For those of us with nagging doubts about the value of literary biography, books that show the biographer at work — a genre with a solid pedigree — exert a peculiar and not entirely healthy fascination. We traipse through the sausage factory feeling sick to our stomachs yet weirdly hankering for a bite of the finished product.
Some eminent biographers — Hermione Lee, for instance, in Body Parts (2008) — have exposed the tricks of the trade with clinical detachment, scarcely mentioning their own practice; others, such as Michael Holroyd in Works on Paper (2002), Richard Holmes in This Long Pursuit (2016) and the late James Atlas in The Shadow in the Garden (2017), mix in a generous measure of self-scrutiny. Deirdre Bair, the prize-winning American author of half a dozen biographies, sits at the extreme end of the spectrum. She refers to her Parisian Lives as a ‘bio-memoir’. An account of the 17 years she spent writing her first two biographies (Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir), it’s focused fixedly on her own personal experience.
And what an experience. Bair launched into her life of Beckett in 1971 (two years after he was awarded the Nobel prize) when she was a newly minted PhD with no experience as a biographer. The flap copy of Parisian Lives insists that when she first approached the author of Waiting for Godot, Bair had yet even to read a biography — but that hyperbolic claim is exploded on page 17 when we learn that, as an undergraduate, she had ‘discovered and admired Suetonius, Plutarch and Vasari’ and ‘chuckled over’ the Notker and Einhard biographies of Charlemagne.
All the same, half a century ago she was a 36-year-old mother of two with a doctorate from Columbia University and before that a journalist — and still she had the audacity and persistence to secure an interview in Paris with the Nobel laureate. He greeted her blandishments with a non-committal equivocation: ‘I will neither help nor hinder.’
As Richard Ellmann remarked, by convincing Beckett not to hinder, Bair ‘managed a scoop which in literary history is like that of Bernstein and Woodward in political history’. Yet upon publication that scoop was greeted with howls of outraged scorn. Witness Ellmann’s review in the New York Review of Books, which is coated with a thick sludge of sexist disdain: ‘What Miss Bair has presented, in an account that is crowded with stumbles and thwarts and mischances, is a simulacrum, Sim Botchit rather than Sam Beckett.’
Bair’s biography went on to win a National Book Award, but the prize did nothing to mollify the ‘Becketteers’ — the scholars, most of them male, who continued to snub her in person and taunt her in print. The entire seven-year process — from the cagey early meetings with Beckett (who considered her, she suspected, ‘an intellectual lightweight, whom he was merely tolerating’) to her travails with publishers (the imprint that had given her the contract folded) to the hostile critical reception — pushed her in one direction: towards a feminist awakening. In the 1980s, she tells us: ‘The larger women’s movement mirrored my own struggles.’
Which makes the decision to write about Simone de Beauvoir — ‘I regarded her as both paragon and icon’ — seem inevitable. Bair had a more comfortable time of it with Beauvoir, except when she asked about life with Sartre in Paris during the Nazi occupation, or her relationship with her adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon. In one of the more dramatic scenes in the book, Bair arrives for an interview at the apartment on the rue Victor Schoelcher and finds ‘a festering, smouldering woman, her face a molten red’. This is not the businesslike Beauvoir she’s used to. ‘You are going to write that Sylvie and I are lesbians!’ Beauvoir blurts out. ‘You are going to tell the world!’ Bair calms her down and asks her to explain so that she can write an accurate account. Beauvoir’s reply: ‘Oh sure, we kiss on the lips, we hug, we touch each other’s breasts, but we don’t do anything … down there! So you can’t call us lesbians!’
Bair’s troubles during the decade she worked on Beauvoir came not from the author of The Second Sex but rather from her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, who denied her promotion to full professor, a banal saga of academe at its worst.
Bair doesn’t do much theorising about life writing, but she does tell us towards the end of her book that ‘no biography is ever definitive and none can serve as the be-all and end-all’. In This Long Pursuit, Richard Holmes makes the same point more elegantly: every biography will be ‘superseded, outmoded and eventually forgotten’, a process he calls ‘a form of auto-destruction’. Perhaps awareness of this inescapable fate is what drives the biographer to write a ‘bio-memoir’ — it resuscitates a work on the brink of extinction. It’s a bit of Beckett: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on’.
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