Wednesday 17 June 2020

Beckett's Murphy: the other binding problem

Saturday night's Leap in the Dark was dedicated to Beckett's poetry, with readers from Dublin, Los Angeles, Mexico City and London reading the poems, and music from Tom Smails, and new translations of the mirlitonnades, and wonderful contributions from Alba Arikha, Susan Tomaselli, June Caldwell, Michael Hughes, Dan O'Brien, Paulette Jonguitud and Aea Varfis-van Warmelo
During a conversation with the translator Frank Wynne (clearly a close and admiring reader of Beckett) we touched briefly on his first published novel Murphy, and Frank wittily pointed out that the eponymous hero begins the novel tied to a rocking-chair and the rest of the novel off his rocker. 

This prompted me to ask whether the French translation (which I haven't read) resolves the issue we might agree to call 'the binding problem', namely the number of scarves that hold Murphy in position, rendering movement nigh-impossible. Word reaches me that there are some people out there who haven't read this superb comic novel, so I revive this blog from 2013 by way of clarification: 

Beckett's Murphy manuscript

Six notebooks forming the basis for Samuel Beckett's first published novel Murphy are likely to fetch in excess of a million dollars at auction next month, and they're worth every cent. I'm not sure who the seller might be (possibly the publisher John Calder?) but I hope the successful bidder will be public-spirited enough to publish all of them in facsimile, with a seventh volume of notes edited by C. J. Ackerley, author of the indispensable Demented Particulars: The Annotated Murphy (published in 1998 by the Journal of Beckett Studies). I've lost count of how many times I've read the novel, but have by now committed much of it to memory, and will read it again soon with unjaded admiration. It's very good.

Beckett's Murphy manuscript doodles, including James Joyce (bottom left)

The manuscript (below) shows several abandoned attempts to arrive at the final version of the celebrated opening sentence: 'The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new' (and I'd read Murphy several times before it struck me that the phrase is a simple re-working of Ecclesiastes 1:9 - 'there's no new thing under the sun').

According to the Sotheby's catalogue there are many "small but significant" changes in the final version of the novel, "for example the seven scarves with which Murphy has bound himself naked into his rocking chair at the novel's opening were originally 'Seven immense handkerchiefs, all the colours of the rainbow'. Handkerchiefs, even immense ones, would not have served - scarves were required for what Beckett had in mind, which is surely the most outrageous opening of any twentieth century novel.

Here's part of the second  paragraph as it appears in the published version:

Seven scarves held him in position. Two fastened his shins to the rockers, one his thighs to the seat, two his breast and belly to the back, one his wrists to the strut behind. Only the most local movements were possible.

Six scarves, then. What of the seventh? Beckett, challenged by his biographer Deirdre Bair, claimed that it was simply an oversight on his part, but he was fobbing her off. The clue is in those 'local movements', and it's clear (or rather not clear at all, but take my word for this) that the naked Murphy, bound to his rocking-chair, is involved in some kind of elaborate auto-erotic activity. My guess (Beckett scholars may shudder) is that one end of the seventh scarf is attached to his membrum virile and the other end clenched between his teeth. He tugs as he rocks. Ackerley cites Pt. IV of Spinoza's Ethics ('Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage') but tactfully proceeds no further. Whoever it was that bound Murphy to his chair in the first place is never established and I'm reluctant to search online for details for fear of what I  might find - there are sure to be multiple websites meeting the needs of the rocking-chair onanist community

'If I am not careful I shall become clear as to what I have written' wriggled the author, in a letter to Mary Manning on 1st January 1937, so let's move on. I've been collecting Beckett first editions in English, French and German for over thirty years and recently decided to call it a day because whatever I haven't already got I can't afford and therefore (I persuade myself) don't really need. 'The syndrome known as life is too diffuse to admit of palliation' says Murphy in Murphy, although a tidy first edition of this wonder book, a palliation not to be sniffed at, is currently on offer from a London dealer for £5,500.  

The Routledge first edition of Murphy (1938)

Extract © the estate of Samuel Beckett

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