Women Writing Women’s Lives seminar at CUNY, when I sought their counsel for the better part of a year as I asked repeatedly how I could bring myself to reveal so much that was personal, not only about Beckett and Beauvoir but about myself. For every embarrassing or unpleasant or unsavory aspect of their behavior, mine was at least doubly so. I had begun to write biography as a curious combination of seasoned, hardened journalist and total novice in the genre. Did I really want to put all the mistakes I made out there for the world to see? My dilemma was expressed perfectly when Margo Jefferson spoke to the seminar about her memoir, Negroland, and said the self she wanted to put on the page was the hardest to write about: “How do you reveal yourself without asking for love or pity?” How, indeed.
I found an interesting example of my problem at a lunchtime talk at New York University’s Institute for the Humanities, when Phillip Lopate said it took him thirty-one years to write a memoir about his mother, because every time he approached the truth he found himself backing away from it. I suppose I was more fortunate, because for me approaching, backing away from, and revealing my own truth took only nineteen years.
How then to construct my story? Of my three subjects—Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and myself—the first two became much easier to remember and recount after I waded through the ceiling-high stacks of boxes of papers in my storage room, what the neighbors call our local fire hazard. Everything I needed to jog my memory was there, from interview transcripts to news clips, photos, and correspondence; looking through this material helped me to remember how the decisions I made when writing the biographies were rooted in the facts. A central tenet of my writing credo is that if memory is to serve as one of the two basic pillars of support for any biography, it must be coupled with fact. But what about me and my story? Where would I find the facts of my life to balance my memories?
I solved that problem when I found boxes I had entirely forgotten, those containing what I called the Daily Diaries, or as I abbreviate them here, the DD. It was a shock to find the big red “page-a-day” books where I wrote down everything and anything connected with the work I did for the biographies. I did not remember how much detail I had confided to those notebooks, everything from capsule profiles of the people I met, to long philosophical meditations on my life, to the wide, colorful range of emotions (negative as well as positive) I felt for my subjects. Here was the record of the several selves I would have to portray in this book, from the neophyte to the mature woman who reads these journals now with a deep appreciation for how those experiences helped her to become who she is today. That would be the most important self, the one who explains every step of the process.
With the DD in hand I could buttress and fortify so many aspects of the shifting and varied self who displayed her emotions and passions those many years ago. Applying the filter of time to these in-the-moment accounts lets me be present but also lets me distance myself, and to create another self, one better suited to a dispassionate telling of the most objective tale possible. Once I mined these layers, I knew I could write this curious hybrid of a book, a “bio-memoir” that does indeed tell my story, but only as it first tells the story of my subjects and how I wrote their books. I was able to combine literary imagination—all the things I thought then, later proven right or wrong—with the authority of facts as time has revealed them. The reader will see me, I hope, standing above or outside my story, looking down on all the players in it, as I thought of them then, as I think of them now.
I think my years of hesitation led me to wait for the perfect moment to tell this story. Enough time has passed that I can set the record straight (as I see it) with little risk of hurting anyone; most of the people I wrote about have died, and the survivors I know of are unlikely to be surprised by what I write here. Even so, writing bio-memoir has not been easy, particularly because so much writing today is self-referential and it was a struggle to find my place within shifting genres. Memoir is no longer bound by the need for absolute truth, nor is it constrained by the concerns of decorum and decency that prevailed in our recent past. We live now in an age of indecency, when nothing is off-limits. Fiction is often prefaced with terms like “auto,” “self,” and “reality,” a practice that allows novelists to creep under the fences and invade the turf of autobiography. Autobiographers, meanwhile, no longer hesitate to fictionalize the history of others. And contemporary biographers who find little or no information about their subjects feel scant compunction about inserting themselves into lives in which they played no part, either as authoritative characters or as commentators.
I was well aware of all these genre-boundary breakdowns and did my best to avoid them, but on the few occasions when I crossed borders, I tried to explain my reasons. For me, biography will always require the writer to be “the artist under oath,” as the critic Desmond MacCarthy decreed, and that was how I tried to write this hybrid of memoir and biography. There was no hiding, and sometimes it was painful. Writing was a slow process of discovery; I have always lived in the present day, and to recall my professional coming-of-age was to explore an almost unknown country that was long gone, one that I had not paid much attention to but one that was now demanding thorough examination. I paraphrase here the French writer Sainte-Beuve, who believed that you never understand a writer’s work until you understand her life. The only way I could understand mine was to get outside myself and make myself both subject and object, to discover those selves as I went along, in real life and on the page. Call it serendipity, synchronicity, happenstance, or accident—whatever it was, I became the biographer of two of the most remarkable people the world has ever known, and those adventures became this book.
“So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am.” It was the first thing Samuel Beckett ever said to me on that bitter cold day, November 17, 1971, as we sat in the minuscule lobby of the Hôtel du Danube on the rue Jacob. I had gone to Paris at his express invitation, to meet him and talk about writing his biography. We were originally scheduled to meet on November 7, and for ten days I had no idea where he was, because he never showed up and never canceled. When we made the initial appointment, he told me I should phone when I arrived in Paris on the sixth and we would confirm the time and place. I was to call precisely at one o’clock, because he disliked the telephone and answered only during the hour between one and two. When he did not pick up, I spent that hour phoning every five minutes, becoming more anxious and upset each time as I let it ring and ring.
In those days Paris had a system of pneumatiques, little blue messages that looked like telegrams and went through tubes all over Paris, to be delivered within the hour. I wrote several little “blue pneus” during the days that followed, and still I did not hear from Beckett. I had no idea what to do, and fluctuated between disappointment and fear that he was avoiding me because he had changed his mind about cooperating. And y
On November 16 he phoned my hotel to arrange a meeting for the next day. He apologized for going off without contacting me and said he would explain in full in person. On the phone he said only that he had been felled by a terrible cold and was so weak and debilitated that he had allowed his wife to take him to Tunisia for sun and warmth. They left in such a hurry that he had not been able to cancel all his appointments. I was relieved beyond measure.
The Hôtel du Danube was not the chic and expensive place it is now. In 1971 it was a $19-a-night shabby dump favored by poor graduate students and budget tourists. The hotel was in such poor repair that there had been neither heat nor hot water for the twenty-four hours before our meeting, so there was no coffee at breakfast and no hot bath. The only staff around to deal with disgruntled lodgers were the two Portuguese maids, whose French accents were so incomprehensible that I did not know whether the inconvenience was the result of yet another of the many utility strikes that roiled Paris that winter or if the decrepit plumbing and heating had simply given out.
I was hungry, cold, and desperately in need of caffeine, but I was too nervous to go out to get it. Because of the missed connections during the previous week, I was superstitious enough to think that if I left the hotel, some terrible accident would happen to make me miss my first meeting with Samuel Beckett. So I decided to bundle up and wait for his arrival in my cold room, where, with the noisy radiator gone silent, the only sound was my growling stomach.
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