SOLD BY ORDER OF THE EXECUTORS OF THE LATE STANLEY EKER
Notebook I, blue wrappers, “Sasha Murphy” inscribed on upper cover, the first eleven pages of text entirely crossed through and comprising several false starts and abandoned openings for the novel, including at least 8 cancelled versions of the opening sentence (“The sun shone, as only the sun can, on nothing new.”, etc.), containing Chapters 1, 2, and part of Chapter 3, 91 pages, plus blanks, mostly in blue ink, some passages and some corrections in black ink and red ink, 4to (200 x 165mm), dated 20 August to 23 September 1935, covers creased with nicks and nearly detached, minor spotting to first few leaves
Notebook II, maroon wrappers, “MURPHY” and four astrological symbols inscribed on upper cover in black ink, also with “II” in large characters in blue crayon, mostly in blue ink, one passage in pencil (entirely cancelled), containing part of Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and part of Chapter 5, 106 pages, plus blanks, 4to (204 x 164mm), 23 September to 8 October 1935, slight creasing to covers, some discolouration to first and last page
Notebook III, maroon wrappers with frame and lettering (“Manuscript”) blocked in black, “III” in large characters in blue on upper cover, blue ink, containing part of Chapter 5, Chapter 6 (incorrectly numbered "VII"), and part of Chapter 7 (incorrectly numbered "VIII"), the last two pages with notes relating to the novel including philosophical terms, 174 pages, 4to (203 x 168mm), 8 October to 1 November 1935, covers creased and nearly detached
Notebook IV, red wrappers, “Murphy” inscribed on upper cover, “IV” in large characters in blue on upper cover, blue ink, containing part of Chapter 7, Chapter 8 (incorrectly numbered "Nine"), and part of Chapter 9 (incorrectly numbered "Ten"), 127 pages, 4to (205 x 165mm), 3 to 24 November (mostly incorrectly dated to October) 1935, first and last pages slightly discoloured, covers slightly creased
Notebook V, red wrappers, school exercise book lettered in black (“EXERCISE BOOK” on upper cover, road safety advice for children on lower cover) with printed map of the British Isles on inside upper cover and arithmetic tables on inside lower cover, “Murphy” inscribed on upper cover also with “V” in large characters in blue, containing part of Chapter 9 and part of Chapter 10 (incorrectly numbered "Eleven"), including one page outlining the remaining plot structure midway through, and one page of notes on Ethics in Latin at the rear, blue ink, black ink, and pencil, with corrections in ink, green crayon, blue crayon, and pencil, 146 pages, 4to (200 x 165mm), 25 November 1935 to 28 April 1936, central bifolium loose, minor stain to first three leaves, covers detached, worn and creased
Notebook VI, stiff maroon wrappers, “Murphy” inscribed on upper cover also with “VI” in large characters, blue, black and violet ink, corrections in ink and blue crayon, containing part of Chapter 10, Chapter 11 (incorrectly numbered "14"), Chapter 12 (incorrectly numbered "15") and Chapter 13 (incorrectly numbered "16"), and with six pages of additional passages for insertion into Chapter 1 at the end, 132 pages, 4to (203 x 167mm), 30 April to 9 June 1936, central bifolium loose, covers slightly creased
"I'll buy his goods, hook, line, and sinker,” commented Harold Pinter, “because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful." Beckett’s many admirers have always struggled to explain the power of his work, in which the austere beauty of his language contrasts with the base ugliness of his subject-matter – cheap boarding rooms and mental asylums, tramps, dust-bins, the decayed and the dying – and his pessimistic vision of destitution and isolation. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969 it was, according to the citation, “for his writing, which - in new forms for the novel and drama - in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation."
Beckett produced a body of work of extraordinary strangeness, which presents a world view of deep pessimism but blessed with a wonderful mordant humour, works that are dense and demanding but that speak powerfully to a remarkably wide audience of their common human experience. His deep connections with the inter-war avant-garde have led Beckett to be characterised as “the last modernist” and above all his greatest early influence was Joyce, with whom he had become friendly in Paris in the late 1920s. He helped Joyce with research, took dictation for him, contributed an essay to the 1929 collection of essays on Work in Progress, and even became romantically entangled with Joyce’s daughter Lucia. In the early 30s Beckett struggled to overcome Joyce’s influence and find his own voice; or, as Beckett himself put it in a 1931 letter, “I vow I will get over J.J. ere I die. Yessir”. Beckett’s writing also drew on his deep and wide reading in the western literary and philosophical traditions, whilst his work emerged from the intellectual ferment that also gave rise to existentialism and absurdism. His reputation for relentless nihilism is, in particular, misplaced. The philosopher Alain Badiou has written tellingly on how he slowly came to an understanding of Samuel Beckett’s work:
“Basically, my stupidity lay in unquestioningly upholding the caricature which was then - and still is - widespread: a pitiless awareness of the nothingness of sense, extended by the resources of art to cover the nothingness of writing, a nothingness that would be materialised, as it were, by means of increasingly tight and increasingly dense prose pieces that abandoned all narrative principle. The caricature of Beckett meditating upon death and finitude, the dereliction of sick bodies, the waiting in vain for the divine and the derision of any enterprise directed towards others. A Beckett convinced that beyond the obstinacy of words there is nothing but darkness and void.
“It took me many years to rid myself of this stereotype and at last to take Beckett at his word. No, what Beckett offers … is not this gloomy corporeal immersion into an abandoned existence, into hopeless relinquishment. Neither is it the contrary, as some have tried to argue: farce, derision, a concrete flavour, a ‘thin Rabelais’. Neither existentialism nor a modern baroque. The lesson of Beckett is a lesson in measure, exactitude and courage.”
Written in 1935-36, this was not Beckett’s first book – he had published his critical study, Proust, the stories More Pricks Than Kicks, and two short books of poems, and had written, but left unpublished, the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women – but it was the first major expression of those central themes that would occupy Beckett for the next half-century. He wrote at the time, in a rare justification of his work, that "if the book is slightly obscure, it is so because it is a compression ... The wild & unreal dialogues ... are the comic expression of what elsewhere is expressed in elegy, namely if you like the hermeticism of the spirit” (Beckett to George Reavey, 13 November 1936). Murphy is more directly indebted to Joyce in its style than are Beckett’s later works and is his work that is closest to a realist novel, his most accessible work in prose. In the words of Harold Bloom, “Murphy, deliciously unbelieving, is the purest comedy that Beckett ever wrote.” (The Western Canon, p.496) The importance of the novel to his development is something the author himself later acknowledged in a letter to a young critic:
"… If I were in the unenviable position of having to study my work my point of departure would be the ‘Naught is more real …’ and the ‘Ubi nihil vales…’ both already in Murphy and neither very rational.” (Beckett to Sigle Kennedy, 14 June 1967)
These quotations from Democritus (Naught is more real than nothing) and Arnold Geulincx (Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis, where you are worth nothing, there should you want nothing) are both quoted by the narrator in Murphy, and at the heart of the novel is Murphy’s search for peace in the nothingness of the “little world” of the mind, and his escape from the external world in which he sees no possibility of happiness. The novel has profound philosophical underpinnings but this does not mean the reader needs extensive knowledge of the pre-Socratics or later Cartesians to understand or enjoy the novel, nor – despite its subject-matter - is it a gloomy read; to quote again from Harold Bloom, “What might be called the negative high spirits of Murphy are, happily, incessant. The beauty of the book is its exuberance of language” (ibid., p.495). Like any great work of art Murphy defies summary, but it is worth quoting the original blurb for the novel, which was probably written by Beckett’s friend and literary agent George Reavey (whilst also acknowledging that Beckett, perhaps inevitably, hated this blurb and said as much in a letter to Reavey before realising that he was almost certainly its author):
“A definition has been ‘defined’ as the ‘enclosing of the wilderness of an idea within the wall of words’. To define some things is to kill them; no less this novel. If it has a meaning, it is implicit and symbolic, never concrete. Murphy is a character for whom the unseen is the real and the seen a necessary obstacle to reality. To get beyond that obstacle is his aim in life, and he neglects or despises the criteria of the substantial world. Hence he lives in the lowest strata of society; he lives intermittently with a prostitute and her persuasions cannot move him to better his material prospects. He pretends to look for a job, but so long as he can devote some time each day to exploring the inner life of the mind, that is all he worries about. Ultimately he gets a job in an asylum, where he feels a certain kinship with the inmates.
“But it the theme of the book defies description, not so the writing. The portrayal of the scenes is masterly. There is a diversity of simile which could only proceed from a mind well stocked with many seemingly antagonistic branches of knowledge, and words and phrases reveal an acquaintance with our language and a natural distinction in their use which a Johnson might admire. The style is leavened with a Celtic waywardness which is as attractive as it is elusive and leaves the reader uncertain of the source of his enjoyment.”
Murphy is Beckett’s London novel. He began writing it in August 1935 whilst living, unhappily, in London, and much of the novel’s action takes place in the city. He had moved to London at the end of 1933 to undergo intensive psychoanalysis at the Tavistock Clinic in Bloomsbury, where his analyst was Dr Wilfred Ruprecht Bion, and he remained in the city until Christmas 1935. Unlike Beckett’s later works, Murphy is set in carefully identified and specific locations, and draws more obviously and directly on biographical experience.
The condemned mews in which Murphy is staying in the novel’s opening chapter, and the neighbouring streets where his lover the prostitute Celia plied her trade, were in the area around Chelsea where Beckett was living whilst writing these pages. When Murphy and Celia relocate Beckett undoubtedly chose the location of their new boarding house – between the Metropolitan Cattle Market with its enormous slaughter-house and Pentonville Prison, a place of execution – as it fitted with his abiding themes of imprisonment, isolation, and mortality, but it was also an area that he knew fairly well from earlier visits to London. Beckett drew on the hundreds of hours he had spent walking London’s streets when writing the novel, and passages in the novel drew on his experiences, a notable example being the novel’s lyrical conclusion describing kite-flying near the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, which Beckett described with vivid beauty in a letter to Thomas MacGreevy (8 September 1935). Beckett even undertook some more or less conventional research for the passages set in the “Magdalen Mental Mercyseat” hospital. His friend, Geoffrey Thompson, was a Senior House Physician at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham and Beckett visited him on a number of occasions during 1935 to glean material for his novel. James Knowlson (Damned to Fame, pp.209-10) notes that the physical description of the Mercyseat hospital is based on Bethlem and this is confirmed by the manuscript, where there is an ellipsis at the point where the final text has two paragraphs providing a detailed description of the wards, no doubt because Beckett wanted more information on the layout of Bethlem before putting these paragraphs down.
Beckett’s careful habit of dating his work on the manuscript allows the process of composition to be traced in precise detail. During the first two weeks of writing Beckett struggled to begin. On 20 August he wrote one paragraph, deleted it, then another two and a half pages, crossed them through, and began for a third time. He wrote another six pages during that week – including two versions of the opening paragraph – before cancelling them and starting once again. The next few pages have four versions of the opening sentence, all cancelled, and are mostly taken up with doodles. Perhaps wisely, Beckett then took a break from writing and when he returned to the manuscript on 5 September the words flowed much more freely. It took him less than a week to complete the novel’s first chapter and within three weeks he had filled the first notebook (which ends with Pandit Suk’s horoscope of Murphy near the end of Chapter 3).
Beckett complained bitterly to his friend Tom MacGreevy about the difficulty of writing and his unhappiness with his work; for example on 22 September, having written nearly three chapters in as many weeks, he complained that “I have been forcing myself to keep at the book, & it crawls forward. I have done about 9000 words. It is poor stuff & I have no interest in it.” In fact, the speed and ease with which the novel’s extraordinary prose flowed from Beckett’s pen is striking. By the time he left London he had filled four notebooks and had written some 18 pages of the fifth, taking him to near the end of the novel’s long ninth chapter. His final entry before his return to Dublin is dated 15 December, and he did not return to the manuscript until 17 January. It was during the early months of 1936 that Beckett really struggled to continue his work on Murphy. In part this may be explained by the fact that he had lived in near-total isolation in London but had many more distractions among friends and family in Dublin. However, the difficulty Beckett found in living with his mother, and his discomfort with Dublin and Irish life (his relationship with Dublin was much more complex than that with London, which he simply disliked), are much more likely to have been at the root of his writers block – just as they undoubtedly were at the root of the nocturnal panic attacks that he had gone to London to cure, but which recurred soon after his return to his mother’s home. On 29 January Beckett wrote to McGreevy with foreboding that “There are three, four chapters to write, only about 12000, but I don't think they will be.” By 5 March he had only written another 35 pages and he did not complete the fifth notebook until the end of April. He mentions his frustration in several letters during this period, complaining that the novel “will not budge”, and the manuscript reveals that the novel’s tenth chapter, in which Wylie, Neary, and Miss Coulihan search London for Murphy and eventually find and confront Celia, took as long to write as the nine preceding chapters put together. Beckett evidently found his work easier as the novel neared its conclusion, and on 23 May (by which time he was writing about the visit to Murphy’s body at the asylum’s mortuary), he even allowed a glimmer of optimism about his work to enter a letter of McGreevy when he admitted that “I have set Murphy on fire at last & 2000 words should polish it off”, although, typically, he continued: “It is really a most unsavoury & not very honest work.” The novel’s wonderful final chapter appears to have been written at a single sitting on 4 June, and Beckett returned to the manuscript one final time five days later to write three passages revising the novel’s opening chapter.
The manuscript, with its cancellations and revisions, its different coloured inks, dates, and doodles, is an extraordinarily rich manifestation of Beckett’s writing practices. The most heavily revised passages provide fascinating evidence about the portions of the text that gave Beckett most trouble, such as the opening, Murphy’s horoscope, and several of the passages at the boarding house on Brewery Road (the opening pages of Chapter 5, in which Celia waits whilst Murphy engages in his desultory search for employment, Murphy’s return to the boarding house to retrieve his rocking chair in Chapter 9, and Celia’s confrontation with Neary, Wylie and Miss Coulihan there in Chapter 10, are all very heavily revised).
Overall the manuscript constitutes a distinctive text of the novel, with significant textual differences from the published novel throughout. Although the overall structure of the novel did not change between its first draft and final publication, Beckett substantially rewrote the work when he typed up the manuscript over the course of June 1936 and made further revisions at proof stage. The full extent of this rewriting would be revealed by extended, detailed collation of the texts, but it is clear that most paragraphs have, at least, some differences in wording between manuscript and printed text. Beckett made frequents cuts so the manuscript is overall significantly longer than the final printed version of the text. He restructured sentences, rephrased clauses, changed words, rewrote paragraphs, and in some cases restructured chapters (a significant portion of Chapter 9 is moved within the chapter, for example). A typical example of this process, from the brief but crucial sixth chapter on “Murphy’s mind’s image of itself”, is where the narrator explains Murphy’s extreme Cartesian dualism. His belief in the utter distinction between mind and body is described in the manuscript as follows: “…Feeling his mind to be impenetrable he did not understand through what channel this intercourse took place, or how the two experiences came to overlap. There was no ergo between them…”. In the printed text this becomes: “…But he felt his mind to be bodytight and did not understand through what channel the intercourse was effected nor how the two experiences came to overlap…”
The opening chapter of the novel is about one third longer in its initial manuscript version than in the printed text, and the very substantial differences provide a particularly rich example of the process of revision. Some of these changes are small but significant, for example the seven scarves with which Murphy has bound himself naked into his rocking chair at the novel’s opening were originally “Seven immense handkerchiefs, all the colours of the rainbow”, and Neary’s dislikes that lead him to stop his own heart include not “Gaels” but “persons discussing the Celtic twilight”. Other changes are more substantial: the third paragraph of the novel, which first introduces Murphy’s desire to exclude the external world, is almost entirely different, and describes him overcoming a desire to engage with that world (“…He closed his mind to the phenomena, when he opened it again they were gone…”). When Murphy, rocking in his chair, retreats into the “little world” of his mind, the printed text simply informs the reader that this world is “described in section six”, whereas the manuscript describes his sensations in some detail – including Murphy’s extraordinary vision of himself floating down a “black, warm” subterranean river. The manuscript includes a passage (some four pages of heavily corrected manuscript) describing Murphy’s behaviour – including singing at the top of his voice – when the telephone begins to ring, which is entirely cut from the printed work. Murphy picks up the phone with a “Darling Celia … is it you?”, rather than “God blast you”, and the dialogue between Murphy and Celia that follows is significantly longer than in the published version. Beckett engaged in an additional stage of revision of this first chapter. After completing the manuscript he wrote substantially revised versions of parts of the first chapter, which are much closer to the published version, at the end of his final notebook, and it is this revised text that formed the basis of the typescript.
Beckett began work producing his typescript of the novel immediately after completing the manuscript. Given the substantial differences between manuscript and typescript this was evidently a period of intense concentration since the typescript (a copy of which survives at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas) was completed in two and a half weeks. On 26 June Beckett sent a copy of the typescript to Chatto and Windus (who had published Proust and More Pricks Than Kicks) and the next day he was able to report to McGreevy:
“Murphy is finished & I shall send off three copies on Monday. One to you, one to Parsons & one to Charles. I could do more work on it but do not intend to. All the more grievous losses have been cut. It has been hard work the past month & I am very tired, of it & words generally. I don't want you to bother with it. Just throw your eye over & let me have it back.”
Chatto’s rejection of the novel (“…the novel racket has reached such a pass today that a book, such as yours, which makes real demands on the reader's intelligence and general knowledge has less chance than ever of gaining a hearing…”, Ian Parsons to Beckett, 15 July 1936) was the first of a long series of more than forty rejections that followed over the next eighteen months. Most of the negotiations with publishers were handled by Beckett’s agent George Reavey, but Beckett was desperate to see the book in print so found the difficulty in finding a publisher extremely frustrating: when Ferris Greenslet of Houghton Mifflin showed interest in the book but demanded substantial cuts Beckett was sufficiently keen for publication to resist refusing outright, despite his strong reservations (“…I have thought of a better plan. Take every 500th word, punctuate carefully and publish a poem in prose in the Paris Daily Mail. Then the rest separately and privately … as the ravings of a schizoid…”, Beckett to Mary Manning Howe, 14 November 1936). In the end the proposal from Houghton Mifflin came to nothing, and publisher after publisher showed a lack of appetite for this difficult work by an obscure writer. It was not until December 1937 that Routledge agreed to take the book. The painter Jack Yeats, who was on Routledge’s books, had written to his editor Thomas Ragg recommending Beckett, and Ragg responded to Murphy with enthusiasm, writing back to Yeats that “I enjoyed it immensely. I want to publish it … it is far too good to be a big popular or commercial success … it, like your own book, will bring great joy to the few.” (8 December 1937)
Beckett received his proofs in January 1938 and took the opportunity to make further substantial changes, admitting to McGreevy that “I changed more than I intended, chiefly for want of something to do” (21 January 1938). Some of the changes evidently made in the (lost) proofs constituted significant adjustments to the text. The narrator originally concluded his description of Murphy’s reverie in the “third world” of darkness in Chapter 6 by undercutting it with bathos: “He considered this the cat’s pyjamas.” In the typescript this became “He called it his matrix of surds. He considered it the cat’s pyjamas.” Finally Beckett eliminated the feline nightwear altogether in favour of the sparse, poetic and obscure: “Matrix of surds.” Another well-known sentence from the novel, much beloved by critics (“All the puppets in this book whinge sooner or later, except Murphy, who is not a puppet”) reached its final form in the proofs, from an original manuscript reading of: “All the characters in this book weep sooner or later, except Murphy.”
Beckett received his advance copies on 8 March and was pleased with its appearance and typography, although he regretted that a photograph he had found of two chimpanzees playing chess was not used on the front cover. The novel was not a success at the time of publication. Reviews were mostly sympathetic (Dylan Thomas called it “wrong” but acknowledged its “energy, hilarity, irony, and comic invention” in the New English Weekly) but were few in number, and sales were poor. The novel’s most recent editor has commented that the most perceptive review was an unpublished typescript by Beckett’s friend Brian Coffey (now among Coffey’s papers at the University of Delaware) – Beckett’s own appreciation of Coffey’s response to his work can be guessed by his gift of the original manuscript to Coffey.
“The language and so on, the imagery and so forth, the relative ease in the balanced mind, such may be left safely to scholars. Read for yourself, careful reader. Learn how the heart finds the living heart behind grotesque features and salutes.” (Coffey on Murphy)
This is the most important Beckett manuscript ever to have been offered on the open market. Beckett's manuscripts were widely dispersed during the author's lifetime and almost all are now found in institutions. In the later 1950s Beckett sold many of his manuscripts to the British dealer Jake Schwartz - later dubbed by Beckett "the great extractor" - who sold them to the Pennsylvania collector T.E. Hanley, who in turn sold his collection en bloc to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at Austin, Texas, which as a result has what is probably the most important collection of Beckett manuscripts. During the 1960s Beckett ended his relationship with Schwartz (having discovered the extent to which the dealer was marking up his prices) and dealt instead with another dealer, Henry Wenning. The manuscripts sold through Wenning, which mostly comprise Beckett's works of the 1960s, are at Washington University, St. Louis, and Ohio State University, Columbus. Finally, from the early 1970s Beckett began to gift manuscripts to institutions with which he had particularly close connections, notably Reading University, but also Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and Trinity College, Dublin.
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