Parisian Lives. Deirdre Bair.

Bair, Deidre. Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me: A Memoir. Talese/Doubleday, New York. 2019. Autobiography, 2/23.

I came to read this through a bit of a strange quest. A friend had recommended Bair’s Beckett. You can have a look at my experience of that book in a review I’ll do shortly, but it wasn’t on Kindle, copies were available through Amazon only for a hundred dollars or more and they didn’t have a copy at the local library. So I dug into Parisian Lives because I could download it on my electronic reader and I guess hoping for some sort of access to something about the great playwright.

I didn’t end up any further ahead in trying to find out about Samuel Beckett. Ms Bair who died just two years ago is wonderfully thorough and this attention to detail is what if anything illuminates her partial autobiography, although it came with the kind of lighting you’d find on a research bench or maybe in an autopsy room. Pitilessly revealing of every detail. And she knows what she’s doing and gives the impression that maybe she can’t help herself:

I joked that I could not write a sentence saying “It was a nice day” until I checked weather reports for three weeks before and after that day in every newspaper published in Beckett’s immediate area. As I’ve said, for every person who volunteered a version of an encounter with Beckett, I wanted at least three others, if not five, to tell the same version independently.

Bless her heart. I felt enormous respect for her dedication and persistence which came through not only in her descriptions of dismissive treatment by administrative academics but also in her efforts to weigh conflicting descriptions given by various people close to her subjects:

I liked to think that I showed scrupulous objectivity when I wrote about Beckett and factored into his life story the testimonies of so many of his close relatives, but after this first meeting with Hélène and my early meetings with Simone, I had to wonder if I might be skirting perilously close to giving pride of place, if not actual preference, to one sister’s account over the other’s.

Her writing style can be engaging and I felt sympathy for the trouble she was experiencing doing interviews which she described with the same objectivity. But there was for me a late 19th century feel at times that seemed all of a piece with her dogged thoroughness:

(Sartre) was often incontinent and frequently soiled himself; he paid no attention to his personal hygiene; often his clothes were dirty, his breath foul, and he smelled bad. But he was still demanding that young and nubile bed partners be brought to him, and many, wanting to brag about being with the great philosopher, came. According to Beauvoir, one in particular, a foreigner with visa problems, was happy to comply repeatedly.

I’ve said before that I read for lots of reasons and although I finished this book I ended up wondering why I’d read it and in a way why Ms. Bair had written it. And then about her several published biographies I wondered why for example she chose Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir (but also Al Capone and Anais Nin) as subjects? She describes developing an interest in feminism but not so much in absurdity, so what her subjects are known for wasn’t consistently the reason she chose them. Maybe just access?

Anyway not to detract from this very conscientious author’s accomplishment I was left with more questions than answers about what she was doing.

And now attempting unsuccessfully to get through Beckett I’m still scratching my head.


Postscript: reading through into my third renewal of my library copy of Beckett – having decided not to proceed – a few things happened. One, there were pages missing in this copy! We jumped from page 274 to page 307 with no evidence of anything torn out. But two, old Beckett got his novel Murphy published after years of rejections and also escaped from his toxic mother to Paris where life got a lot more interesting. And I also found a secondhand hard copy on Amazon for about $25 and ordered it.

So more to come on Bair’s Beckett, stay tuned.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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1 Response to Parisian Lives. Deirdre Bair.

  1. Bravo, John… “ My rain hat
    Santoka Taneda

    Reading through and reviewing what one has toilingly endeavoured to ravenously glean gems of insight into iconic lives and zeitgeist can indeed be a delectable absurdity…. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful spoor…. Anais Nin next?

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