Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

The Stolen Hours

May 30, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


In Waiting for Godot two hapless tramps struggle to find meaning in a landscape of existential emptiness. They embody “the dangling conversation,” to pretend to be connected to another, to drown out loneliness waiting in the wings. Their only hope is the enigmatic Godot-who remains a steadfast no-show. But the author, Samuel Beckett, did not suffer such soul-sucking alienation though succor from across the sea. 

      When the twin baby girls were born to the Jacobs-Jewish immigrants from Belgium and Holland in London on November 24, 1924, friends commented on their identical features. They shared prodigious intellects as well; both became fluent in French and worked as translators, but otherwise tread far divergent roads.

     In an unusual situation for a mid-century girl from low-income home, Barbara was admitted to Cambridge, financed through a state scholarship. It was at university she also took a husband, John Bray, an Australian RAF pilot who had been a prisoner of war. The couple embarked for Egypt where she taught for three years as a lecturer in English Language and Literature at the University of Alexandria and at a college in Cairo. When John, (by then estranged from his wife,) was killed in an accident in Cypress, the thirty-four widow was left alone with daughters Julia and Francesca. Rather than ‘trouble deaf heaven with bootless cries’ she supported her family with a position in the BBC Third Program. Working under Donald McWinnie, (with whom she embarked on an affair,) she championed post-War writers such as Jean Paul Sartre, Harold Pinter and the man who would electrify her life. 

         The Nobel Prize-winning writer of Waiting for Godot first laid eyes on Barbara when she assisted him on the production of All That Fall-which is what she immediately did. She was entranced by his voice which she described as sounding like the sea. In her memoir she recounted, “I fell in love with Beckett’s work even before I met him personally and had the “real,” once-and-for-all “coup de foudre.” She added their meeting was “the great epiphany of my life. It took all of thirty seconds to fall in love.” She thought Beckett, a towering genius eighteen years her senior, would forget the script-writer upon his return to France. He had become a British expatriate, as he explained, “France in war to Ireland in peace.” However, after his departure, she received daily letters with Parisian postmarks. Bray remained awe-struck-and was thunderstruck-when Beckett altered their relationship from an epistolary one when he phoned out of the blu and invited her for dinner. After this initial date, it became apparent they were soul-and-mind-mates. They were to discover they were body-mates as well.

      In 1961, after three years of an intense long-distance relationship, Barbara decided to surprise Samuel and relocate to Paris.  Loved ones thought Barbara was acting like the name of the avant-garde theater-absurd. They advised against quitting a secure position, leaving country and family, uprooting her daughters, for a man who did not dangle a ring. Moreover, there was the matter of the Beckett-bleakness, manifest both off and on stage. Samuel’s friend had once mentioned of a balmy afternoon it was “the sort of day that makes you glad to be alive” to which Beckett demurred, “Oh, I don’t think I’d go quite so far as that.” Despite well-meaning admonitions, Barbara felt Beckett her Godot, and she was not willing to wait for him any longer. Even women who have always been guided by intellect sometimes become ruled by emotion. It was her ardent wish by joining him she would transform from Barbara Bray to Barbara Beckett.

      In All That Fall, a Mr. Slocum asks: “May I offer you a lift, Mrs. Rooney? Are you going in my direction?” to which the female character replies: “I am, Mr. Slocum, we all are.” Life imitated art as any number of women were seduced by Beckett, notwithstanding his appearance: he sported thick round spectacles, bristly hair, and gaunt physique. The American writer Susan Sontag-no slouch herself in the bleakness arena- referred to him as the sexist man she had ever met. When he had first moved to Paris, he had worked with James Joyce, whose daughter Lucia was the Portrait of the Daughter as a Lost Cause. She sang of Samuel with whom she had become romantically involved, “You’re the Cream of my Coffee.” When his interest waned and he explained her draw had been her father, she dissolved into depression. After she had been institutionalized, throughout her life she would ask where and with whom her Samuel had been seen.

Another of his smitten suitors had been art-collector Peggy Guggenheim who received an education in modernism when she spent a night and day in bed with Beckett, interrupted only by her demand he depart for champagne. The American heiress was in turn dropped for Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil whom he had met in an unforgettable fashion. In 1938 a crazed panhandler randomly stabbed Beckett in the chest, narrowly missing his heart. Suzanne, a bystander, had jumped off her bicycle and accompanied the stranger to the hospital where she remained at his side. After he had recovered, he visited his assailant in prison and asked him the reason for the assault. The answer, “Je ne sais pas, Monsieur.” (“I do not know, sir.”) This episode reinforced Samuel’s view of the senselessness of existence. It had another effect: he began a relationship with Suzanne. She also stayed by his side when he joined the French Resistance, and slept with him in various haystacks as they fled from the Nazis.

              When Barbara and her daughters arrived in Paris, she informed Beckett, (unaware of his relationship with Miss Dumesnil,) she had moved because she could not bear the separation of the Channel and indicated she would like to make their union official. His response came a few months later, on March 23rd, at which time she received a black and white picture postcard of Shakespeare Cliff, Dover. It was devoid of text; it contained just the closing words Pensees affectueses-affectionate thoughts. . The missive and the endearment may have given Barbara hope; however, it just turned out to be fool’s hope, the type experienced by Becket’s two tramps. On March 24th, in a civil ceremony, he ended up marrying Suzanne in Folkestone, England. Although Barbara was his spiritual and sexual soulmate, something his wife was not, he did not feel justified in abandoning his twenty year relationship with Suzanne, especially after all they had been through.      For most women the situation would have proved the Beckett title-Endgame. Indeed, having uprooted her life only to have her lover marry another might have led to a déjà vu of yet another knife attack. Afterwards, rather than provide the explanation “Je ne sais pas,” she could have replied, “Let me the count the ways…”  Instead, Barbara’s response was akin to Samuel’s philosophy of why he was an Irish expatriate: Beckett married to life alone.

        Juggling a full-time wife and mistress was not any easier for the great man than for it would be for lesser ones. This became apparent in Play, (1963,) featuring a man, his wife and his mistress trapped together for eternity in funeral urns, as they vindictively obsess about the other members of the ménage a trios. The situation was also not without consequences for Julia and Francesca who had to grow up in the emotionally laden minefield of a mother in love with another woman’s husband. Back in England, twin sister Olive, who had become, along with husband Andre Classe, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, must have read symbolism in the title of Becket’s short story, More Pricks than Kicks.

        Barbara settled into a historic home, (near her lover’s,) on the Rue Seguier, situated near the back wall of Picasso’s atelier; the flight of stairs which led to her door dated from the time of Napoleon. It was here Samuel would drop in at unusual hours, to talk or play the piano. As with his letters, she kept all the music he used, largely classical pieces. However, her-in the words of another Beckett play, “Happy Days-” and nights, were in Beckett’s country retreat in Ussy-sur-Marne where he escaped the unwelcome spotlight of fame.

He had purchased his house pre-Godot wealth, with money from his mother’s will. Perhaps his rocky relationships with women can be traced to mother issues. Of his own he stated, “I am what her savage loving has made me.” Samuel had been his mother’s favorite child and he had remained as emotionally tethered to her as Lucky was to Pozzo in Godot. Suzanne had become bored with country life, which left Barbara free, for a time, to share in the overnight intimacies of a wife. In a series of poignant photographs, she captured Beckett in his garden, mowing the lawn, lighting bonfires.

She also had the privilege of sharing another type of intimacy, as eyewitness to the great man writing, pages that would become masterpieces. However, as Beckett biographers concur, Bray did not merely observe. This came to light in 1997 when Trinity College, Dublin, paid her 250,000 pounds for 713 letters, together with manuscripts sent to her over the course of their thirty-year relationship. These show Barbara was his sounding-board and literary adviser and reveal his difficulties and thoughts while working. He wrote sometimes twice a day, even if they were planning to meet, welcoming suggestions, seeking help with translations, asking for encouragement. She was the only person with whom he regularly shared his work in progress and one of the very few with whom he discussed his writing. Barbara was also the one who could make the somber man less serious; she recounted how the two shared laughter. In gratitude he assisted her financially, helping particularly with the education of her daughters.

         Suzanne’s loyalty and Barbara’s devotion did not preclude other romantic extracurricular activities, ones which sometimes came with emotional strings. In the late 1960s, when Beckett went to Germany to direct Endgame, he embarked on an affair with a young Israeli, Mira Averech. Meanwhile, Suzanne flew in to watch the rehearsals and Barbara arrived to see the play. Somehow Beckett managed to avoid Caesar’s fate as he climbed the steps of the Forum.

          While Barbara’s happiest days were spent in Samuel’s country home her saddest were when he travelled and all she had were letters-which contained the name of his travel companion, his wife. On one of these trips, the Becketts were in their Tunisian hotel room, where Suzanne, after hanging up the phone, turned to her husband with the words, “Quelle catastrophe!” The call from Sweden had informed her that Beckett had won the Nobel Prize. Rather than celebrate, they merely worried about the intensified spotlight of fame. Beckett’s fear of the resultant media scrutiny was his clandestine relationship with Bray would be exposed. He remained fiercely loyal to his wife to whom he attributed finding an initial publisher, “I owe everything to Suzanne. She was the one who went to see the publishers while I used to sit in a café ‘twiddling my fingers’ or whatever it is one twiddles.” Who he ‘twiddled’ and shared his parallel life was Barbara, who remained steadfast until Beckett passed away in 1983, interred in Montparnasse Cemetery. She was devastated at the loss of the man who had been her life’s North Star and felt the same sentiment as the last line in Beckett’s novel The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”. Although Barbara paid a steep price for loving a man she could never have, at least she had meaning in that landscape of existential emptiness, one kept at bay by the stolen hours.