To Dish or Not to Dish?

‘Parisian Lives,’ a Juicy Memoir by Beckett’s Biographer

Deirdre Bair had to figure out how to write a biography on the fly after Samuel Beckett granted her, fresh out of her doctoral program in 1971, unprecedented access. Bair’s Herculean effort to untangle the life of the notoriously private Beckett led to Samuel Beckett: A Biography, which won the National Book Award in 1981. This accomplishment kick-started Bair’s career that included her writing of well-received biographies on Simone de Beauvoir, Carl Jung, and many others. Her new memoir Parisian Lives chronicles the chaotic years of working on her Beckett and de Beauvoir titles while trying to balance a life as a biographer, professor, wife, and mother.

Back when Bair was filling interview tape with Beckett anecdotes from his many friends, family members, and enemies, it became necessary to determine what from the pile of sometimes titillating detail would make it into the biography. “I knew that I would be revealing a great deal of [Beckett’s] personal history to the world, history that he would surely prefer to keep private, and the notion troubled me deeply …. How could I abandon almost four years of work because I was so reluctant to reveal ugly or embarrassing personal matters?” It’s one thing to write a biography about a famous person, another to dish on someone whom you’ve come to know and whom you’ve always respected. Such was Bair’s quandary.

This issue forced Bair to develop a qualifying rule to determine which elements made it into the biography, and her rule offers insight into her process. “I decided that I would have to have three separate sources for any information I included in the book; three disparate individuals would have to tell me the same story, describe the same situation, reveal the same hitherto unknown fact, all independently and without any prompting from me. And for some of the most sensitive information, I wanted more than three, sometimes as many as five sources, or I would not use it.”

Bair’s system clearly served her well, since it led not only to great publishing success but also resulted in only one factual error in her Beckett biography, which centered on how he met his wife. This high level of accuracy only lends credence to Bair’s accounts, and it offers a glimpse into the rigor of playing in the big leagues of literary biography.

One can sense her relief at working in the memoir form, as Parisian Lives seems to rely less on corroboration and more on unverified elements she uncovered while writing her biographies. The memoir includes tidbits on Beckett’s and de Beauvoir’s wavering sexualities, their open relationships, the possibility that Beckett fathered an illegitimate child. For Bair, the move from biography to memoir seems to mean she can finally leave the heavy filter at home, revealing what she knows about her subjects without fear of violating the more stringent codes of nonfiction. I’m sure it also helps that both Beckett and de Beauvoir are now dead.

Memoir is the genre of one person doing her level best to render events as she remembers them. Because of the nature of memory, this no doubt leads to more factual inaccuracies than straight nonfiction. But we gain so much when an individual chronicles what she knows of a time and place without the constraints of deep fact-checking. The resulting work is neither fiction or nonfiction. It’s what the writer remembers. What could feel truer than that?

(Doubleday, November 12, 2019)

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Art Edwards

Art Edwards’s reviews have appeared in Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Kenyon Review, among many others. He was cofounder of the Refreshments. His recently finished novel is called Nineteen Ways to Destroy Your Rock Band.

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