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Saturday 24 March 2018

Lover who made Beckett appear happier

The playwright visited the talented and attractive Barbara Bray almost every day, writes Anthony Cronin

I FIRST met Barbara Bray, who died last week aged 85, in the Fifties when she worked for the BBC Third Programme, a noble experiment in minority and intellectual broadcasting. It had attracted a galaxy of stars, many of them Irish, such as Louis MacNeice and HAL Craig. But among this male company Barbara more than held her own.

She was a vivacious and highly attractive young woman who, outside broadcasting circles, was also acquiring a reputation as a reviewer and translator, mostly of books which had already had some impact in France. Now in her 30s but already widowed, she had a comprehensive knowledge of the new and avant garde happening then in French literature and it was she, along with her immediate boss Donald McWhinnie, who persuaded Samuel Beckett to write All That Fall and Embers for radio.

She was outspoken and sceptical in her opinions and had a sceptical, Jewish sense of humour. In 1960 she moved to Paris with her two young daughters to be near Beckett, with whom she now had an intimate friendship, and to develop her work as a translator and critic.

Nearly everything to do with Beckett's relationships has been a cause of jealousy among those who felt themselves to be superseded or excluded, and much has been made of the fact that almost immediately after Barbara's arrival in Paris Beckett got hurriedly married to Suzanne Dumesnil with whom he had been living since the late 1930s. As Barbara saw it however, certainly as she explained it to me later on when I was writing Beckett's biography, this had been discussed between them, and she had encouraged him in the step, which was for testamentary reasons. He and Suzanne were drifting further apart with the years. She disapproved of much in his lifestyle, including his friends and his drinking habits. Barbara said, and I think she was right, that his staying with Suzanne was an expression of his loyalty and his general antipathy to causing hurt. "I always urged the other party's case," she said.

One way or another, the situation became that of a kind which is commoner in France than in England or Ireland. Beckett came round almost every day to the flat in the rue de Seguier in the heart of the Left Bank where Barbara lived, while continuing to live with Suzanne in the rue St Jacques.

An independent woman who had a metier and a life of her own, she seems to have asked nothing more from the relationship than Beckett was willing or able to give. She was intelligently talkative and had a sense of humour, two qualities Beckett appreciated in women perhaps because he liked to lapse into taciturnity himself. She admired him deeply, not only as a writer but as a man, believing him to be, whatever his complications, virtually a saint. Though understandably reluctant to discuss the more intimate side of their relationship, she did permit herself to say that he was saintly in such matters as well, a remark that whatever construction one puts upon it at least implies a high degree of selflessness. "Men do not understand women anyway, but he understood me better as time went by and I understood him better," she said.

Although aware of the depth of his pessimism she thought he had a great capacity for enjoyment which was inseparable from his fineness and keenness of perception. This very fineness of perception amounted in her view to hyper aesthesia, an especially heightened consciousness which made him suffer more than most people. He was, she thought, like the man Rousseau speaks of who finds himself out in the tempest without his skin. Barbara was almost the only person with whom he discussed his work and to whom he habitually showed it while it was in progress.

Their goings out together were circumspect but they did occasionally appear in the Falstaff, the small bar in Montparnasse that he favoured, or in the Isles Marquises. The few who met them agreed that with her he seemed almost a different person -- brighter, more cheerful and altogether more relaxed.

Sunday Independent

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