The University has acquired the working manuscript of Samuel Beckett’s first major work, Murphy, at the cost of £962,500, at an auction at Sotheby’s in London today.
The hand-written manuscript, which has been in private hands for the last half century, will now become accessible to Beckett scholars around the world as part of our Beckett Collection.
At nearly 800 pages long, Murphy is among the greatest literary manuscripts of the 20th century and, according to Sotheby’s, is the “most important manuscript of a complete novel by a modern British or Irish writer to appear at auction for many decades”. Murphy was Beckett’s first published novel and the first major expression of the central themes that would occupy Beckett for the next half century.
Professor James Knowlson, University of Reading Emeritus Professor, friend of Beckett and his sole authorised biographer, said: “This manuscript is a treasure trove of insight into the mind of one of the greatest literary figures of the past 100 years.
“Murphy was Beckett’s first published novel. To see the novelist’s development of some of the most famous passages in modern literature gives a unique insight into how he worked at an early stage in his career.”
The manuscript, which fills six notebooks, provides a text that is substantially different from the final printed edition in 1938. With its revisions, different colour inks, dated pages and doodles, it is an extraordinarily rich manifestation of Beckett’s writing practices and provides a unique and deep insight into the mind and working practices of one of the greatest writers of the last hundred years.
Murphy concerns the main character’s attempts to find peace in the nothingness of the ‘little world’ of the mind without intrusion from the outside world. It is Beckett’s London novel, which he began writing in August 1935 while undergoing intensive psychoanalysis there. It was completed in Dublin in 1936 and unlike many of his other works, which were written in French, was written in English.
There are significant textual differences from the published novel throughout the manuscript. The most heavily revised passages provide fascinating evidence about the portions of the text that gave Beckett most trouble. Eight versions of the opening are crossed out until the Nobel prize-winning author eventually settled on “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”
Peter Selley, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Books and Manuscripts, commented: “This is unquestionably the most important manuscript of a complete novel by a modern British or Irish writer to appear at auction for many decades. The notebooks contain almost infinite riches. The manuscript is capable of redefining Beckett studies for many years to come.”
Completion of Beckett’s novel was followed by 40 rejections from publishers before Routledge eventually published the book in 1938. Although it received sympathetic reviews, it was not a success at the time of publication.
The University of Reading is an acknowledged world centre for Beckett studies. A new project led by Special Collections, Staging Beckett, will put Beckett’s impact on modern theatre practice in the UK and Ireland under the spotlight for the very first time.