Thursday 4 March 2010
Translator, critic, script editor and partner to Samuel Beckett
Barbara Bray, who has died aged 85, was one of the most significant links between British and French literature in the 20th century. She was the principal translator and an early champion of Marguerite Duras, who was her close friend, and also translated the work of Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Anouilh and Alain Robbe-Grillet. As a young and influential script editor at the BBC in the 1950s, she fostered the work of many writers including Harold Pinter and, perhaps most importantly, Samuel Beckett, who became her personal and intellectual partner for more than 30 years.
An identical twin, she was born Barbara Jacobs into a lower-middle-class family in Maida Hill, west London, and raised in Harrow. She attended Preston Manor county grammar school, in Brent, and went to Girton College, Cambridge, where she took a first in English. She married John Bray, an Australian-born RAF pilot, after they both graduated from Cambridge. She spent three years with him teaching English in Cairo and Alexandria before returning to London and landing a job, in 1953, as script editor in the drama department of the new BBC Third Programme, one of a handful of women then in positions of responsibility there.
Working under Val Gielgud, Donald McWhinnie and John Morris, she was at the spearhead of a risky enterprise to introduce the postwar British public to avant-garde 20th-century drama. She was involved in recommending, commissioning and translating work by Duras, Robert Pinget, Ugo Betti and Luigi Pirandello. Bray supported Pinter in particular, assuring him a steady flow of commissions after the failure of his London theatre debut, The Birthday Party. Pinter wrote A Slight Ache, A Night Out and The Dwarfs initially as radio commissions for her, and remained grateful to her throughout his life for this crucial early support.
Bray met Beckett in 1956 during the production of his radio play All That Fall, and they became more closely involved when she helped him with Embers, his second BBC commission, in 1959. By then Bray was in a relationship with McWhinnie, her estranged husband having died in an accident in Cyprus, leaving her in sole charge of their two young daughters.
She said later that it took 30 seconds to fall in love with Beckett. Despite being drawn by his graceful, generous manner and his voice, which she described as sounding like the sea, she nonetheless kept her distance, and it was he who made the first moves in what was to become a relationship of central importance for both of them.
Strikingly beautiful, opinionated and headstrong, Bray had run the course of her career at the BBC by 1961. At the age of 36, she moved to Paris with her daughters, partly to be closer to Beckett (who was 55) and partly to pursue a freelance career as a translator and critic. Besides writing for the Observer and appearing regularly on the BBC programme The Critics, she translated almost all of Duras’s work; Anouilh’s Antigone; Pinget’s Clope; Genet’s Prisoner of Love; Michel Tournier’s The Ogre; works by Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Michel Quint, Frédéric Richaud and Amin Maalouf; Flaubert’s correspondence with George Sand; and Elisabeth Roudinesco’s biography of Jacques Lacan. She won the Scott Moncrieff prize for translation four times.
In 1975 she collaborated with Joseph Losey on the later abandoned screenplay of a film about the life of Ibn Sa’ud, the founder of Saudi Arabia. The material she generated was refashioned into a biography, co-written with Michael Darlow, which will be published later this year. With Losey and Pinter, she undertook the immense task of adapting Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu for the cinema (Beckett also lent a guiding hand). The film was never made, but their text was published (under Pinter’s principal authorship) as The Proust Screenplay in 1978.
Her relationship with Beckett lasted for the rest of his life. He sent her work in progress by mail (sometimes twice a day, even if they were meeting anyway) and worked with her, by her own account, as a sounding-board, as a direct help with translation (he translated his own work between French and English), and as a gadfly who would encourage him to complete projects.
She was the only person with whom he regularly shared his work in progress and one of very few with whom he discussed his work at all. She never claimed credit for his work, stating that she had no creative imagination at all. She “wasn’t any influence on the nature of the work”, she later recalled, “because he was absolutely unique and sure of himself and knew what he wanted to say”. She described their relationship as one of equals, an impression corroborated by those who knew them at the time.
Beckett had just married Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil when Bray moved to Paris in 1961. Suzanne had helped him recover his health after he was stabbed in 1938, and both had been hunted members of the Resistance during the latter part of the second world war. Bray claimed that Beckett remained faithful to both of them, a situation which was not without consequences for Bray and her children, who were brought up as the offspring of an occasionally anguished “other woman”, devoted to her often-absent companion.
Beckett and Suzanne’s relationship had been forged in adversity and before his fame. They had much less in common intellectually than he and Bray. His double life was most likely the point of departure for Play (1963), in which a man, wife and mistress confess their lives to an intermittent spotlight, confined to the neck in earthen jars. The similarly-confined but irrepressible Winnie in Happy Days (1960) has sometimes been likened to Bray, who was possessed of an unstoppable, effusive attitude bordering on the manic. She denied the link.
Bray spoke of writing a memoir of her life with Beckett, but never completed it. She abhorred others’ tell-all accounts of sometimes superficial relations with him, and perhaps preferred in the end to allow silence to descend on the mystery of their relationship. We can nonetheless speculate whether the second part of his career would have been as varied and adventurous without her, ranging across television and film and inspired by sources including the Noh theatre, to which she introduced him. Her last collaborative act with him was to type his final work, What Is the Word (1989), which he composed when confined to the Tiers Temps nursing home in Paris. He died that December. His 713 letters to her are kept at Trinity College Dublin (he destroyed all personal correspondence he received). She left a brief account of her life with him in an interview with Marek Kedzierski.
After Beckett’s death, Bray continued to translate, and she put great energy into the bilingual Paris-based theatre company Dear Conjunction, which she co-founded and for which she directed lesser-known Pinter and Beckett works.
A stroke in 2003 limited her activity, and left her using a wheelchair. She remained doggedly independent in a studio flat in the Rue Séguier, proudly reciting swathes of Shakespeare, Donne and the King James Bible from memory. After a steady decline in her health, she moved last December to Edinburgh to a nursing home near her daughter Francesca’s house.
Resolutely rational and atheist to the last, Bray eschewed a funeral and donated her body to science. She is survived by Francesca and her other daughter, Julia, and her sister, Olive.