A PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
National Book Award-winning biographer Deirdre Bair explores her fifteen remarkable years in Paris with Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir, painting intimate new portraits of two literary giants and revealing secrets of the biographical art.
In 1971 Deirdre Bair was a journalist and recently minted Ph.D. who managed to secure access to Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett. He agreed that she could be his biographer despite her never having written—or even read—a biography before. The next seven years comprised of intimate conversations, intercontinental research, and peculiar cat-and-mouse games. Battling an elusive Beckett and a string of jealous, misogynistic male writers, Bair persevered. She wrote Samuel Beckett: A Biography, which went on to win the National Book Award and propel Deirdre to her next subject: Simone de Beauvoir. The catch? De Beauvoir and Beckett despised each other—and lived essentially on the same street. Bair learned that what works in terms of process for one biography rarely applies to the next. Her seven-year relationship with the domineering and difficult de Beauvoir required a radical change in approach, yielding another groundbreaking literary profile and influencing Bair’s own feminist beliefs.
Parisian Lives draws on Bair’s extensive notes from the period, including never-before-told anecdotes. This gripping memoir is full of personality and warmth and gives us an entirely new window on the all-too-human side of these legendary thinkers.
By turns scholarly and salacious, biographer Bair (Samuel Beckett) has loosened decades of polite tongue-biting to write the backstory in what she calls a "bio-memoir" of two influential writers. With humiliating candor, she admitted to a complete ignorance of how to write a biography when she approached Beckett in 1971 and obtained his promise to "neither help nor hinder you." Interviewing those in his social circle, Bair discovered that by "compartmentalizing people," Beckett pitted them against each other, each currying favor and reporting back to him on her research. She struggled to fund research and travel, balance her obligations as a wife and mother, and write. Upon publication in 1978, her Beckett biography was disparaged by several critics some of whom accused her of trading sex for access; it eventually won a National Book Award. Bair refused offers to write another biography, until 1980, when a colleague suggested she write one of Simone de Beauvoir. Theirs was a more cordial relationship, marred only when Beauvoir grew cold and dropped "the Lucite curtain" to avoid uncomfortable topics. Beauvoir's death in 1986 propelled Bair into an extensive rewrite, delaying publication another four years. No matter her subject, Bair, a generous and graceful writer, has followed her dictum in writing biographies: "those of us who wrote literary biographies should ensure that our readers ended our books by wanting to turn immediately to our subjects' writing." Bair's exhaustively detailed and lively memoir also serves as a solid study in the art of biography.