Brain Pickings

A Rare Look at Samuel Beckett’s Doodle-Filled Notebooks

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What colored crayons have to do with deadpan philosophical humor and the gargoyles of Notre-Dame.

Novelist, playwright, poet, and Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. As a hopeless lover of marginalia and voyeur of famous creators’ notebooks, I was thrilled to discover these excerpts from the original manuscript of Watt, Beckett’s second novel and a pinnacle of his signature deadpan philosophical humor, courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The manuscript consists of 945 pages spanning six notebooks and loose sheets, written in ink and colored crayons between 1940 and 1945, and features a wealth of doodles, sketches, mathematical calculations, rhyming schemes, and drawings.

Watt is a whale of a manuscript—a white whale. Among the thousands of modern manuscripts in the Ransom Center, it glows like a luminous secular relic. It is, at moments, magnificently ornate, a worthy scion of The Book of Kells, with the colors reduced to more somber hues. The doodles, cartoons, caricatures, portraits en cartouche include reminiscences of African and Oceanic art, the gargoyles of Notre-Dame, heraldry, and more. Beckett’s handwriting is at its most deceptively cursive. Eppur si legge! And it ‘reads’ in other ways too. Jorge Luis Borges, examining Watt tactilely, sensed something of its extraordinary qualities, which, obviously, must transcend the visual. He asked his companion to describe it to him. This she did in detail, Borges nodding, ‘Yes, yes,’ with a happy smile throughout her description.”

The first notebook of Watt signed and marked 'Watt I,' with the following note: 'Watt was written in France during the war 1940-45 and published in 1953 by the Olympia Press.' On an inserted sheet, Beckett has written, 'Begun evening of Tuesday 11/2/41.'

The first page of the second notebook of Watt is dated '3/12/41.'

The first page of the third notebook of Watt shows the date '5.5.42'

The cover of the fourth notebook of Watt is marked 'Poor Johnny / Watt / Roussillon,' and page 1 is headed, 'Roussillon, October 4th 1943.'

A page from the typescript of Watt

On the cover of Notebook 5 of Watt Beckett has written in variously colored inks, 'Watt V/Suite et-fin (et-fin crossed through) /18.2.45/Paris/Et début de L'Absent/Novembre-Janvier 47/48.' He has indicated that L'Absent is Malone Meurt. Page 99 has the note, 'End of continuation of Watt. Conclusion in Notebook VI.'

Although in Notebook I, Beckett placed the completion of Watt in 1945, he concludes the sixth notebook with 'Dec 28th 1944/End.'

For more voyeuristic indulgence, don’t forget these five peeks inside the notebooks and sketchbooks of cultural icons across art, design, and science.

Thanks, Elana

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