Parisian Lives – the lives of Beckett, de Beauvoir, and Bair

Parisian Lives – the lives of Beckett, de Beauvoir, and Bair.

American author Deirdre Bair had written two biographies before she embarked on her own memoir, released in 2019, as the writer of the well-known Samuel Beckett: A Biography (1978) and Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography (1991). It was these two biographies that become Bair’s best sellers. 

Her memoir is set in Paris over 15 years from 1970 to 1885. She called it Parisian Lives – Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me: A Memoir.

It is the backstory of her research, interviews, and visits to Paris. Bair tells how she obtained access to the French authors, and her modus operandi for writing about the 1969 Nobel Prize winning Irish author Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) – best known for his 1953 novel Waiting for Godot, and the French feminist and existentialist novelist Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) – best known for The Second Sex (1949) and The Coming of Age (1970). Both biographies took different styles and methods to adapt to two completely different people.  

Deirdre Bair begins with the years 1970 to 1977 with Samuel Beckett whom she met with regularly in Paris, where he was living. She had just completed her doctorate and had never even read a biography when Beckett agreed to be her subject. 

Simone de Beauvoir was so impressed with the Beckett biography that she agreed to Bair’s request to be her biographer – with a number of conditions. Bair spent time with de Beauvoir from 1981 to 1986, taking nine years to write the biography before its release in 1991.  

Bair writes of the challenges and joys, the people who were helpful and those who were not, the changeable times, and the unreliable schedules. She writes of the hundreds of peripheral interviews and the fact-checking. She writes intimate details of their personalities and that Beckett and de Beauvoir ‘cordially detested each other.’ 

She also writes her memoir, taken from her copious notes, and of her family and the academic community. And her attendance at the funeral of Simone de Beauvoir in Paris. 

The memoir is honest, candid, funny, revealing, and poignant. This is a fabulously interesting memoir, and difficult to put down.

And all the while, especially when reading about Irishman Samuel Beckett, I am reminded on Irish author James Joyce. Simone de Beauvoir was not the only one who ‘cordially detested’ Beckett, but Joyce had his reasons – familial reasons.

While Beckett was lecturing in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure from 1928 to 1930, he met and befriended James Joyce, and decided to remain in Paris. One evening in 1929, when Joyce’s daughter Lucia won second prize in a solo dancing contest at the Bal Bullier – in a fish costume – her father’s friends, Samuel Beckett, Thomas McGreevy, and Arthur Power took her out for a celebratory dinner. Biographer Gordon Bowker wrote that:

“Samuel Beckett was so taken with her performance that he kept a photograph of her in costume which he still possessed at his death in 1989.”

Lucia loved Samuel – they were the same age. Alas, he broke her heart when he fell in love with Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, whom he married. James Joyce was not happy that Samuel caused his daughter such anguish, although Joyce and Becket continued to see each other. I can’t get the thought of that fish costume dance out of my head whenever I see the name Beckett. 

Nevertheless, in Bair’s memoir, I found the sections on Simone de Beauvoir fascinating. She died in April 1986, just a week before my very first visit to Paris. The headlines are still vivid in my mind. 

Samuel Beckett’s grave, Montparnasse Cemetery

Simone de Beauvoir’s grave, Montparnasse Cemetery

Simone de Beauvoir’s grave, Montparnasse Cemetery

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