Monday 5 December 2016

Beckett's intellectual soul mate -- and his mistress for 30 years

Published 24/04/2010 | 05:00

Barbara Bray, who has died aged 85, was a translator, BBC script editor and champion of avant-garde writers including Marguerite Duras, Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Anouilh and Alain Robbe-Grillet. She was also, for more than 30 years, intellectual soulmate and mistress of Samuel Beckett.

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The Nobel Prize-winning author of Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp's Last Tape (currently running in Dublin's Gate Theatre -- see page 25) met Barbara Bray in 1957 when she was assisting him in a BBC Third Programme production of All That Fall.

She boosted interest in Beckett while waiting for him to write Embers by commissioning Irish actors such as Patrick Magee and Jack McGowran to read from his trilogy of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable.

By 1958 their relationship had developed into a full-blown affair. He was 52 and she 34, an attractive widow (her estranged husband had died the same year) with two young daughters.

On a visit to Paris in 1961, Barbara told Beckett that she intended to move to the city to be near him. Beckett's surprising response was to marry his French lover, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, ostensibly to ensure that she would inherit the rights to his work, though probably also to make it clear to Barbara that he was unwilling to leave the woman with whom he had already lived for more than 20 years.

Yet Bray decided to move to Paris anyway and, according to Beckett's biographer Anthony Cronin, Beckett soon took to visiting her almost every day. Their relationship continued until Beckett's death in 1989.

Bray was not Beckett's only lover. He was devastatingly attractive to women and is said to have regarded sex as no more important than a good meal. His womanising included liaisons with his cousin Peggy Sinclair, the American art collector Peggy Guggenheim -- all of them tolerated by his long-suffering wife and by Bray, described by one biographer as his "principal" mistress.

Beckett is said to have become more relaxed in Barbara's company and she is said to have provided him with stability in his later years. But they behaved discreetly and never gave anything away about their relationship. That it was not always plain sailing is suggested in Play (1963), featuring a man, his wife and his mistress trapped together for eternity in urns, as they obsess vindictively about the other members of the ménage à trois.

Undoubtedly it was the intellectual companionship with Bray that mattered most to Beckett.

This came to light in 1997, when Trinity College Dublin paid her £250,000 for some 700 letters, together with manuscripts sent by the writer over more than 30 years.

The letters show Beckett using her as a sounding-board and literary adviser, revealing his difficulties and thoughts while working.

Though she always denied influencing his work, and even after his death refused to discuss their relationship in any detail, hopes were raised that Bray might provide a more rounded account after she was commissioned to write a memoir. Sadly a 2003 stroke prevented its completion.

An identical twin, she was born Barbara Jacobs in Maida Hill, west London, on November 24 1924. From Preston Manor County Grammar School, Brent, she won a scholarship in 1942 to Girton College, Cambridge, where she took a First in English, with papers in French and Italian.

She then married John Bray, an Australian-born fellow student, and spent three years with him teaching English in Cairo and Alexandria before returning to London. In 1953 she got a job as script editor in the drama department of the BBC Third Programme and became involved in its project to introduce listeners to post-war avant-garde.

As well as recommending, commissioning and translating work by writers such as Duras and Pirandello, she helped a young Harold Pinter at a critical time in his career.

Bray's love for Beckett was only part of the reason for her move to Paris. She felt she had gone as far as she could in the BBC and decided to embark on a career as a freelance translator and critic. She became the principal translator of Marguerite Duras, and was instrumental in introducing British audiences to many great figures of 20th-century French literature, among them Sartre, Anouilh, Genet and Tahar Ben Jelloun. She won the Scott Moncrieff prize for translation four times.

With Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter she adapted Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu for the screen. The film was never made but the text was published as The Proust Screenplay in 1978.

Also with Losey, she collaborated on a screenplay (also abandoned) of a biopic about Ibn Sa'ud, the founder of Saudi Arabia. Her projected book on the subject, The Desert Warrior and his Legacy, completed by Michael Darlow, is to be published in July.

After Beckett's death, Barbara Bray continued to translate, and she devoted much energy to Dear Conjunction, a Paris-based bilingual touring theatre company, which she co-founded.

Barbara Bray, who died on February 25, is survived by her two daughters.

Irish Independent

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