Maybe it's a result of lockdown, I'm not sure, but I'm increasingly drawn to non-fiction these days. Although I still love a good novel I find I really enjoy reading about real things. What I love about good non-fiction is not only do you learn about the subject in question (the Blakiston fish owl, for example) you also learn a lot about the writer with a clear sense of their inner voice.
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Deirdre Bair's book was a fascinating study in this, because in her career first as a journalist and then as a biographer her instinct was to keep herself out of the story. What electrified this book, for me, was the tension between her professional role and her struggles to keep her personal life on track, balancing the demands of family and a busy teaching schedule with the work of writing about someone else's life. As you would expect from someone who ended up writing a biography of Simone de Beauvoir there is a core of feminism that runs through the book like fine steel. 'The 1970s', Bair writes, 'were the early days of women writing and publishing novels and memoirs about their own lives and biographies of other women. Although feminist theory was on the upswing, women were told (mostly by men) that they could never achieve success because their subjects were not worthy of study and besides, when they did write, they approached their subjects with too much timidity to make them authoritative. They were accused of "writing differently," and this difference meant that what they wrote was second-rate.'
Initially I found the writing quite formal, a little old-fashioned, and I wondered if it was going to be hard to get into. Bair had originally conceived the book as an academic guide for biographers, describing her methodology and tips for dealing with difficult subjects. 'Yes, yes,' her publishers apparently said, 'but tell people about de Beauvoir and Beckett.' And so, with some resignation, she incorporated her two most famous subjects into the narrative. She is never ever gossipy – one of the things you quickly come to appreciate about her is how scrupulous and ethical she is with regard to her work. She does, however, have a wealth of real-life encounters with the two writers to draw on, and you do feel you are getting an insider view. Not only that, but you also access their inner circles, the people who were close to them who either help or hinder Bair in her research. With Beckett she had to overcome his famous reserve and desire for privacy. With de Beauvoir she had to avoid becoming her mouthpiece. What took my breath away, though, and indeed Bair's, was the misogyny she consistently experienced at the hands of 'the Becketeers', Beckett scholars who accused her of having gained so much revelatory material by seducing Beckett. Bair held her head high and let the work speak for itself, sustained by a remark made by the sculptor Louise Bourgeois who told an interviewer 'a woman has no place as an artist until she proves over and over that she won't be eliminated.'
Seeing everything from Bair's point of view you want to cheer when things go well, and feel devastated for her when they don't. I loved being in her company and was sad when the book ended – I was sorry not to have got a good few more chapters on how the de Beauvoir biography was received but Bair ends instead with her own conclusion just after the book was finally published.
I had a shock just now. Idly googling to see how old Deirdre Bair was, I discovered that she died of heart failure just a couple of weeks ago, aged 84. I'm sad she is no longer in the world, but happy that she left us this wonderful book. She ends with a quote from Rousseau: 'My purpose is to display a portrait in every way true to nature and the person I portray will be myself. Simply myself.' 'If I have managed to do that,' she writes, 'I will have succeeded and I am content.'
Further reading: For more, the natural next step is Bair's biographies. Beckett seems to be a little hard to get hold of, a library might be your best bet, but Simone de Beauvoir is available for a price. If you want to feel like you're in the Café de Flore drinking wine with Sartre and de Beauvoir, and to understand the ideas that preoccupied them, At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell is the book, a brilliant, funny and accessible yet still scholarly guide.
Thanks to the magic of the internet and the Free Library of Philadelphia you can watch Deirdre Bair talking about Parisian Lives here.