‘Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me: A Memoir,’ by Deirdre Bair: An Excerpt
apartment in the city. How interesting, I said, because Simone de Beauvoir also lived on that street. Yes, he said, he and his mother lived “in 11 bis on the ground floor, down the long corridor, then the short one on the right, with our flat on the left in the rear, and Anaïs and Hugo’s to the right and in the front.” I still remember the chills that shook me as I learned that Beauvoir’s beautiful studio apartment had been Anaïs Nin’s first home in Paris.
When the door opened, tall woman that I am, I looked straight ahead and saw only air. It felt like a cartoon moment as a beat passed before I lowered my gaze to look down and see a very tiny woman looking up at me. I remember thinking how small Sartre must have been, for in all the photos I had seen of the two of them together, she was always the taller. I thrust the flowers toward her and mumbled something about birthday greetings while she gestured dismissively and told me to come in. She walked in front of me and dumped the flowers in a sculpture of a pair of human hands on a small round table; I later learned this was a cast of Sartre’s hands. Abruptly, as if she decided that this was not an appropriate place, she excused herself to go into her kitchen and find a vase. I noticed the difficulty she had walking as she shuffled slowly back and forth.
I also noticed how she was dressed in what looked like a shabby red bathrobe over a nightdress. How strange, I thought, that she would be dressed this way on the evening of her birthday. This robe became familiar, as she wore it for many of our conversations during the next five years. She also wore a turban, which I unkindly came to call “the ubiquitous rag,” because I never saw her without it. Her eyes were a brilliant blue, although the color was muted by the pale yellow tinge of the whites around them. Her flawless skin was marred only by a similar color and not by wrinkles, even though she turned seventy-three on that day. The yellow deepened over the years I knew her, a worrisome symptom of the cirrhosis of the liver that would contribute to her death.
She left the flowers in the kitchen and shuffled back into the living area, where I was still standing. I was too overwhelmed on that first meeting to observe closely the furniture and decorations, except to take in the two daybeds she used for sofas, arranged perpendicularly along the walls and faced by three tiny slipper chairs with a coffee table in between. As she returned, she indicated with a sweep of her arm that I was to take the nearest slipper chair while she positioned herself on a significant dip in one of the sofas, where her body had made an impression. It was clearly the place where she spent most of her time, and it was where she always sat whenever we were together.
I began to make stuttering conversation, starting with my thanks that she would give me time on her birthday. Her quizzical look as she replied let me know I was not making a very positive first impression. “Why not?” she said. “What is a birthday anyway but just another day?” I didn’t know what to say to that, but she didn’t pause long enough to let me answer as she asked, “Shall we get to work?”
I had assumed that this was to be a brief getting-acquainted session and I had not brought anything with me; I had no notebook or tape recorder, and I had not prepared any questions. My only preparation had been to practice how to tell her, in my best French, that I had to go home on the twelfth to teach during the spring semester and would not be able to begin serious interviews until at least the summer, and then only if my schedule allowed enough time for me to prepare myself with serious reading and research during the term. I stammered something about how I did not wish to impose upon what I was sure would be a festive evening, so I had not brought any work materials with me. She snorted in derision. There was to be no celebration, she told me; her friend Sylvie would be coming later with something for dinner, but until then we should probably get started.
I fished in my bag for something to write on and could find only my date book, so I pretended it was a notebook. I got a reprieve of sorts from asking questions because she launched right in to tell me how we were going to work: “I will talk, and I will tell you what has been important in my life—all the things you need to know. You can write them down, but you must also bring a tape recorder, and I will have one, too. We can discuss what I tell you if you need me to explain it, and that will be the book you need to write. That will be the one you publish.”