'So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am."
It was the first thing Samuel Beckett ever said to me on that bitter cold day, November 17 1971, as we sat in the minuscule lobby of the Hôtel du Danube. I had gone to Paris at his express invitation, to meet him and talk about writing his biography.
We were meant to meet on November 7, and for 10 days I had no idea where he was, because he never showed up and never cancelled. He had told me I should phone when I arrived in Paris and we would confirm the time and place. I was to call precisely at one o'clock, because he disliked the telephone and answered only during the hour between one and two.
When he did not pick up, I spent that hour calling every five minutes, becoming more anxious each time as I let the phone ring.
In those days, Paris had a system of pneumatiques, little blue messages that looked like telegrams and went through tubes all over the city, to be delivered within the hour. I wrote several little "blue pneus" during the days that followed, and still I did not hear from Beckett.
On November 16, he phoned to apologise. He had been felled by a terrible cold and was so weak and debilitated that he had allowed his wife to take him to Tunisia for sun. They had left in such a hurry that he'd not been able to cancel all his appointments. We agreed to meet the next day.
At precisely two o'clock, the time he said he would arrive, my phone rang. "Beckett here," he said in the high-pitched, reed-thin nasal voice I would come to know well. In the lobby, I found him peering into the gloom. I recognised his hawk-like visage at once, his slightly crooked nose and the tuft of white hair that reared straight up from his forehead. I don't think I have ever met anyone whose physical reality was so accurately captured in photographs.
We shook hands. He was bundled against the weather in a sheepskin jacket and heavy white Irish-knit sweater with a high turtleneck collar. It reminded me of the ruff worn by British Cavaliers, particularly after I gestured towards the lobby's tiny table and two chairs, and he swayed towards them, sweeping into one with a courtly half-bow. There was no other furniture, and it was so tight that our knees touched underneath.
I knew that Beckett had had eye surgery, but I did not know that his peripheral vision had not returned at all. The only way he could see someone was to sit or stand directly in front of them, as close as decorum would allow. So he stared at me intently, because it was the only way he could see me.
Beckett and I managed to arrange our legs on the diagonal so they did not brush. He took out a lighter and a pack of something brown, whether tiny cigars or cigarettes I was too nervous to determine. He fidgeted with the lighter, all the while staring in silence straight at me through the pale blue "gull's eyes" he gave to Murphy, the hero of his first published novel.
I picked up his packet of smokes and twisted and turned it in my hands. In one swift motion, Beckett reached across the table, snatched the packet, and spat out those first alarming words, that I would be the one to reveal him as a charlatan.
Stammer an apology
I don't remember my exact reply to such a stunning declaration, but it was probably something stammering, perhaps even silly, for I was a young journalist proposing an ambitious project for which I wanted his cooperation, even though I had no idea how to go about it.
Several months earlier, I had sent Beckett a letter volunteering to write his biography, and to my amazement he had replied immediately, saying that any biographical information he had was at my disposal, and if I came to Paris he would see me. Imagine, then, my shock at his initial greeting.
Beckett saw the look on my face and, courtly Old World gentleman that he was, began to stammer an apology for having upset me. No, no, I insisted, I was not upset. He had just taken me by surprise for, after all, I was in Paris at his invitation. So many thoughts raced through my mind. I wondered what sort of game he was playing and whether his invitation was little more than a bait-and-switch meant to sound me out before deciding whether - or how - to put insurmountable obstacles in my way so that I would never write the book. After all, wasn't he one of the most secretive and private of all writers, one about whose personal life almost nothing was known?
I dropped my head into my hands and said: "Oh dear. I don't know if I'm cut out for this biography business." His demeanour changed immediately, as did his tone of voice. "Well, then," he replied, "why don't we talk about it?"
Beckett seemed nervous as he launched into an apology for having to meet me mid-afternoon instead of inviting me for drinks or a meal. He apologised several times, each with increasing agitation, for needing to rush off as he had to do. He spoke kindly when he asked me to tell him why I wanted to take on "this impossible task" and was smiling when he said: "I would have thought a young woman like you would have more interesting things with which to amuse herself."
I told him that perhaps I should just write a long article, a New Yorker sort of profile based on the information I had collected in London and Dublin. Suddenly he perked up. "Who have you spoken to, and what did you learn about me?" he asked. He relaxed and so did I.
We discussed how I had been drawn to his writing through my love of Joyce's Ulysses and how, after an extensive study of Irish literature and history, I recognised so many of the people and places he had incorporated into his fiction. That was what had intrigued him in my letter, he said.
Despite all that ink spilt - all those interpretations of him as (and here he quoted my initial letter) "the poet of alienation, isolation, and despair" - I was the only one who recognised such things as his portrayals of some famous Dublin characters and the actual places in the Wicklow Hills, Co Kildare and Leixlip.
Time passed, and the hour he said he could spare lengthened into almost two.
Before leaving, he made the remark that has since come to haunt me: "I will neither help nor hinder you. My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough."
I had told Beckett that I would conduct formal fact-finding interviews with him and his family, friends, and professional associates, and I hoped he would tell them to co-operate. I would expect to receive whatever documentation I might ask for, such as letters, photos, and manuscripts. And, oh yes, it would probably be best if he did not read what I wrote about him until it was published. Without hesitating, he agreed.
"My word is my bond," Beckett told me, and I was ecstatic to think that all lights were green and all roads were open. It wasn't too long after that that I came to understand why he co-operated so blithely: he did not take me seriously.
I learnt this a year later, when I was once again in Paris. At dinner, the critic AJ 'Con' Leventhal offered to tell the rest of us what Beckett had said after our first meeting. Con energetically imitated Beckett waving his hands and saying, "Good God, the woman has striped hair!" An overzealous hairdresser had made huge streaks of platinum blond in my normally light brown hair, which were indeed garish. It was clear that Beckett found everything about me amusing. If he did not take me seriously as a person, he certainly felt the same about my project.
'Help not hinder'
My astonishment slowly bloomed into anger. Perhaps Beckett did think the best I was capable of was a puff piece. Nevertheless, he'd told me that his word was his bond, and I had no reason not to believe him, because our correspondence continued when we were apart, as did our meetings when I was in Paris.
Our second meeting had taken place, on the afternoon after our first, again at my hotel, again at two o'clock sharp. Again, Beckett had stated that of course he would "neither help nor hinder" my independence. Once we had moved to a nearby bar-tabac, I began to ask about his years at Trinity College, Dublin, where between 1923 and 1928 he had been an undergraduate and graduate student, and for a brief time a lecturer. He rattled off the names of the dormitories and the room numbers.
I fished madly in my purse for pen and notebook to write these down before I confused or forgot them. Suddenly he jumped up and shouted: "What are you doing? No pencils! No paper! We are just having conversations. We are two friends talking. You must never write anything that we say. And don't even think of a tape recorder." As if this were not unsettling enough, he added a seemingly bizarre non sequitur: "And you must not tell others that I meet with you. Ever!"
I had to find a way of conducting extensive interviews without being able to write anything down. I began to play "intellectual solitaire": writing each question I wanted to ask on a small file card and laying them out on my bed. I committed them all to memory, and in the process I would shuffle them, rearrange and reshuffle them, sometimes rewriting them, always trying to make them more precise - or less likely to anger Beckett. After each interview I would rush back to the hotel to document everything I could remember.
As I spoke into the recorder, I would try to capture his exact remarks with all their inflections. I carried notebooks dedicated solely to things he had said that kept coming back to me, days later.
Beckett always had his own questions. He was intensely curious about what other people were telling me, and because it was his life I was exploring, I thought he had a right to comment, so I generally told him what he wanted to know - at least most of it. In the beginning he was friendly, open and eager to hear of my interviewing adventures. But sometimes things changed and I saw another side of him. Whenever he felt that I was getting too close to something he was reluctant to make known, he could become cutting in his comments, dismissive of my work and clipped in his speech.
Difficult jigsaw puzzle
Beckett was not only smart, he was shrewd. Every so often he would ask about something that had not come up in any of my interviews. I soon recognised that when he introduced such topics, it was because he thought they belonged in the biography. He would speak in a firm, louder-than-usual voice, all the while looking at me straight on and nodding his head vigorously. These planted topics would go straight to the top of my to-do list. As soon as I had a basic grasp of the rules of the game we were playing, I found oblique ways to ask Beckett to tell me his version of whatever it was that he was so insistent I should investigate.
There were certain subjects - his relationships with women high among them - for which this tactic proved essential.
When people ask me what it was like to be in the presence of Samuel Beckett, they usually do so with reverence, as if he were a deity. Sometimes I say it was like putting together a difficult jigsaw puzzle; other times I say that it was like punching my way out of the proverbial paper bag. Until now, I have told only one or two confidantes how I really felt: most often, like a marionette whose strings he was pulling, because I never knew where I stood with him.
At 10.45 on the morning of February 28, 1977, I wrote the last words of Samuel Beckett: A Biography, the book I had begun on November 17, 1971. In fits of hysteria, alternately crying and laughing, I typed out the last words. A year later, when the publisher's lawyers came to vet the manuscript, they said I had to get Beckett's written permission for every single quotation from his letters and unpublished manuscripts. It threw me into a panic.
I thought it was the worst possible time to do such a thing. In a brief letter, Beckett had told me he was having a difficult winter. His little house in Ussy had been broken into and burgled for the third time, and now he was reluctant to go there. The thieves had taken his typewriter, chess set, and kitchen equipment, but ignored all his books, papers, and manuscripts, which they left scattered. He congratulated the thieves on their wisdom in choosing what was not worth taking.
I wrote to him in early February 1978, and a week later I had his reply. It was so warm and courteous that I had to read it several times through, my eyes blurring with unshed tears. He had initialled for approval every single quotation except one, a poem he had written when he was 12 and a student at the Portora Royal School (in Enniskillen). He said that it "shows better your diligence as a researcher than my development as a writer".
I have met many honourable persons throughout my long professional life, but there was never one whose integrity equalled Samuel Beckett's. His word was indeed his bond.
© The Daily Telegraph
'Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me' by Deirdre Bair published by Atlantic is out now (€26.59)