In memory of Samuel Beckett's long-term companion
Barbara Bray, photo by Piotr Dzumala
From where she sits she can see Venus rise. When she looks out of her window, she sees the two light-coloured walls which frame the courtyard of her building, a high wall separating the courtyard from the street with two heavy dark green doors in the middle, and a hôtel particulier across the street which belonged to a family that produced a chancellor, the right hand of Richelieu and Mazarin. Were the house to the right of it lower, she would be able to see the back wall of Picasso´s atelier at rue des Grands Augustins. Many residences in this part of Paris, the oldest south of the Cité, were built or renovated in the 17th century when the aristocracy of the capital bought huge properties from provincial church notables.
To see the sky she only needs to raise her head; to see the paved courtyard she would have to be moved from where she sits at her desk and brought close to the window. Since the cerebral hemmorage she suffered six years ago she has been confined to a wheelchair and has been cared for by aides soignantes. Just outside her window she can see honeysuckle whose filiform branches frame her view as she writes. The slightest breeze makes them tremble.
In order to get to her flat, a visitor must pass through the heavy gate and, crossing the paved courtyard, reach a low rise of flagstones, one step up, from which a flight of stairs ascends from the time of Napoleon I. The interior staircase begins only from the first floor upward, the lowest section being spared doors of any kind, thereby making it easier to pass for someone like Barbara.
There are twenty stairs, the lowest lot of 6 of stone, then 14 of wood, rather heavily worn. All together 21 steps to negotiate. Only 21 steps separate her studio from the street level. Only… and as many as – for Barbara it may indeed feel like the way of the Cross. For no stair is of the same dimensions; those on the inside of the curve are far too narrow to safely set foot on, those close to the wall require two cautious steps. Those out of stone are slippery in wet weather, those of wood, when it´s dry. They are anything but horizontal; they slope towards the outside wall. To boot, almost every step has a rounded edge and a dip in the middle, worn by the footsteps of many generations. Hardly any visitor would notice it, but when you close your eyes, your body immediately becomes aware of these many exceptions to geometry, going up as well as down. For Barbara, going downstairs is less difficult, not only because of the earth´s gravity, but also because it is easier for her to hold the banister with her right hand and lean with most of her weight against it, for her left hand has only slightly improved after the stroke, in spite of years of physiotherapy. When she goes upstairs, not only is the railing steeper and more slippery but the steps in the curve are much more narrow, making it next to impossible to walk safely. On the other hand, there is one major advantage: stopping at her will is far less risky than while going down. “What a curse, mobility!” reads Winnie’s line in Happy Days.
Every outing is an ordeal. Yet Barbara has vowed to leave her flat not only for medical purposes and has, until recently, kept her word. She had done her best to attend performances of the Dear Conjunction Theatre Company, her Paris-based troupe which she founded in 1992 with actors Trish Kessler and Les Clack. They stage mostly English-language plays by, among others, Mike Leigh, Brian Friel, Steven Berkoff, Frank McGuinness, Bill Naughton, and last but not least Harold Pinter, who was the company´s patron, as well as the plays of their (and Pinter´s) mentor, Samuel Beckett. They have also played Molière and Yasmina Reza, and occasionally somewhat lighter stuff, like Francis Veber´s Le Diner des cons or Gilbert & Sullivan musicals. Companies like hers were still thriving in Paris in the 1990s but are now struggling to survive as it becomes increasingly difficult to fill the hall. Barbara was their jack of all trades, being everything from concept-giver, translator, producer, fund raiser and at times also fund… giver. The stroke she suffered one evening in late 2003 shortly after a performance radically changed her life.
It is easier for her to work without leaving home. Two years ago Random House published her first translation done in the wheelchair, the novel of French author Soazig Aaaron, Le non de Klara. Languages have always been her first love. Born in London in 1924, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Holland and Belgium, she studied languages at Cambridge and taught them at universities in Cairo and Alexandria. In nearly six decades of translating she rendered into English works of Sartre, Robbe-Grillet, Robert Pinget, Jean Giono, Jean Genet, Jean d’Ormesson, Alain Bosquet, Amin Maalouf, critics Maurice Nadeau and Jean Starobinski, and biographies of Genet, Proust, Chagall, just to name a few. She has been awarded the prestigious Scott Moncrief prize for literary translation five times, most recently for Marguerite Duras´ The Lover. British critics, with their usual arrogance, labeled it “better than the original”. Duras lived a stone´s throw from Barbara; they often met. She remembers her as a very jealous and possessive woman; it cost her much to remain calm, but sometimes conflict could not be avoided. “Marguerite wanted me to translate all her texts but she wrote them so quickly that I could hardly keep up with her. Once she told me that she was sewing herself a skirt, and I sighed with relief: Wonderful, at least you´re not writing!” – Journalists loved to quote that sort of anecdote, this time it was International Herald Tribune in October 1996. However, separating the work from the author, Barbara still holds the former in high esteem.
Before Barbara took to translating, she engaged in yet another activity – in 1953 she joined the staff of the BBC Radio. It was the most vital time of great change when radio productions of new dramatists went hand in hand with the most important stagings. As script editor of the very creative Third Programme her duties included, “with my team, to judge, encourage, edit and schedule for production on the three sound channels then existing, all unsolicited radio drama scripts, and to commission others from new and interesting writers”. [Excerpts from recorded conversations of B. Bray with M. Kedzierski , 2004-2009]
She unearthed some of the finest British and European new writers of the time and prepared productions of their works. Barbara´s successor, Head of BBC´s Radio Drama Martin Esslin, who has coined the term “the theatre of the absurd”, speaking in his book of the dominant tendencies in world drama, could illustrate his points with examples of the BBC´s home-growns. One of the new writers Barbara Bray was “trying to help find their own voice” was Harold Pinter.
She reminisces: With Harold, puzzled as you might be, he knew where he was going to. So it was worth taking the risk which we always took when we commissioned plays... /…/ Anyway, he was a very strange writer, and many would have said, you know, what on earth is this? But the reason they would say it was that it was completely unlike anything anybody else has ever done. The ambiguities and the twists and the mixture of the literary, sometimes too high-flown literary language and vernacular was quite unique and it had its own authority, it wasn’t just something somebody was just having a little trial run at. Anyway, we commissioned a few of these things, and when they played in the studio, you could see that your premonition was correct, that these were people and characters saying something, and that there was a story and something happening and your mind had been taken for a long circuitous walk by the end of the play and it wasn’t quite sure where it was. [ibid.]
These remarks illustrate Barbara´s pragmatic attitude in her search for literary innovation: a risk-taking sparked by her intuition and prompted by her cultivated literary taste.
In the early 1970s Barbara Bray was asked by Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey to collaborate on a joint venture of writing a screenplay of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. It took more than a year to conceive it and Pinter called the experience "the best working year of my life." Although never filmed, The Proust Screenplay has tempted many to give it a try. It combines a synthetic approach to the work as a whole and fidelity to Proust's text which Barbara, a Proust authority, was there to ensure.
Another author whom she unearthed for the BBC, together with the director Donald McWhinnie, was Samuel Beckett. Unlike Pinter, in 1956, he was already a writer of European renown when Barbara´s boss John Morris asked him to consider writing a text for them. Although Beckett never took commisions, the BBC offer sparked something in his creative mind: “Never thought about radio play technique … but in the dead of t´other night got a gruesome idea of cartwheels and dragging feet and puffing and panting which may or may not lead to something”.. It did lead to something; a few months later Barbara Bray and Donald McWhinnie received the typescript of his first radio play All That Fall.
Thus began a long relationship between Sam and Barbara, documented at first in their “business” letters which she says are now at the BBC archives, then in their more and more private correspondence. All That Fall needed practically no editing before the recording. In the case of Beckett´s second radio drama, Embers, it was more of a work on the text. The letter exchange gives us an interesting glimpse into the working of his creative mind. The effectiveness of using certain technical solutions was being discussed together with ideas for the best title.
If we are to believe Beckett, Embers is a failed text, a huge flop if not a total fiasco, to such an extent that he would have preferred it not to be produced, although he did leave the decision up to the BBC. A very consistent feature of his personality was that he was much more critical towards his own work than that of other writers, although he was by no means uncritical of the latter.
As early as 1957 Beckett´s letters went beyond the topics related to his own work. Barbara was producing Marguerite Duras´ The Square and it was apropos of the English script that Beckett sent her in January 1958 a two-page detailed list of his suggestions, stating needless to say that his judgment should not be taken into consideration, so incompetent was he in such matters.
After her stroke Barbara spent several months in hospitals and was placed in a résidence not far from Gare de l´Est. Before every meal, long lines of patients in wheelchairs formed in front of the two lifts. A horrific experience for her, but she refused to take meals in her room and frequently took them with her friends in town. Harold Pinter came to see her in a nearby restaurant, also having something against “closed spaces”. He had known about her stroke; immediately afterwards he wrote her a short letter expressing his concern but then remained silent for one and a half years. And it was only after that meal that, without having set foot at her résidence, he understood what she was going through there. Shortly after his departure a secretary of the Royal Literary Fund came from London and discussed Barbara´s precarious financial situation. And a few weeks later the decision was taken to assign her a special pension for the rest of her life. She could now afford to hire a caregiver and adapt her flat for a disabled person. Barbara had helped launch the career of the young Pinter. Now Harold Pinter could repay his debt.
Shortly after having been awarded the Nobel Prize, as soon as health allowed it, Pinter celebrated Beckett´s 100th birthday by playing the role he had always waited to be mature enough to play – that of the title hero of Beckett´s Krapp´s Last Tape. Barbara decided to go and see the production, ready to meet the challenge of taking the Eurostar, her first and last trip abroad after 2003. He was a very relentless Krapp, “the least sentimental Krapp I´ve ever seen”, says Barbara. He played it in a wheelchair and stood up only after the performance to take his bows. It was well worth the hassels and stress of travelling in a wheelchair….
Beckett´s relationship with Barbara began in the early sixties and also lasted until 1989. Eighteen years his junior, she accompanied him for three decades, a great help above all in what was most difficult for him – keeping writing. She kept him informed about what was going on in literature and art (she spoke on a weekly broadcast Critics, together with, among others, the art critic David Sylvester). She inspired Beckett, discussed his works, proof-read his new works and translations, and above all talked about words. She sent him an impressive number of books to read from Ernest Jones´ biography of Freud to Wittgenstein´s Tractatus to
At first they saw each other during his visits in London or hers in France, then she moved with her two daughters to live in Paris. Having quit her script-editor job she worked for the BBC as a free-lancer, while taking on more and more translations. When he was in Paris, they were sometimes in the company of Beckett´s friends at cafés and bars, including the famous Falstaff, and he used to drop in at rue Seguier, sometimes at unsual hours, to talk or play the piano (she has kept the music he used, of largely classical pieces). But by far, the venue for their meetings, as she remembers it now, was Beckett´s country residence in Ussy-sur-Marne. Suzanne had become bored with country life there and stopped going. As Beckett became more famous and plagued by countless appointments and queries in Paris, it was in Ussy that he found refuge and could write. There, Barbara shared with him the intimate moments of the countryside. A series of snapshots taken by her is extraordinary - showing Beckett in his Spartanly furnished interior and above all in his garden. Mowing the lawn, adding petrol to his mower, looking around in his tool shed, sitting at his garden table or making bonfires, playing with fire and dead leaves. She also had the privilege of being allowed another kind of intimacy, being an eye-witness to Samuel Beckett in the process of writing. She more than witnessed: she often partook in it
His sense of loyalty towards Suzanne, gratitude for what she had done for him in the forties as well as his wish to secure her financial well-being in the future, together with his sense of guilt plus a certain fatalism not alien to him in regard to women since his early years – all contributed to his taking an important personal step in 1961 - at the most intense phase of his relationship with Barbara. In early March, he crossed the Channel, checked into a hotel near Dover, travelled around long enough to comply with a residence requirement for getting a British marriage license, filed a petition and waited for Suzanne. She arrived shortly before the ceremony on 24th of March. The next day the newly-weds returned to France. On March 23rd, he addressed to Barbara a black and white picture postcard of Shakespeare Cliff, Dover with a concise note: Pensées affectueses, S.
I am a frequent guest at the small studio she shares with her caregiver. Samuel Beckett: A Memoir, her only remaining project,is a major challenge for her now. Writing is physically exhausting in her condition. A circle of friends encourages her to go on as much as they can. I have put on her computer photocopies of Beckett´s letters to her so that they are always in chronological order and can be enlarged on the screen. There are periods we meet daily for – roughly -- two-hour sessions. The sessions which aim at writing a memoir of Samuel Beckett are largely devoted to …reading. In order to write about him, she needs his words. The daily ritual, before she can write something, is to be submerged in what once they have lived – each separartely - through, in what sustained and kept their relationship. During all these years he sent her about 800 letters. 713 have been deposited at the archive of Dublin´s Trinity College. A large part can be consulted, by “those with credentials”, as Edward Beckett says, the writer´s nephew and his testamentary executor. The beginning of our sessions is slow but once things are set in motion, she often has a spurt of energy. After two hours when my younger eyes are fatigued from poring over the screen, she wants to continue: “Let´s read a couple more”. The fate of her letters to him is unknown….
After 1957, no one among Beckett´s correspondents was as privileged as Barbara Bray. Letters to her are marked by a personal tone, though only a few, if at all, could be considered love letters. Their intimacy is expressed in the aura of trust. Taken as a whole, the collection is surprisingly self-contained. If only his letters to her were to survive, posterity would have a fairly comprehensive source of information as to what was going on in Beckett´s life from 1960 until at least the mid-seventies: what he was doing, whom he was meeting, what he was reading, watching and listening to. Over time the letters became progressively shorter and less frequent. They provide a rather matter-of-fact though not unbiased description of his daily life as well as his creative efforts, the latter usually in remarks about how inadequately such and such a problem was being dealt with by him, how he put off writing or was not capable of going on….
His letters are a surprisingly complete biographical document, frequently with a minute account of what was happening on a particular day. In chronological sequence, they read almost like a journal. He doesn´t spare the reader the juicy details of his slipping and hurting himself in the bathtub at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, or having to deal with locksmiths in a town near Ussy when he locked himself out of the house, or how he tried to survive the snowy winter in Ussy with provisions stocked at home when his Citroen 2CV broke down. He writes about his diet, his efforts to cut down on drinking, his ever changing afflictions and how he copes with them. These self-effacing accounts are presented with biting sarcasm, dry humour and truly epic, not to say Swiftian, distance….
It was while Beckett was away in the Italian and Austrian Alps during the sixties or farther south in Portugal or Morocco later on that he wrote Barbara in the most systematic way. His news from distant places, visited for the sake of sun and warmth, had – for her - an uncanny quality due to the fact that he couldn´t help but leave out any remarks about his travel companion, Suzanne. No doubt a trying experience for Barbara. But apparently, judging from his acknowledgment of the arrival of letters and parcels from her, their exchange was not unduly affected. In comparison, his letters from the solitary abode in Ussy bring her profound joy even today, many years since, promising to make up for her feeling of loss and deprivation.
In late summer of 2008, I spent almost every afternoon with her reading Samuel Beckett´s letters, deciphering his impossible handwriting. In order to help her write The Memoir, to give her an incentive, refresh her memory, and stir up her spirit, hopefully in a good way. In Proust Beckett writes about “the poisonous ingenuity of Time in the science of affliction”. For Barbara, the process which involves evoking good memories is inseparable from the one that confirms “the nullity of our attempts” at restoring the past at will. The moments of elation are forcibly followed by those of affliction. I notice how her face lights up when she is reminded of something that calls to mind pleasant associations, but having realized that it is over and long gone she is that much more upset.
I am taking a day off and one bright afternoon I go to Ussy again. The next day, I tell Barbara what I have seen and show her my photographs. One of them immediately attracts her attention. It is a dark blue street sign with the inscription in white: “Rue Samuel Beckett”. The sign, awkwardly put atop of a slim, slightly leaning pole firmly planted in the earth, is set against a cloudy sky. I tell her that it makes me think of Beckett walking in his characteristic tottering gait, his silhouette with his head in the clouds and his feet firmly on earth. He used to pass that intersection a few steps from his house every time he headed in the direction of the village of Ussy. It is where today rue Samuel Beckett begins, and continues all the way to the next village of Molien. I also tell her about the renovation of the house to which one section has been added, and the huge new orchard right across the road, as one looks towards the A-4 highway. Even without the renovation everything looks different, she says. In twenty years the trees, of which he was so fond, have grown enormously.
In All That Fall, a Mr. Slocum aks: “May I offer you a lift, Mrs Rooney? Are you going in my direction?” to which the female protagonist replies: “I am, Mr Slocum, we all are”. Obviously, Beckett´s mockingly refers to the painful going through life. The narrator of From an Abandoned Work confides: “… no, I simply will not go out of my way, though I have never in my life been on my way anywhere, but simply on my way”. It was read in 1957 in the broadcast of Beckett´s prose, aired on BBC Third Programme, by one of Beckett´s chief actors - and quite a character! - Patrick Magee, whose voice the playwright later had in mind while writing Krapp. Half a century ago Barbara Bray took this road, rue Samuel Beckett, and she is still on her way.