May 31, 2013 / 10:19 AM / 6 years ago

Peer into Samuel Beckett's mind for $2 million at Sotheby auction

LONDON (Reuters) - A rare glimpse into the mind of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers will go up for sale in July when a manuscript for Samuel Beckett’s first novel hits the auction block.

Six exercise books filled with the Irish-born Nobel laureate’s handwritten notes for “Murphy” alongside drawings and doodles will be the highlight of Sotheby’s English Literature and History Sale on July 10.

Written between August 1935 and June 1936, in Dublin and London while the playwright, novelist and poet was undergoing psychoanalysis, the manuscript is a heavily revised witness of Beckett’s struggle to give form to his artistic vision.

Sotheby’s Manuscript Specialist Gabriel Heaton told Reuters that the books have been in private hands until now and have never been widely available to scholars.

“Altogether it’s nearly 800 pages long and right the way through it’s changed as Beckett thinks about how he wants to express his ideas and clarifies his thoughts,” Heaton said.

Whoever buys the manuscript will gain new insight into the formulation of the central themes of Beckett’s often humorous but bleak canon. A private collector could share it with the academic community or keep to himself.

Heaton said the author of the tragicomic play “Waiting for Godot” and novels such as “Malone Dies”, “Molloy” and “The Unnamable” pointed back to “Murphy” late in life as a guide to understanding his work.

“There’s a famous letter from a scholar...asking him how to start working on Beckett. He said ‘go back to ‘Murphy’, the central themes are all there’,” Heaton said.

Born in Dublin in 1906, Beckett lived and worked for most of his life in Paris, wrote in French and English and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.


His first novel is characterized by exuberant language and is the most comic of all Beckett’s works, although it also has deep philosophical roots.

The plot concerns the eponymous Murphy’s attempts to find peace in the nothingness of the “little world” of the mind without intrusion from the outside world. Spurred on to find employment by his prostitute girlfriend, Murphy finds some tranquility working in an insane asylum before accidentally immolating himself in his garret.

Mostly set in shabby lodgings in London, with some chapters set in Dublin - where a strange trio of characters start a fruitless search for Murphy - this is the closest that Beckett ever came to a novel in the realist tradition.

The manuscript provides a text that is substantially different from the printed version of “Murphy” of 1938. It includes at least eight cancelled versions of its famous opening sentence before it reached its final form: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

The manuscript is also dotted with Beckett’s doodles and drawings of himself, of Joyce and actor Charlie Chaplin, whose tramp characters may have influenced the main characters in his best known work, the 1953 stage play “Waiting for Godot”.

Beckett’s writing emerged from the intellectual ferment that gave rise to existentialism and absurdism. His greatest early influence was Irish writer Joyce, with whom he became friendly in Paris in the late 1920s. He was even romantically entangled with Joyce’s daughter Lucia.

In the early 1930s Beckett struggled to overcome the influence of the “Ulysses” author 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”.

That struggle may at last come to an end nearly a quarter of a century after Beckett’s death, in the auction room at least.

Heaton said the $2.13 million top estimate for the “Murphy” manuscript outstrips the $1.4 million price made for a partial draft of “Ulysses” sold at the start of the 21st century.

“James Joyce has historically always achieved higher prices than has Samuel Beckett, although nothing of this importance has ever come on the market.”

($1 = 0.6572 British pounds)

Editing by Alistair Lyon

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