Parisian Lives: Days with Beckett and de Beauvoir

Book Review: Deirdre Bair returns to her first forays into memoir writing but fails to fully ‘set the record straight’

 Deirdre Bair:  What emerges from her book is the persistent sexism she  encountered throughout her career. Photograph:  Farah Nosh/Getty Images

Deirdre Bair: What emerges from her book is the persistent sexism she encountered throughout her career. Photograph: Farah Nosh/Getty Images

A self-proclaimed “accidental biographer”, Deirdre Bair has documented the lives of subjects as varied as Anaïs Nin, the graphic artist Saul Steinberg and gangster Al Capone. In this memoir, she returns to her first forays into the form: the seven years she spent writing a biography of Samuel Beckett (published in 1978) and a decade dedicated to capturing the life of Simone de Beauvoir (1990). Bair recounts what it was like profiling these two “literary giants” and the hurdles she faced in funding, facts and – above all – professional respect.

Contrary to the text-centric critical theory prevalent at the time, Bair believed that understanding Beckett’s life would shed light on his work. When she first approached him about a biography, he famously said he would “neither help nor hinder” her efforts. Although initially elated, Bair came to suspect that Beckett had agreed so easily because he did not take her seriously, expecting her to write “a puff piece, a hagiography of ‘Saint Sam’”.

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