Parisian Lives

Book Review: “Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me: A Memoir”

Deirdre Bair’s memoir is the interrelated stories of writing biographies of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir and Bair’s own journey of discovery while launching her academic career, a process often in conflict with her success writing biographies that became blockbuster successes. It is a fascinating tale of how to research and write biography while observing that the process of researching and writing about great writers itself brings stunning growth and insight to the author. The reader gets to share in this journey of personal revelation.

What Bair achieved by writing great biography was to reach rather different heights from the rather pedestrian hills of normal academic life, even that of life at a top university. That is mostly because the biographies themselves turned out to have such reach.

The stories relating to both Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir are different but equally compelling. These stories are page turners, full of fascination. The saga of the McGreevy letters illuminating troubling aspects of Becket’s sexual tensions and conflicts reads like the high-stakes drama it was. If there is one surprising thing, it is the smallness of so many people in the entourages surrounding the towering personalities–and some of the large and generous personalities in the same social solar system. A lot of these mini-tales make amusing reading about human vanity; others provide gripping reading. This is about research in the real world of challenging people, not turning the pages in the special collections reading room.

There is an undertone throughout that Bair clearly delineates. One is the extensive sexual harassment she encountered, which although distasteful she swats away. The other is gender discrimination of men’s privileged position and women being out-of-their station. Less raunchy and distasteful but potentially more invidious. So Bair seems to be navigating continuously between the crashing breakers of one and the whirlpools of the other — therefore the odyssey.

The final chapters of the Beauvoir story, and Jean-Paul Satre, are riveting, shocking, and will change how one looks at these two luminaries. In Beauvoir’s case, her work is a substantial accomplishment above and beyond her personal shortcomings and gives her legacy the greatness that her growing reputation is earning her work. But for the two existentialists, when the candles burned brightly, they burned.

And of course lots of lovely vignettes about Paris, a city of burning candles.

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