She never became close to Beckett — she never called him Sam, not only to his face but also when speaking of him to others. She realised that he compartmentalised his friendships, and she felt at times “like a marionette whose strings he was pulling, because I never knew where I stood with him”. Yet when, just before publication, she needed to get Beckett’s signed permission for every quote from his letters and unpublished writings, he behaved impeccably, initialling every one, save for a poem he had written as a 12-year-old schoolboy, which he said showed her diligence as a researcher more than his literary development.
An Elephant in Rome
" January 1, 2021 Read this issue IN THIS REVIEW AN ELEPHANT IN ROME Bernini, the Pope and the making of the Eternal City 224pp. Pallas Athene. £19.99. Loyd Grossman Acheerful bricolage of biography, art history, trivia and travelogue..."
— Times Literary Supplement
Bair finally feels free, with the help of her old diaries, to tell us what really lurked behind the impenetrable wall of her po-faced prose over 40 years ago. The result is deliciously indiscreet. We cringe as she spends the best part of a decade pouring expensive drinks down old soaks in Irish bars, courts twitchy Beckett nieces who stand between her and a stash of explosive letters, and rebuffs a whole string of actors, agents and publishers who assume that, since she’s in London/Paris/New York/Dublin without her husband she must have an “open marriage”.
Bair has a tendency to derail into detail, with a writing style that can charm but mostly grates. There’s a lack of rigour in Parisian Lives that is troubling from someone whose currency is accuracy: the book would have benefited from an index, and an assertion that Bair became a biographer when she was “not yet thirty” does not square with the dates. Still, as a glimpse of the art of biography in a bygone era, the book is not without its pleasures. We see Bair wrestling with botched recordings, studying microfilm, making calls from public telephones and communicating via petits bleus (messages dispatched through a pneumatic tube network in Paris). It gives one pause about the future of the genre, in an age in which word processing wipes away traces of the creative process and interpersonal exchanges are ephemeral. Beauvoir dedicated an hour a day to correspondence, sharing what she called “the daily dust of life”. One dares not consider the banalities a cache of text messages might have contained instead.
Bair’s courtship of De Beauvoir and her circle was no less complex than her battles with the Becketteers. Bair was first brusquely invited to visit the author of The Second Sex on a date that she realised was her subject’s 73rd birthday. She is terrific at recalling the awkwardness and anxiety of that prospect. After much deliberation as to etiquette, Bair arrived at the door of De Beauvoir’s apartment at 6pm clutching a half-dying bunch of flowers, expecting a party. De Beauvoir opened the door in a ratty bathrobe wanting immediately to get to work.
A biography is a work of fiction – that is, a biographer must shape a story, highlighting some things, repressing others, looking for a narrative arc, which may require foreshadowing. A biography is not just facts but an arrangement of facts, as Bair knows. She ends this informative and highly readable memoir with a shrewd Rousseau quotation that any biographer must surely take to heart: ‘My purpose is to display a portrait in every way true to nature, and the person I portray will be myself. Simply myself.’
There’s a gleeful whiff of settling scores about Bair’s narrative — scores against self-important male Irish writers, professors, critics, PR executives, philistines and condescending bastards of all complexions. Her long-simmered irritation burns on the page. One of the last things Beckett said to her was: “You must never explain. You must never complain.” Readers of this wonderfully entertaining and absorbing book will be glad that Bair ignored the great man’s advice.
In 1971, fresh from a PhD, Bair managed to secure access to Nobel Prize-winning author, Samuel Beckett. So begins this candid and entertaining memoir by the award-winning US biographer in which she explores her 15 remarkable years in Paris, hanging out with Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir whose biographies she later wrote, hurdling the fact that the two writers despised each other and lived on the same street.