Six Notebooks in Search of an Editor: Samuel Beckett’s Murphy

Amber Jenkins summarises a recent paper by Andrew Nash, given at Cardiff University’s Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research (CEIR)
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Samuel Beckett in the 1920s

Claiming that he has no critical authority in the field of Samuel Beckett, Dr Andrew Nash (University of Reading) confessed that his paper would shed no new light on Beckett’s writings. The paper was, instead, a thought-provoking account of the changes taking place in manuscript research, the increasing emphasis on the materiality of the manuscript, and the technological conditions (writing instruments and papers) that influence literary production. Nash’s research also provided the centre with an invaluable insight into the status of the modern literary manuscript as an artefact of considerable commercial value, and, in the case of Beckett’s Murphy notebooks, the ways in which the commercial and the scholarly are indelibly intertwined.

In July 2013, the University of Reading successfully purchased at auction six manuscript notebooks, detailing the composition of Beckett’s first novel Murphy (1938). Justifying their bid of £950,000, the University maintained that the acquisition of the manuscript would solidify its reputation as a central archival resource for Beckett’s work, and attract more scholars and researchers to Reading.

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Doodles on the manuscript pages of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy

One of the most striking aspects of Nash’s paper, was the history he provided of the manuscript itself, from Beckett’s initial processes of composition to the arrival of the notebooks at the Reading archive in July 2013. The six notebooks were drafted by Beckett between August 1935 and June 1936. At various stages of his writing process, however, Beckett expressed a sense of dissatisfaction with his work, calling it ‘poor stuff’ that ‘reads something horrid.’ Despite this, he persisted in writing, and although the novel was rejected by several publishers, it was accepted for publication by Routledge and appeared on the literary market in 1938.Beckett later gifted the six notebooks to Brian Coffey (1905–1995), a poet and classicist who was originally from Dublin, as thanks for supporting Beckett after he was stabbed in Paris. Although he accepted Beckett’s gift, Coffey soon became aware of the commercial value of the manuscript, and sold it to one Dr Notman, a book-dealer and owner of the Long Acre Bookshop. Notman soon also hoped to make a profit from the manuscript, and sold it in the 1950s to Stanley Ecker, a lawyer and book collector. After Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, the monetary value of the notebooks increased, and in the early 1970s Ecker contacted various book-dealers in order to obtain a valuation. It was questionable whether Ecker had any intention of selling the notebooks at this point; instead, he planned to dismantle the manuscript into single pages for sale individually. An advertisement appeared on 11 June 1976 in the TLS, pricing individual sheets of Beckett’s manuscript at £350 (for a page with writing on one side), or £475 (for a page with writing on both). While Ecker’s decision to sell the notebooks in this way seems puzzling at first, Nash suggests that his marketing plot generated wide publicity, and cloaked the notebooks with the threat of destruction and an ‘aura of inaccessibility’ because of the high price for a single leaf of paper.   

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Samuel Beckett reading

The notebooks, thankfully, were salvaged from such damage. James Knowlson and John Pilling, both of the University of Reading, wrote a letter to the TLS  questioning the sale of individual pages of manuscript. While, Nash proposes, it is difficult to discern whether this letter had any real effect, it certainly drew Ecker’s attention to the scholarly activity surrounding the work of Beckett in the 1970s, particularly that taking place at the University of Reading. The department had already acquired a vast amount of Beckett’s archival material, and James Knowlson, who was a friend of Beckett’s, received a donation of several manuscript notebooks from the writer himself. Nash argues that Beckett’s willingness to donate his manuscripts exposes a vast distinction between the writer, who hoped to preserve his manuscript as a cultural artefact, and the book-dealer, who aimed to profit from its commercial value.

Ecker continued to put out feelers hoping to sell the notebooks at highly optimistic prices, none successful, and they remained in his hands at his death. They were sold at auction to the University of Reading in July 2013. [Read the Full Summary]

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