Sold: Samuel Beckett's Murphy Manuscripts

One of the greatest literary manuscripts of the 20th century acquired by the Beckett International Foundation
A page from Samuel Beckett's Murphy notebooks
From the University of Reading:
The University of Reading is delighted to announce that it 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 the Beckett Collection, the world's largest Beckett archive, based at the University of Reading.

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."

Dr Mark Nixon, Director of the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading, said: "The University of Reading is in many ways the centre of Beckett studies worldwide. Murphy has only been glimpsed briefly by a handful of scholars over the last half century. This major acquisition for the Beckett Collection at the University of Reading will open up access to this unique manuscript to Beckett scholars and the interested public the world over."

Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, said: "It is important that world-renowned institutions such as the University of Reading can continue to fund access to knowledge and the best resources for researchers and students. The acquisition of Murphy will provide unparalleled opportunities to learn more about one of the greatest writers in living memory, if not all time.

"In difficult economic circumstances, such purchases have to be considered very carefully. As the University of Reading's research on Beckett is one of our greatest strengths, we believed that it made eminent sense for us to pursue such a significant acquisition.

"We intend to fund the purchase of the Murphy manuscript by realising other less significant assets from the University's existing art and collections portfolio, currently valued at around £40 million. That way, we will ensure that those items we hold or purchase are consistent with the strengths and interests of the University."

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. [Read More]

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