Acts of unkindness

11 June 2022

I’ve been reading Parisian Lives – Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me – a Memoir by the biographer Deirdre Bair. It is a fascinating account of the seven years she spent researching and writing her biography of Beckett and the 10 years she spent on the biography of de Beauvoir. It raises many issues in the mind of the reader – why great writers are so concerned about their undisputed literacy legacies that they obfuscate when asked about personal events already in the public record, which they feel reflect poorly on their characters; why biographers are looked down on by ‘true’ scholars; why Bair was deemed to have risen above her station, when she published a well-regarded biography of a towering literary figure, by the male academics who regarded themselves as the rightful keepers of the intellectual flame; how much a biography can really reveal the character and motivations of the famous (or infamous). Above all, the reader is struck by the fragile egos behind both the subjects of these biographies as well as their hangers-on – those who claimed to have been their friends, their most trusted confidantes, most significant critics, and so on.

I was intrigued by the research and writing process Bair describes in some detail. The treatment she received during the process would have made the protracted undertaking unendurable for a less determined person. She was widely deemed to have granted Beckett sexual favours to gain access to him and his family and friends. Many ‘true’ scholars attempted to either undermine her or use her research for their own academic ends, and it is telling that she never achieved tenured status at any American university, despite years of teaching over-subscribed courses to hundreds of students.  I drew two main conclusions from this. First, that the world of academia is as cut-throat and dishonest as any commercial enterprise. And second, that the extreme misogyny Bair experienced highlights the importance of de Beauvoir’s feminist activism. It also made me very glad that the decision I took years ago to enjoy literature rather than study it formally was the right one. The nit-picking of the various schools of literary criticism would have taken away all the pleasure. And reading for pleasure has been the mainstay of my life.

The overwhelming impression, which will remain with me long after those expressed above, is the breath-taking unkindness of some of those associated with the ‘great’ writers. Bair recounts how Sylvie le Bon, who was de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter and legal heir, “proceeded to run down every single person in Beauvoir’s life”. Worse than that, she had de Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre published, saying mercilessly that “many people will not like them”. De Beauvoir had refused to publish them in her lifetime, knowing that they would hurt those closest to her. De Beauvoir’s sister Hélène was devastated when she read her sister’s harsh comments about her choice of husband and ability as a painter, and she suffered from this pain for the rest of her life. By comparison, Edward Beckett, who is Beckett’s nephew and executor, seems mild in his firm control over how the plays are performed and his refusal to grant licences to productions that do not adhere to the written stage directions.

One wonders what motivates extreme unkindness from someone like Sylvie. Having been on the receiving end of such unkindness myself, this is a haunting question. My father disinherited my brothers and me after meeting a much younger woman, who inveigled him into changing his will in her favour. That he was elderly and vulnerable aided her in separating him from his closest relatives, who he then lambasted in his last interactions with them. The devastating effect of such a betrayal lies not in the loss of material things, though losing photos and other mementoes is cruel, but the nagging suspicion that one’s memory of a happy childhood with a loving father is a mirage. Like Hélène, we will bear this till the end of our own lives.

The ‘great’ writers and the people who dissect their lives and protect their legacies in the end fall prey to that which awaits us all, and that applies to those of the Sylvie ilk too. All of which makes one wonder not only why they are so unkind but also why they went so much trouble to perpetrate their cruelties.