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.