My latest essay for the Dublin Review of Books is about the American biographer Deirdre Bair, who did her best to write an honest and thoroughly researched biography of Samuel Beckett in the 1970s. Although Beckett promised neither to ‘help nor hinder’ her work, there were plenty of others in his circle and in the academic world who put obstacles in her way, before and after her book was published.
In her memoir Parisian Lives, published by Atlantic Books in 2020, and shortlisted for the Pulitzer prize in biography, Deirdre Bair gives an account of the beginnings of her career as biographer, and the crimes of sexism and academic snobbery that she had to endure. It’s a fascinating account and a testament to Bair’s endurance and over forty years of success as a biographer. My take on how she dared to write the first biography of Samuel Beckett, and seven years later movingly discovered that ‘his word was indeed his bond’, is here:
4 thoughts on “The honest biographer”
I’m very glad to have read your review of The Honest Biographer. I’d never heard of Dierdre Blair, I confess, but her story is remarkable and raises yet more intriguing questions about the nature of biography and the dilemmas that beset biographers.
I wonder whether Eveleen Myers (1856-1937), wife of Frederic HW Myers, Classicist and Fellow of Trinity, the man who built and lived In Leckhampton House on Grange Road, is someone you have come across in your researches on Cambridge women? Don’t worry if not, but if you have, I will explain why she and her husband are of interest to me. She was an extremely good portrait photographer.
I’m very much enjoying my weekly immersion in the TLS during lockdown. Stig Abel seems to me to be opening up the journal in good ways – in fact, some recent articles (eg the Freelance essay looking back at that wonderful film ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’) could almost have been written for Slightly Foxed! I’ve read all the articles on EM Forster this week, and am tempted to write a letter suggesting that at least one of the writers should have asked the question why no one has ever made a film or TV adaptation of ‘The Longest Journey’ which Forster thought his best novel. I also think the failure to consider his essays and biographies is to miss a key element of his achievement. I found AS Byatt’s archive piece reviewing his Commonplace Book very depressing. I wish they had reprinted your piece on Forster’s fireplace instead!
Very best, Adrian
PS Do you see Anil these days? If so, please say hi from me. We seem to be losing touch and I don’t want to do that.
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I’ve just read your essay in the drb and must say it’s the most interesting piece I have read on Beckett in a long time. I am no academic but have been reading Beckett on and off for a long time. I have nurtured an interest (obsession in my earlier years) in the artists of the twenties in Paris, particularly Hemingway. I am grateful for your introduction of Deirdre Bair. Being very much an outsider myself, I find her story quite compelling and inspiring. A reminder to all of us who work with words that it is not only professional scholars who may comment on the lives of highly esteemed writers. That, in the end we are all just people and that everyone has a voice. One of my earlier in-roads to Beckett was my reading of JM Coetzee who has been intimate with the writing of Beckett for most of his life. Your in-road is one I shall pursue. I now look forward to reading more of your work.
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Dear Mike, many thanks for taking the trouble to make such a kind comment. I am so glad you enjoyed the essay. I wanted to talk about S de Beauvoir too, but ran out of time! Thanks too for reminding me of Coetzee’s interest in Beckett – I look forward to reading his novels again soon. All best, Ann
Many thanks for your comments Adrian, and I am very interested in hearing more about Eveleen Myers, a wonderful portrait photographer of Gladstone, Browning and others, as seen on the NPG website. Leckhampton House is a beautiful place. Best wishes, Ann