Magic, Meaning and Manuscripts

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

Andrew Nash, 26 Apr 2016, CEIR Seminar Series

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.


Professor Carl Phelpstead introduces Dr Andrew Nash

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.

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.   

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.


The Beckett Scholar: a portrait of Professor John Pilling by Martin Andrews

The rare and unique provenance history of the Beckett manuscript, Nash suggests, raises various questions about the different kinds of value associated with literary manuscripts. Using Philip Larkin’s essay ‘A Neglected Responsibility: Contemporary Literary MSS’, Nash draws attention to the two kinds of value manuscripts seemingly generate; these are, according to Larkin, ‘the magical value’ (the paper used by the writer and the words ‘emerging for the first time in [a] particular miraculous combination’), and the ‘meaningful value’ (the degree to which the manuscript ‘can enlarge our knowledge and understanding of a writer’s life and work’). [1] However, Larkin’s account, Nash suggests, overlooks the commercial value and the heritage value of a manuscript, and, as we have seen, both Beckett and Ecker associate very different kinds of values with the modern literary manuscript.

Focusing on the ‘magical value’ of the manuscript, Nash turns his attention to the materiality of Beckett’s notebooks, the archaeology of the pages and the meaning that can be deciphered from this. Nash is not solely interested in the text’s linguistic signs; he focuses on the physical characteristics of the notebooks and the way this shapes and conditions Beckett’s writing. While traditional manuscript research has tended to concentrate upon the drafting and revisionary processes of a writer’s work, more recently, scholars have shifted their attention to the technological features of the manuscript in order to further understand the history of a literary text. [2]

Asking what kind of manuscript Beckett’s notebooks are, Nash argues that the manuscript offers researchers an ‘completed moment in the still incomplete composition process’ – ‘an intermediary stage;’ they do not act, he reveals, as a fair copy of the published novel, and although the notebooks have a beginning, a middle and an end, Beckett revised the manuscript significantly when he produced the typescript. The notebooks, then, are manuscripts, in that they were written in Beckett’s own hand, but they do not give a fully comprehensive history of the writing of Murphy.

The most striking aspects of the notebooks are their spatial dimensions; they are a codex, and Beckett’s text is shaped and conditioned by this format. Nash argues that the author had used the codex design to produce a linear narrative, and Beckett dates the pages meticulously in order to chart the history of composition. Writing continuously on the recto pages of the notebooks, Beckett would later return to the work and draft corrections on the verso of each page. The two facing pages, therefore, depict a sense of artistic and mental duality; the one side contains material relating to emendations and revisions, the other details the creative process. Ultimately, Nash suggests, the format of the codex influenced the narrative to such an extent that if it were produced on a ream of paper, for example, the novel would have been remarkably different. Ruptures or pauses in the writing process were influenced by a lack of paper, as in the case of the completion of notebook three and the opening of notebook four. Book five is markedly different in appearance; this notebook appears in the format of a school exercise book, and Beckett writes the name of his protagonist, Murphy, on the cover of the notebook. Very rarely, Nash reveals, does Beckett plan and plot ahead; although, it is difficult to determine whether or not he drafted a plan for his work elsewhere. It soon becomes clear, however, that Beckett was using his manuscript to produce a linear narrative, which could be easily understood when he came to produce his typescript; Nash argues that Beckett always had the image of the published text in mind, even while he was writing.

The paper concluded with an insight into the process of compiling a transcription of Beckett’s six notebooks. Nash’s involvement in the project, he reveals, brought to his attention the fundamental role the material aspects of the manuscript had on Beckett’s writing process, and he emphasises the way this, in turn, shapes the reader’s engagement with the work. While the process of transcription takes the manuscript out of its original codex form, it does retain Murphy’s ‘temporal dimension’, the linear progression of the novel from beginning to end. The edition also provides details of Beckett’s manuscript that are often lost in transcription, from the colour of the inks Beckett used, the blue crayon deployed to cancel material, and the doodles and other non-linguistic signs that litter the writing notebooks. Ultimately, Nash suggests, researchers cannot truly engage with the manuscript without experiencing its material aspects, and while the transcription is a valuable resource for researchers, questions still remain as to how this cultural artefact may be exhibited in a way that conveys its tangible and auratic value.


[1] Philip Larkin, ‘A Neglected Responsibility: Contemporary Literary MSS’, Encounter, July 1979, 33-40 (34).

[2] This approach forms the basis of my engagement with the work of Virginia Woolf in my doctoral thesis.

— Amber Jenkins


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