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 Yet when, just before publication, she needed to get Beckett’s signed permission for every quote from his letters and unpublished writings, he behaved impeccably, initialling every one, save for a poem he had written as a 12-year-old schoolboy, which he said showed her diligence as a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.
Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane
"as Karen Jones sets out dismayingly early in her book, the only things that the real-life ‘Calamity Jane’ can with confidence be said to have in common with her legend is that she wore trousers, swore like a navvy and was pissed all the time..."
— The Spectator
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.