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Waiting for love - how the women in Samuel Beckett's life helped to shape him


Samuel Beckett - "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on."

Samuel Beckett - "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on."

Barbara Bray

Barbara Bray

Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil and Samuel Beckett

Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil and Samuel Beckett


Samuel Beckett - "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on."

Samuel Beckett was obsessed with birth. "I have a clear memory of my own foetal existence," he said in an interview given in 1970. "It was an existence where no voice, no possible movement, could free me from the agony and darkness I was subjected to."

Considering his preoccupation with the matter, it is curious that nobody knows for certain when Samuel Beckett was born. According to biographer Anthony Cronin, Beckett's birth certificate gives his birthday as May 13, 1906. The writer himself always claimed that it was April 13; a Friday, and as it turned out, the day of the Lord's Crucifixion.

Beckett's mother, May, was 35 years old when she gave birth to her second son. She had met her husband, Willie, in the Adelaide Hospital, where she was working as a nurse and he was recovering from pneumonia. In 1900, they married and within the year, they had a healthy boy they named Frank. In contrast, Sam was sickly and prone to crying.

"He always saw being born as a great crime and I think the mother is tied up in that," says Professor of Drama at Trinity College Dublin, Nicholas Johnson. "It's a complicated relationship. There's a frustrated love, I think. There's a story in a late prose work called The End where the child asks his mother about how the sky could be so blue and the mother tells him to fuck off. It's clearly an image of a child trying to get her attention and her basically shutting him down."

Beckett found the atmosphere at home repressive. His mother was strong, moody, reclusive and was a devout Protestant. Beckett considered himself an atheist. Apart from differing religious views, there was conflict over Beckett's career. Clearly intelligent, it was hoped he would become a quantity surveyor like his father, or at the very least some kind of professor. The idea of him becoming a writer, living the life of a bohemian in Paris, was anathema.

"There was struggle and friction when he was here in Ireland," says Johnson. "But she still supported him with a regular stipend when he was living in France and struggling as a writer, and I think she was a huge influence."

In 1950, Beckett came home and nursed his mother through her final days in a home in Portobello. He recalls her death in Krapp's Last Tape (1958).

"...there is of course the house on the canal where mother lay a-dying, in the late autumn...and the bench by the weir from where I could see her window...I was there when the blind went down, one of those dirty brown roller affairs, throwing a ball for a little white dog, as chance would have it. I happened to look up and there it was. All over and done with, at last. I sat on for a few moments with the ball in my hand and the dog yelping and pawing at me. Moments. Her moments, my moments. The dog's moments."

Beckett's love-hate relationship with his mother was carried into his relationships with other women. Although he was passionate and driven, he was always reluctant to fully commit.

At Trinity, where he studied Italian, French and English, he was popular with female students, but he found Ireland stifling. The continent, he felt, had more to offer. After a few years of wandering between Dublin, London and the capitals of Europe he would eventually settle in Paris.

"In the early thirties in Paris he was certainly playing a bit fast and loose with women," says Professor Johnson. "He was tall, athletic, striking, intelligent and, in private conversation at least, he was gentle, generous and funny. He had the charisma to succeed with women. His relationships tended to be incredibly intense. And he certainly had a drive, a libido which he refers to."

The French capital was already home to that most famous of Irish exiles, James Joyce. Beckett met the writer through a mutual friend and he soon ended up working for him. The pair became close.

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Joyce's fragile daughter, Lucia, also took a keen interest. There were amorous engagements over a long period but when Lucia declared her love, Beckett rejected her. While some sources suggest this was because of Lucia's already deteriorating state of mind, others suggest that Beckett's rejection was the catalyst for a breakdown. Lucia was eventually admitted to an asylum and would spend the rest of her life in and out of institutions.

Though Joyce was unhappy with his acolyte, it was at one of his parties that Beckett met Peggy Guggenheim. On the night they met, he escorted the heiress to her apartment in St Germain-des-Pres, invited himself in, lay on the sofa and asked her to join him. Twelve days of lust were, according to her own biography, interrupted only by her demands that he go out and find some more champagne.

With its cafes and bars full of writers and artists, Paris was the centre of an exciting and intriguing world, but it was not without its dangers.

One evening in January 1937, Beckett passed a pimp in the street who asked him for money. He gave a terse no. The pimp responded with a blade to the ribs. The stabbing made headlines and brought Beckett a degree of fame. It also brought him renewed interest from a pianist named Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, whom he had met previously at a tennis club and who now began to visit him regularly in hospital. The couple soon embarked on an affair. It was to last the rest of their lives.

When Hitler invaded France, Beckett joined the Resistance. "All I have to lose is arms, legs, balls etc and I owe them no particular debt of gratitude, as far as I know," he wrote. It became apparent that his limbs meant more to him than he initially let on and when he discovered that his life was under threat, he escaped to the south of France with Suzanne. The couple travelled by night and slept in barns and fields by day. They eventually took refuge in the village of Roussillon. On occasion, they helped the local Resistance but for the most part Beckett wrote and simply waited.

On returning to Paris, Suzanne encouraged Beckett to finish works he had started but seemed reluctant to complete.

"Suzanne is very under-represented in the scholarship about Beckett," says Nicholas Johnson. "Her impact on the work is absolutely enormous. Just in practical terms, it was Suzanne who goes to the publishers with his novels when they come back to Paris so she acts like an agent really at a time when he doesn't seem capable of self-promotion. So I think she was probably quite forceful and functional in ways."

Life with Beckett cannot have been easy. When he wasn't suffering with heart palpitations and bad bowels, there were the dark moods. "I'm depressed the way a slug-ridden cabbage might be expected to be," he once wrote of himself. And yet, Suzanne stuck around.

"I think we get an image legacy of their relationship in Waiting for Godot ," says Professor Johnson. "There's the image, for example, of Didi and Gogo in Godot who are a sort of pseudo-couple that reflect the domestic environment that Beckett and Suzanne established with each other. I think a lot of that "I love you, I can't be with you, I'll go on being with you" that we see in Godot reflects a sense of mutual dependency, long-term need and an element of cruelty but it's underpinned by a solidity of love which is a recurring pattern."

Though their relationship lasted 50 years, the couple were not exclusive. There is some evidence that there was, if not an arrangement, at least an understanding. At their house in Boulevard St Jacques the couple had separate entrances and as Professor Johnson notes "she had her own friends and connections in life that were completely separate from Beckett."

In 1953, the couple bought a countryside retreat 60 kilometres east of Paris, in Ussy-sur-Marne. Suzanne soon tired of the countryside, however, and while Beckett found comfort in the solitude he was rarely alone. In 1957, Beckett was invited to write a radio play for the BBC. During the writing and production of All that Fall he met and eventually started a relationship with Barbara Bray, a script editor. Bray soon moved to Paris with her daughters and the relationship, which became something of an open secret, ran in tandem with that of Becket's with Suzanne.

Curiously, but perhaps not uncharacteristically, it was at the peak of his relationship with Barbara that Beckett skipped across the English Channel and married Suzanne. In the ensuing years, Barbara would always be the other significant other. She would outlive Beckett and Suzanne by over two decades.

Suzanne died on 17 July, 1989. Six months later, on December 22, Beckett followed her. The two were interred together in Montparnasse in their beloved Paris. The granite gravestone follows Beckett's wish that it should be "any colour, so long as it's grey".

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