A poet clears his shelves
NEWSFEATURES:The Irish poet Richard Murphy is selling his library through a London dealer, with one of the rarest items a copy of a Sebastian Barry book that was pulped under threat of a libel action
EARLIER THIS month, London dealers Maggs Bros Rare Books, established in 1853 and one of the world's oldest and largest antiquarian booksellers, sent out catalogues detailing the 586 books on sale from the poet Richard Murphy's private library. The collection had originally been offered as a unit, with the hope that an institution such as a library might buy it. However, since many of the books were duplicates of what libraries already held, and with acquisition budgets being cut, no organisation came forward to buy the collection.
Maggs Bros then re-offered the library as individual items, with prices ranging from £25 to £4,500 (€30 to €5,300). Joe McCann, of the Irish department of the booksellers, and who catalogued the collection for Maggs Bros, estimates its total value to be in the region of £75,000 (€88,600).
RICHARD MURPHYis now 82 and lives in Sri Lanka. In 2007, McCann flew to Knysna in South Africa, where Murphy then lived, to examine his collection. "There were about 5,500 books in his library, and we took the cream of it," McCann explains. Many of the books that were not signed by the authors have been annotated by Murphy, describing the provenance of the books.
One of the unsigned books is a copy of the novelist and playwright Sebastian Barry's second book, a pair of novellas, Time Out of Mindand Strappado Square,which was published by Wolfhound in 1983 (although the catalogue lists publication date as 1989), and is on offer for £1,200 (€1,400). The title is probably unfamiliar to readers of Barry's work. In the catalogue, Murphy's note for the book says: "Under threat of libel from my daughter's lawyer, Gore-Grimes, Wolfhound withdrew and pulped this pulp fiction. Sebastian went on to write better books." McCann's catalogue note reads: "Richard and his daughter Emily were both depicted in the novel; the latter in a particularly unfavourable light. The author's second novel and decidedly scarce due to the book's withdrawal."
Yesterday, by phone from Sri Lanka, Richard Murphy disputed this line in the catalogue, insisting that he was never depicted in either novella, and any depictions or libel threats referred only to his daughter. He did not dispute the line he had written himself.
Time Out of Mindand Strappado Squarewas reviewed in The Irish Timesin January 1984 by Kevin Casey, who wrote: "On the strength of this book alone he must be regarded as one of the most promising of our writers, displaying a technical ambition and an emotional maturity of formidable proportions. The two novellas that make up Time Out of Mind are intellectually satisfying and psychically credible, painstakingly well worked out and full of insight."
After the book had been withdrawn, Caroline Walsh, now literary editor of The Irish Times, in a profile of six emerging Irish writers, wrote in July 1985 of Barry's "assured" talent. "It was a great pity that Sebastian Barry's book containing the two novellas, Time Out of Mindand Strappado Square,had to be withdrawn by its publishers, Wolfhound Press, following the threat of a libel action. The first story, about a loveless marriage in the west of Ireland in the 1930s, which has shades of John McGahern about it, is as excellent as it is different from the second story, Strappado Square, an equally fine piece of writing based on a young man's relationship with an intriguing but claustrophobic woman called Lena."
When contacted, Sebastian Barry had no comment to make on the fate of the novellas he wrote 26 years ago, or how it impacted on his nascent career as a fiction writer.
INCLUDED INthe collection are a number of first editions, mostly poetry, many of which were given by the authors as gifts to Murphy, with warm personal inscriptions. Some of these writers are now dead, such as Ted Hughes, George Mackay Brown, Thom Gunn and John McGahern. However, several, including Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, John Montague, Paul Muldoon, Colm Tóibín, Gerard Dawe, John F Deane, Vona Groarke, Eamon Grennan, Peter Fallon, Seamus Deane, Brendan Kennelly, Thomas Kinsella, Michael Longley, and Derek Mahon are still alive.
"I decided to sell my books because I was robbed at gunpoint near my home in Africa, and I decided to leave. I needed money to move to Sri Lanka," Murphy explains. "My daughter couldn't store them. I had hoped these special and significant books could stay together, which is the way they were first offered for sale."
The inscription in a special issue of Heaney's New Selected Poems, £650 (€770), to mark his Nobel win reads, "To Richard, with old affection and renewed regard, Seamus." This is also signed by Heaney's wife: "On a memorable night with gratitude for all your generosity, Marie." This is one of 12 Heaney signed copies with personal messages, one of which is a first edition of Heaney's first book, Death of a Naturalist,£3,000 (€3,540).
Among the books at the higher end of the collection is a signed first edition of Ted Hughes's The Hawk in the Rain,£2,500 (€2,950), in which Hughes has written: "Only an owl knows the worth of an owl"; an unsigned first US edition of Sylvia Plath's The Colossus and Other Poems, £2,500 (€2,950); and a signed first edition of Paul Durcan's first book, O Westport in the Light of Asia Minor, £650 (€770).
Murphy is also selling some 70 copies of his own books, as well as the only manuscript in the collection, which are his notes from a tutorial he took in Oxford in 1945 with his tutor CS Lewis, £2,500 (€2,950).
The most expensive book is a first edition of John Betjeman's A Few Late Chrysanthemums, £4.500 (€5,300). It's inscribed by Philip Larkin to Murphy's wife, Patricia Avis, with whom Larkin had an affair. Larkin's inscription, the catalogue notes, is "clearly satirising the tone of Betjeman". Boars Hill is the place where Avis was living during the separation from her then husband, Colin Strang. The inscription reads:
Whispering leaves over Boars Hill stables -
Whispering tongues round Boars Hill tables:
"Professor Finger they say, has been
living with a mummy from the Ashmolean";
"The Bolls have too many bills to pay
(Heals took the chairs back yesterday)";
"And have you seen the Kimansky twins?
One has a tail and one has fins"-
But clipper-clop-clap; under the conifers
Jilly and Guinivere jog in their jodhpurs,
Clearing the Matthew Arnold air
Simply by cantering cosily there . . .
- From P.L. after delightful
visit, Sept '54