This week at Sotheby’s London, one of the most important 20th century working manuscripts remaining in private hands – Samuel Beckett’s first novel, “Murphy” was sold for £962,500 to the University of Reading.
Handwritten in six exercise books between August 1935 and June 1936, whilst Beckett was undergoing psychoanalysis, the manuscript, initially entitled “Sasha Murphy” is heavily revised throughout – the hundreds of cancellations and revisions providing an eloquent witness to Beckett’s struggle to give form to his artistic vision. The notebooks are also full of lively doodles hinting at the author’s preoccupations during this period, including recognisable portraits of James Joyce, Beckett himself, and Charlie Chaplin (later an influence on the tramps in Waiting for Godot), as well as astrological symbols and musical notations. Irish-born Beckett, “the last modernist”, was the author of a body of work steeped in the western literary tradition but with its own highly distinctive voice. The centrepiece of Sotheby’s sale of English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations, the manuscript was estimated to realise £800,000 – £1.2 million.
Peter Selley, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Books and Manuscripts commented: “Interest in this remarkable piece of literary history has been truly global. It 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 for all those – whether scholars or collectors – interested in this most profound of modern writers, who more than anyone else, perhaps, captures the essence of modern man. The manuscript is capable of redefining Beckett studies for many years to come.”
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.”