Biography remains the least theorised of the major genres. Readers gobble biographies up like candy and bookstores would feel impoverished without a fresh stack of them on display each season. For all of this, biographers – as opposed to novelists or writers of popular nonfiction in other categories – often remain in the shadows. It’s as if biographies somehow get written by themselves, without the countless hours of slogging and inspired guesswork that go into even the least of them.
I know a good bit about this, having written several biographies myself, and I don’t envy Deirdre Bair, author of this absorbing memoir of her life as a biographer, which is also a convenient primer for would-be biographers. Bair talks frankly about how her books were written and what she had to endure to finish them, focusing on two early works, well-known lives of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. These giants of 20th-century literature would present major challenges for any biographer, given their difficult personalities. But this was especially true for Bair, who came to write her first biography without any credentials that would obviously have impressed Beckett, her subject. That she managed to get him to agree to her writing the book was itself rather stunning.
I recall being amazed when the biography appeared in 1978 that the famously reclusive Beckett would have let anyone chronicle his life. Bair was not the obvious candidate for the job. She had just finished her doctoral studies at Columbia. He responded