Samuel Beckett manuscript and doodles go on display

By Tim Masters
Arts and entertainment correspondent, BBC News

image sourceBeckett Estate/Getty
image captionCharlie Chaplin appears among Samuel Beckett's first doodles in the manuscript

The original handwritten manuscript of Samuel Beckett's first published novel is about to go on public display for the first time. But why did the Irish writer draw so many doodles?

On a wet morning at the University of Reading, six old school exercise books are laid carefully out on a table. About 80 years old, they look remarkably well-preserved.

The pages are filled with hard-to-decipher handwriting, but what's striking to the casual observer is how much Beckett draws as well as writes.

There are famous faces, historical figures and musical notes. An unmistakable Charlie Chaplin appears on the same page as a self-portrait of Beckett.

The doodles appear to show that the author of Waiting for Godot also spent some of his time waiting for inspiration.

The notebooks contain the drafts of Beckett's first major work, Murphy, which he wrote in 1935-6. Published two years later, the novel was a significant failure in terms of sales, with only several hundred copies ever sold.

image sourceUniversity of Reading
image captionThe manuscript, in six school exercise books, sold for nearly £1m at auction last year
image sourceBeckett estate
image captionBeckett's opening page - dated 20 August 1935 - is completely crossed out
image sourceBeckett Estate
image captionFellow Irish writer James Joyce (left) also appears in Beckett's drawings

"Many people would say it's Beckett's funniest book," says Beckett expert Dr John Pilling, giving the BBC a preview of the manuscript before it goes on public view on Wednesday 11 June.

He opens the first notebook. The first few pages are full of writing, all of it deleted by the author's hand. Then the doodles begin to appear.

"When inspiration ran low he had a tendency to do his little vignettes. He had a certain artistic talent. He did rather good little character sketches.

"They are there, I think, to keep the pen moving, and to stimulate the mind into more movement."

Some of the doodles have sparked academic guesswork. Why, for instance, does the third notebook contain doodles of golfers teeing off?

"Beckett was a very keen amateur golfer. In his youth he'd won prizes at local Irish courses. The curiosity is that no golf is played during the course of the novel. That's more PG Wodehouse country."

The Murphy manuscript was bought for almost £1m at auction last year by the University of Reading, which houses the The Beckett Collection - the world's largest archive of resources on the writer.

image sourceBeckett Estate
image captionA keen golfer, Beckett included the game in his doodles
image sourceBeckett estate
image captionThe manuscripts, which were given to Beckett's friend and fellow writer Brian Coffey, were bought by a private collector in the 1960s and auctioned by his estate in 2013

The six notebooks had been in the hands of a private collector since the 1960s.

Dr Pilling admits some eyebrows were raised at the £962,500 the university spent at Sotheby's. Was the manuscript worth it?

"Most certainly. It's something of a miracle that we acquired it over more well-heeled institutions. It could have gone for twice or three times the amount and still could have been a bargain."

A university spokesperson says that the investment wasn't taken lightly. "As the leading centre for Beckett studies worldwide, it was a great opportunity for us to bring back one of the most important literary works, hidden for ages, back to the public."

Beckett's novel, set in London, tells the story of the title character Murphy and his desire to withdraw from life.

"Its picture of London in 1935 is rather wonderfully vivid," points out Dr Pilling. "The novel has details such as the route of the number 11 bus to Walham Green and famously contains sheep in Kensington Gardens."

Dr Pilling is making a handwritten transcription of all six notebooks - including punctuation and deleted passages. It's no easy task. "Some pages are very difficult to read because they've been written in pencil and crossed through with a thick blue crayon which nothing will penetrate," he says.

"Beckett's handwriting is famously illegible and became even more so as he got older. It very much depended on what sort of evening he was having - and how many bottles were close by."

The Murphy manuscript will be on view at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading from 12.30 to 7pm on 11 June.

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