If you're thinking of writing a biography of a literary icon - don't. That could be the moral to take from this animated snapshot from US non-fiction titan Deirdre Bair who, on a bitterly cold Paris day in November 1971, sat down with Samuel Beckett to begin writing his life.
"I will neither help nor hinder you," Beckett concluded at the end of the meeting, and it would be a phrase he would reel off to friends and family asking permission to speak to Bair. The seven subsequent years that Bair took to research, compile and write Samuel Beckett: A Biography (1978) resemble the most elaborate obstacle course in publishing imaginable. Beckett was certainly involved in some of these obstacles (he forbid the use of recordings or notes during their meetings and could be stiflingly aloof), but to be fair to him, he also opened plenty of windows, too.
No, the major challenges came from everyone swirling around the great absurdist. The spheres of academia, those snooty male-dominated "Becketteers" who were horrified by the idea of a young American woman infiltrating their sanctum. In some shocking recollections, she recalls being confronted face-to-face with a spectrum of hostility, from chauvinistic put-downs to promises of sabotage.
On the other side were the friends and associates of Beckett within the chattering classes of the arts and literary world, both in Paris and Dublin. The latter she clearly has no love for as a place, painting a picture of a dank, overcast city filled with flaky opportunists and sleazebags who figured she was fair-game because her husband and children were at home in Connecticut. Paris was not much better, a place filled with "friends" who either had rather tenuous links to "Sam", or who just had their own agenda to impose.
Steeled by retrospect, Bair names-and-shames those who were out of order, using a diary she was keeping at the time as a reference point for the strain it put on her and her family life.
Some astounding behaviour is recalled. After sharing chapters with literary critic Vivian Mercier, she claims he made attempts to incorporate her hard-won research into his own critical study as "a great favour" to her, something she had to move swiftly on to prevent. When the poet John Montague invites himself and his family to stay during a US holiday, it reads like Houseguests from Hell.
There is a sadness about it all in one way. Although Bair achieved accolades and international renown for her biographies, this jumping-off point with Beckett took its toll. There was the constant feeling of being out of her depth and an imposter, the ways that feeling was bolstered by the cast of rotters who looked to discredit her work, condescend to her face, harass her sexually, and proliferate vile rumours that she accessed Beckett's cooperation and approval through sex; rumours that never quite went away. This is her truth as she recalls it, and while at times she does indulge herself in memories of ill-treatment and sleight, she is entitled to settle a few scores.
It helps that she is hugely entertaining as a host and tour guide while she does so. The litany of characters she crosses paths with couldn't be invented. All are folded neatly into her protracted game of chess with Beckett with as much weary regret as gossipy relish.
Amazingly, all this has occurred to you before she has even come to the final third dealing with Simone de Beauvoir, the great Gallic feminist and long-time partner of Jean-Paul Sartre. Although without a secure publishing contract, Bair throws herself into biographing the famously difficult de Beauvoir, who, as the gods would have it, happened to live on the same street as Beckett while also sharing a seething mutual hatred with him.
Whatever Bair had learned in her years of delicate manoeuvring through the life and loves of Beckett had to be forgotten and a whole new approach figured out with the tempestuous philosopher. Beckett, for example, claimed not to read anything about himself but let his mask slip now and again. De Beauvoir, meanwhile, read everything and sought to direct the line and agenda of the biography.
What Simone de Beauvoir did share with Beckett was a temper that was seismic, and that Bair was at the receiving end of on a couple of occasions. Some of this stems from the fact that both figures had complicated love lives that Bair was determined to get a complete and accurate picture on where possible. These areas revealed much in not only the laissez-faire attitude of the era but also in how indulged these people were in the hall-passes they got from spouses. In the case of de Beauvoir, she actively groomed pretty young things to share a bed with an old and infirm Sartre.
It is "the authority of facts as time revealed them" that proves most arresting in this bio-memoir. As is so often the case with such behind-the-scenes fare, she makes her accomplishments all the more incredible by lifting back the curtain and reminding us (as well as herself, you feel) that she was just an ordinary young woman, one who "had never read a biography before she decided that Samuel Beckett needed one and she was the person to write it".