Deirdre Bair on Writing a Memoir of Beckett, Beauvoir, and Bair

By New York Correspondent Dona Munker

Deirdre Bair, who has written six biographies, is currently writing about her experiences while researching and writing Beckett (1978) and Simone de Beauvoir (1990). At the fall 2017 Dorothy O. Helly Work-in-Progress Lecture, presented by New York’s Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, she talked about her reasons for doing so and the challenges for a seasoned biographer who decides to become part of the story.

Bair originally planned “a short book” about all her biographies but was unable to find a framework that would encompass them all and Beckett and Beauvoir generated more interest than any others. In addition, in the decades when they appeared, Bair had felt obligated to withhold some information her research uncovered, not only because people still living would have been hurt by it but because certain kinds of revelations were then considered “unseemly” for respectable biographies, especially of women. However, at this point, she explained, the passage of time and the shattering of cultural taboos have removed these constraints, and she now feels free to add to the public’s understanding of two major writers.

Much of the as-yet-untitled memoir will be about working with Beckett and Beauvoir in Paris, where they inhabited the same neighborhood and where Bair met and interviewed them regularly, either at home (Beauvoir) or in cafes, restaurants, and hotel lobbies (Beckett). The interview process with each, however, differed radically. Beckett, secretive and interview-averse, told Bair that he would “neither help nor hinder her,” but also forbade her to take notes. By contrast, at their first meeting Beauvoir “cheerfully” told her how they would work: Bair would take down everything she said and the result would be Beauvoir’s version of her life. “I remember how my head sank into my hands as I said, ‘Oh, dear, I think we’re finished before we even get started.’” 

Bair eventually succeeded in securing the book’s independence. Knowing that Beauvoir and Beckett detested one another, she told Beauvoir of Beckett’s promise to “neither help nor hinder.” After a long pause, Beauvoir reluctantly replied that “she supposed she would have to work that way as well.” Nevertheless, over the years Beauvoir persisted in trying to control what went into the book, at one point becoming so angry at Bair’s questions that she pushed her bodily out the door.

An important reason for casting the story of her first two biographies as a memoir, Bair said, is that when Beckett: A Biography was published in 1978, it drew ferocious attacks from male Beckett scholars infuriated that a young woman had beaten them to the draw. (“So you are the little girl,” one of them told her, “who stuck her hand in the cookie jar and ran off with all the goodies.”) Second-wave feminism was only starting to have an impact, and at first Bair was dismayed and confused by the attacks. Before long, however, she decided that having written “the best, most honest book I could” entitled her to hold her head high, ignore the unfair criticism, and get on with her life. She credits the warm encouragement of feminist friends with helping her move past the experience. Four decades after the fact, her intention is not to settle scores but to tell the story of her evolution as a feminist in those years, so that younger women, she explains, can understand “what some of us went through as our generation fought for the opportunities in life and work that we made possible for them to enjoy today.”

On the other hand, recounting that story in memoir form sets up a dilemma for a scholarly biographer and a former print journalist. As a biographer-storyteller, Bair has always maintained a balanced detachment, and inserting herself into the narrative raises the thorny question of how to write about herself without violating professional standards that she has hewed to all her life. How and when should she become part of the story? How should she write about her younger self? And how can she insure that the text “will be as factual and objective” as she can make it, even as it is based on her own memories? Above all, can she—or, indeed, should she—“bring the scrupulous objectivity and authorial distance” that she aimed for in her biographies “into a memoir of the fourteen most emotional years” of her life? 

To try and reconcile these competing claims, she told her listeners, she is consulting innovative literary memoirs like Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and reading countless biographies, autobiographies, and cultural essays in the hope of finding “points of light” to guide her in the creation of a satisfactory hybrid. She hasn’t found all the answers yet. Nevertheless, she said, in her new role as biographer-memoirist, she has taken comfort from the opening words of Rousseau’s Confessions: “I have resolved on an enterprise which has no imitator. My purpose is to display a portrait in every way true to nature, and the person I portray will be myself. Simply myself.”

Dona Munker is the writer and co-author (with Sattareh Farman Farmaian) of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution. She is currently working on a book about the affair of Sara Bard Field and C. E. S. Wood. Her blog,“Stalking the Elephant,” is about how biographers imagine and tell other people’s lives.

Biblio Award Winners Honored

Karen Adler Abramson and the staff at the John F. Kennedy Library
Archives received their 2017 Biblio Award last month from BIO’s James
McGrath Morris. From left to right, the honorees are Laurie Austin,
Textual/Audiovisual Reference Archivist; Maryrose Grossman, Audiovisual
Reference Archivist; Stacey Chandler, Textual Reference Archivist; and
Karen Adler Abramson, Director of Archives. The Biblio Award is presented
annually to recognize a librarian or archivist who has made an exceptional
contribution to the craft of biography.

BIO Announces the Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship

In honor of the work of Robert and Ina Caro, Biographers International Organization has set up an annual research and travel fellowship. BIO members with a work in progress can apply to receive funding for research trips to archives or to important settings in their subject’s lives. This fellowship is a reflection of BIO’s ongoing commitment to support authors in writing beautifully contextualized and tenaciously researched biographies.

The Caro Research/Travel Fellowship is restricted to support of works of biography, e.g., not of history, autobiography, or memoir. The application deadline is February 1, 2018. In the spring of 2018, BIO will award either one $5,000 or two $2,500 fellowships, based on the judgment of the following panel: Kate Buford, Deirdre David, and Marc Leepson.

To apply, go here.

First-time Biographers, Apply Now for the Rowley Prize!

BIO is now accepting applications for the 2018 Hazel Rowley Prize. The aim of this prize is to help a first-time biographer of real promise in four ways: through funding (the $2,000 prize); by securing a careful reading from at least one established agent; a year’s membership in Biographers International Organization (BIO); and publicity through the BIO website and The Biographer’s Craft newsletter, among other outlets.

The prize is named in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951–2011), who was born in London, educated in England and Australia, and was a longtime resident of the United States. A BIO enthusiast from its inception, Hazel understood the need for biographers to help each other. The prize named for her will be given for the fourth time at the next BIO conference, in late spring 2018. Judges for the 2018 prize are the distinguished biographers Stacy Schiff and James Atlas.

The prize is open to citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. and Canada who write in English, are working on a biography that has not been commissioned, contracted, or self-published, and who have never published a biography, history, or work of narrative nonfiction. Biography, as defined for this prize, is a narrative of an individual’s life. Although, group biographies and innovative ways of treating lives will be considered. To apply, click here. The deadline for entries is March 1, 2018.

Robert Weil to Receive BIO Editorial Excellence Award

Robert Weil follows Nan Talese, Jonathan Segal, and Robert Gottlieb as a winner of the Editorial Excellence Award.

Robert Weil, editor-in-chief and publishing director of Liveright, an imprint of W. W. Norton, will receive BIO’s fourth annual Editorial Excellence Award on Wednesday, November 8, at the Leon Levy Center for Biography in New York.

Weil’s celebrated publishing career began in 1978 at Times Books. He became senior editor at St. Martin’s Press in 1988; a decade later, he moved to W. W. Norton as executive editor. Named to his present positions in 2011, he is dedicated to editing books of consequence.

Weil will speak on “Biography as Reclamation.” He will be introduced by Annette Gordon-Reed, author of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

In addition, a panel of leading biographers, moderated by Linda Gordon (winner of the Bancroft Prize for Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits), will talk about their experience working with Weil. Here is the list of panelists:
  • Ruth Franklin, winner of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award and BIO’s Plutarch Award for Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
  • David Levering Lewis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 and 2001 for both volumes of his biography of W. E. B. Dubois
  • Max Boot, author of the forthcoming The Road Not Taken: Edward Landsdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam
  • Yunte Huang, winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Book for Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
This event represents the first collaboration between BIO and the Levy Center for Biography. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be held in the Skylight Room at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue. Hors doeuvres and beverages will be served. Tickets are free, but seating is limited, so reservations are essential. Click here to reserve your seat.

Why and How Biographers Write: An Interview with James Atlas

James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale was published to high praise by Pantheon Books on August 22. As Ron Chernow wrote about the book, “Anyone even remotely interested in the art of biography will be captivated.” In moving and hilarious stories from his own life and his lifelong study of biographers, Atlas—an active BIO member and the celebrated biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, as well as the founding editor and publisher of the acclaimed Penguin Lives and Eminent Lives series of short biographies—recasts the lives, works, and misadventures of fellow biographers from Plutarch and Thomas Carlyle to Michael Holroyd and Judith Thurman and explains how he came to be a biographer and what he has discovered about the “obsessive diggers drawn into this odd profession,” during 40 years of biographical sleuthing and adventures. Anne Heller interviewed him for TBC.

Why were you attracted to biography, James? In your book, you quote Leon Edel: “Biographers are invariably drawn to the writing of biography out of some deeply personal motive.” What was yours?
I didn’t realize until after I had been working as a biographer for a long time that one evenhas motives. I studied with Richard Ellmann at Oxford and decided I wanted to become a biographer myself. At first, I thought I was confronting a simple and basic calculation: Who’s interesting? I chose Delmore [Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, 1977], who had been dead ten years and whom no one had written a life of. After I finished, I was offered various projects, like Tennessee Williams and Cyril Connolly. And then, of course, there was Edmund Wilson, whose biography I agreed to write when I was in my early 30s. Unlike Delmore, Wilson was at that time near the peak of fame and influence. He had lived a fascinating, even ribald, life and had known everyone worth knowing at the time. He offered a large canvas on which a skilled biographer could draw a map of the intellectual life of twentieth-century America. And yet I procrastinated for five years. It got to the point where whenever I passed my shelf of Wilson’s books I averted my eyes. One problem was that there was a surfeit of published autobiographical material—letters and journals, autobiographical essays and books. To some degree Wilson had done the job himself; I felt that his biographer would mainly be a literary custodian. Then his catalogues of the many women he’d bedded got on my nerves. The detail! Finally, I realized that I didn’t want to write the book. I didn’t have a personal motive for writing it: a compelling connection to the subject.

I have discovered that there are both overt and covert motives for writing about a subject. My books are an example of “overt” motives, where there is a specific biographical and/or factual connection between the biographer and his subject. Delmore Schwartz was the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, as were my grandparents, and he was a temperamental poet, as I was in my youth. I saw in him many of the experiences and conflicts that I myself had been working through. The same was true of Saul Bellow, my second subject [Bellow: A Biography, 2000], since I was from Chicago and he was part of the cultural context of my growing up. There’s a wonderful Yiddish word, mishpachah, meaning family that’s not your actual blood relatives but that forms your cultural and sociological circle of people. Both Delmore and Bellow were mishpachah. I learned that one of the reasons I picked my subjects was that I wanted answers to my own history.

Now with biographers such as Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann, to take two examples, the connections with their great subjects Henry James and James Joyce were not explicit. They were covert. In both cases the connection was subliminal, emotional, and powerful. For example, Edel and James both suffered from depression. So for me, this idea of finding your subject is in essence a means of finding yourself. When I realized this it opened up the practice of biography for me, both as a writer and as an editor. It helped me to understand what I was doing, what I was looking for.

Can you give me an example of how the idea of motives aided your work?
The most vivid example is about Bellow. I needed to try to understand what impelled him to marry so many times and have so many girlfriends and make such a mess. What need was he trying to address? I was looking for his motive. One night I was reading Heinz Kohut, the great psychiatrist and the founder of self-psychology, whom Bellow briefly saw for therapy. I came across his explanation of narcissism. He described the narcissist’s need almost to wake himself up, to try to fill a lurking sense of emptiness. I was electrified. I thought, “That’s it!” That was what Bellow was doing with his wives and lovers. Training oneself to think broadly about one’s subject and not just collect the historical data—you might say training oneself to intervene in the story—that’s where the energy is for me, that’s where biography comes alive.
Having made a stunning survey of biography past and present—reading about them is one of the great pleasures of your book—and having written two biographies of your own, how do you gauge the benefits and drawbacks of writing about the living—someone you know or get to know—versus the dead?
That’s a good question. In my case, I wish I had waited until Bellow died, so that the issues wouldn’t have been so incendiary—his sex life and so on. But ideally, if you have empathy, common sense, shrewdness, and good judgment, you can create a vivid biography of a person you come to know, the classic example being [James] Boswell and [Samuel] Johnson, although Boswell did wait until Johnson was dead to publish his book. In our own day, Patrick French, the biographer of V. S. Naipaul, managed to create a brilliant portrait of Naipaul while he was still alive. What’s amazing about this feat is that Naipaul is widely regarded as a terrible human being. How did French do it? He did it by disallowing judgment. Apart from the fact that he is a great biographer and writer, French’s most important quality was that he could write about Naipaul’s grotesque behavior—toward his dying wife, for example—and somehow make everything clear and understandable. His objectivity, tempered by empathy, made for a portrait that was riveting. The biographer, while being driven by a passion, still has to stand aside. James Joyce said that the artist stands apart, paring his fingernails. The biographer should stand apart and yet enter deeply into a subject’s life.

You discuss the compelling nature of research—one more letter to be found, one more detail to pin down. When is enough enough?
There is definitely an end point, but one doesn’t always know where it is. You have to sit down and write. You can keep researching while you write. But at some point you feel a sense of weariness: I’ve heard enough from you. Now we’re going to hear from me.

You quote Dr. Johnson as saying, “No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation. I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can use.” How is biography useful? 
Biography is useful because it shows us what a human being is, who we are, and why we do the things we do. A great biography illuminates character. Why is Ellmann’s [James] Joyce one of the preeminent modern biographies? Because it gives us the cultural context of Joyce’s life and elucidates the greatness of his writing.  It is itself masterfully written. But most of all, it evokes Joyce’s humanity in all the little details. There is a great scene in the book in which Joyce is having trouble with his landlord in Trieste. In that period, Joyce was insisting that he be called “the Bard.” Ellmann writes, “The Bard had no money.” So beautiful—the irony and the affection it expresses for its subject.

You write that like other art forms, biography is bound by the conventions of the moment. Are there any approaches to writing a life that you’re sorry have fallen from favor?
Yes: the writing itself. Some of the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century biographies are beautifully written. And so are biographical works by Holroyd, Ellmann, E. M. Forster, George Painter’s [MarcelProust.  I sometimes think we’ve forgotten to pay enough attention to the craft of writing. Biographies should be as much written as poetry or fiction.

Are your going to write another biography?
No.

Here is James Atlas’s abbreviated reading list for practicing biographers:

  • Harold Nicolson, The Development of English Biography
  • André Maurois, Aspects of Biography
  • Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer
  • Vasari, The Lives of the Artists
  • Boccaccio, Life of Dante
  • Lord Macaulay, Essay on Boswell’s Life of Johnson
  • Richard Ellmann, James Joyce
  • Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self
 You can read an excerpt from The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Talepublished in The New Yorker. You can also read an interview with Atlas in the New York Times.

BIO Calls on Pulitzer Board to Create Separate Category for Biography

Responding to the recent trend of awarding the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography to authors of memoirs, Biography International Organization has written to Pulitzer Prize administrator, Mike Pride, asking that the board overseeing the Pulitzer Prizes to create a separate category for biography and a new category for autobiography and memoir. Pride recently left his position but turned over the letter to Dana Canedy, his replacement as administrator.

In a letter signed by BIO Board president Will Swift and Advisory Committee chair Debby Applegate, BIO specifically asked the Pulitzer Prize Board to do the following: 
(1) review the recent history of the prize for “Biography or Autobiography
;
(2) consider biographies on their own merits and thus as their own unique prize category;
(3) consolidate autobiography and memoir into a new and distinct category.

TBC first addressed this issue in June, when James McGrath Morris interviewed David Nasaw on the topic. Nasaw, chair of the Pulitzer Prize Biography/Autobiography Committee in 2015, and a two-time finalist for the Biography Pulitzer prize, said, “It was our understanding that a memoir is a piece of a life, a moment of a life, a part of a life, and it is not documented. There is no corroborating material, there are no additional interviews, there are no newspaper articles, and there is no context provided. A memoir is a work—as the title makes clear—of memory. Autobiography and biographies are not works of memory.”

Commenting on BIO’s effort, Swift said, I am grateful to Cathy Curtis, Steve Weinberg, Jamie Morris, Brian Jones and most of all Debby Applegate for helping me think through the complex issues we present to new Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy. I look forward to hearing from her and we would be delighted to meet with her and other representatives of the Pulitzer board.

The entire letter is reprinted here.

Current and Upcoming Biographies on Film Tackle a Wide Range of Subjects

Whether doing their own research, using the perspective of those close to their subjects, relying on existing print biographies, or combining elements of all three, biographical filmmakers can take a variety of tacks as they craft cinematic portraits of a person’s life. Their biggest decision, of course, is whether to go the documentary route or create a biopic, with the potential interest in the subject—and available funding—influencing the choice. While the Hollywood treatment of a subject’s life can mean huge box office sales and perhaps a trip down the red carpet at the Academy Awards—think last year’s Hidden Figures—the increasing number of streaming video outlets and their demand for content has opened up new outlets for biographical films.

TBC’s annual—but far from exhaustive—look at biography on film shows that both cable networks and the streaming giants have recently or will offer soon a number of documentaries. In addition, documentaries will appear on the big screen, along with the more high-profile biopics. Here are some of the biographical offerings of the past few months, ones slated for release soon, and films that are still being shot or are in the planning stages. Go here to learn more about these films.