Auctions | June 3, 2013

Sotheby’s London to Offer Manuscript of Samuel Beckett’s First Novel

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On 10 July 2013, Sotheby's London will write a new chapter in literary history, when it offers one of the most important 20th century working manuscripts remaining in private hands—Samuel Beckett's first novel, "Murphy".

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. Handwritten in six exercise books between August 1935 and June 1936, in Dublin and London 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. The centrepiece in Sotheby’s sale of English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations, the manuscript is estimated to realise £800,000-£1.2 million.

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. I have known about the existence of this remarkable manuscript for a long time—as have a number of others in the rare book business, and some Beckett scholars—but it has only been glimpsed, tantalizingly, by a few chosen individuals during that time. 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.”


The novel is characterised 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 tranquillity 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.”) Beckett dated each entry in the exercise books, giving a fascinating glimpse of his working processes and the flows-and droughts-of his inspiration. When Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 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." He produced a body of work of extraordinary strangeness, which presents a world view of deep pessimism, but blessed with a wonderful mordant humour. Although dense and demanding, his works speak powerfully to a remarkably wide audience of their common human experience. Best known for "Waiting For Godot", his stage play of 1953.


Beckett’s writing emerged from the intellectual ferment that gave rise to existentialism and absurdism. His deep connections with the inter-war avant-garde have led him to be characterised as “the last modernist”. His greatest early influence was Joyce, with whom he became 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 many admirers have always struggled to explain the power of his work, contrasting the austere beauty of his language 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. 

"I'll buy his goods, hook, line, and sinker,” declared Harold Pinter, “because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful.”

All images courtesy of Sotheby's.