The Tragedy of Arthur: A Novel Paperback – Feb 21 2012
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“[Balances] a moving story of familial and romantic love on a deliberately unsteady fictional edifice . . . [an] exuberant chimera of a novel.”—The New Yorker
“Splendidly devious.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Wily and witty . . . an engrossing family saga [with] sparkling and imaginative prose. Shakespeare would applaud a man who does him so proud.”—The Boston Globe
“Arthur Phillips has found the perfect vehicle for his cerebral talents: his ingenuity; his bright, elastic prose; and, most notably, his penchant for pastiche—for pouring his copious literary gifts into old vessels and reinventing familiar genres.”—The New York Times
“Devious and exhilarating . . . an irresistible family drama bundled into an exploration of fraud and authenticity.”—The Wall Street Journal
“A circus of a novel, full of wit, pathos and irrepressible intelligence.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The story of a family that is Shakespearean in several senses . . . [The Tragedy of Arthur] contains literary echoes of Nabokov, Stoppard and even . . . Thomas Pynchon.”—San Francisco Chronicle
About the Author
Arthur Phillips is the internationally bestselling author of The Song Is You, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best novels of the year by The Washington Post; Angelica; The Egyptologist; and Prague, which was also a New York Times Notable Book and the winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. He lives in New York with his wife and two sons.
Top Customer Reviews
Arthur Phillips' newest novel blurs, or rather obliterates, the boundary between appearance and reality. The author's protagonist, also named Arthur Phillips, and his twin sister, Dana, have suffered unstable childhoods largely thanks to their con-man father (yes, also named Arthur Phillips), who spends most of the novel in jail. On his death bed, he produces his most prized possession: a lost Shakespearean manuscript. In what turns into a faux-memoir-meets-academic-introduction-to-Shakespeare-play, the protagonist seesaws between avowing "The Tragedy of Arthur"'s authenticity and mourning its fallaciousness. In the meantime, a media frenzy brews over the historical sensation of the century: a new work by the bard.
The 250 page "novel" culminates in a "Shakespeare" play written by Phillips. Or did Shakespeare actually write it? This pastiche evokes great admiration for the novelist's cleverness, skill and erudition but, unfortunately, after a few initial pages of engrossment, the book emerges as a crashing bore. It definitely provokes thought but it over-emphasizes the theme of illusion; any emotion the prose conjures seems specious and leaves the reader feeling cold.
Much of "The Tragedy of Arthur" is an extensive Introduction that describes the complex relationships which Phillips has had with his father, his stepfather and with his twin sister Dana; an introduction that quite literally pokes fun at the genre of memoir itself (Anyone expecting the luminous lyrical prose of Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes", may be disappointed, since Phillips's Introduction isn't as memorably written, and yet, it is still a most fascinating work of memoir from another fine American author, the real Arthur Phillips himself.).Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Did he really have a gay twin sister named Dana, a scam artist father who spent his adult life in prison, a Czech wife and twin sons of his own? Methinks not. What I do know is that Arthur Phillips shares his birthday with the Bard himself, that he was born in Minnesota, and that he is indeed a writer to be watched very carefully. Because what he's accomplished in this novel - er, memoir - is sheer genius.
Arthur Phillips - the character - is an unreliable narrator if there ever was one, and points it out in various excerpts. Right from the start when he says, "I have never much liked Shakespeare," we feel a little off-center. The book is, after all about the ultimate Shakespeare scam: his neer-do-well father, at the end of his life, shares with Arthur a previously unknown play by Shakespeare titled The Tragedy of Arthur and entices him to use his Random House connections to get the play published.
To say his connection with his father is complicated is an understatement. Arthur Phillips, memoirist, reflects, "His life was now beyond my comprehension and much of my sympathy - even if I had been a devoted visitor, a loving son, a concerned participant in his life. I was none of those." Now he wonders: did his father perform the ultimate con? If so, how did he pull it off? And how do the two Arthurs - Arthur the ancient king portrayed in the "lost" play and Arthur the memoirist - intertwine their fates?
It's a tricky project and Arthur Phillips - the novelist - is obviously having great fun with it. At one point, he urges readers to, "Go Google the van Meergeen Vermeers...Read James Frey's memoir now...We blink and look around, rubbing the fairy dust from our eyes, wonder whether we might have dreamt it all. Once you know it isn't Shakespeare, none of it sounds like Shakespeare. How could it." But somehow, it does.
The play is reproduced in its entirety in the second part and indeed, it reads like Shakespeare (I read all of his major plays in grad school and have seen many of them performed). It's absolutely brazen that Arthur Phillips could have mimicked Shakespeare so successfully and with seeming authenticity.
So in the end, the theme comes down to identity. As Phillips the memoirist writes, "So much of Shakespeare is about being at a loss for identity being lost somewhere without the self-defining security of home and security, lost in a shipwreck, confused with a long-lost twin, stripped of familiar power, taken for a thief, taken for the opposite gender, taken for a pauper, believing oneself an orphan."
And, as Phillips the novelist knows, it's also a trick for perspective. The play, the novel, the memoir, the scam can equally be said to be "about a man born in Stratford in 1565 - maybe on April 22 or 24, by the way -- or about an apocryphal boy king in Dark Ages England or about my father or his idea of me or my grandfather or Dana in armor or or or." Just as Shakespeare may or may not have written his plays - according to some anti-Bards - so might this new one be a fakery, written by Arthur's fictional father. There is layer steeped upon layer steeped upon layer in this book. It's audacious and it's brilliant. Arthur Phillips convincingly shows us just how easy it is to reinvent a play, a history, or ourselves with just a few sweeps of a pen.
All three Arthurs -- hopefully not also the fourth author Arthur -- are doomed heroes careening from crisis to crisis. Reading the story is like watching a savant work a rubik's cube -- each move appears random, but you know the inevitable end point and after a while the elegance of the pattern emerges. I enjoyed the anticipation, wondering how all the disparate pieces were going to snap into the final image. Most of all, I enjoyed the prose, the puns, the imagery. I'm a sucker for anyone who loves and leverages language.
I'll end with a plea that readers not be dismayed by what I'm sure will be a flood of reviews acclaiming Arthur's brilliance, cleverness, and Shakespearean complexity. It's all that, sure, but it's also great fun. It's not difficult or intimidating, especially if you choose not to read the "Shakespeare" at the end. (But do read it; it's quite witty and I love the dueling footnotes.)
When the play has reached its promised end, flip back to the introduction, where you'll find the real story. Its protagonist, Arthur Phillips, shares the name of the novel's author, and certain details of biography, but of course that's part of a literary game, and would quickly become dull if the book wasn't interesting in others. Fortunately, Phillips weaves both a satisfying story about parents, siblings, and the search for identity and a wise, witty meditation on the way Shakespeare's reputation has led to such cultural eccentricities as the authorship debate, Harold Bloom's bloviations on the invention of the human, and fiercely contested battles of attribution.
Separately, these agendas would collapse: the story of the fictional Arthur's troubled relationship with his con artist father would become the kind of navel-gazing upper-class angst novel some reviewers have dismissed it as, and the Shakespeare commentary would feel too intellectual and cold, suffering what a possibly fictional reviewer of one of the real Phillips' previous books called "a curious absence of empathy." Together, the two strands, with the help of the narrator's voice, wryly self-deprecating yet aware of the impossibility of truly selfless memoir, make for compelling reading: as rich in unlikely yet fascinating plot twists as any of Shakespeare's plays, with just the right amount of realistic detail and irony to keep it from slipping into bathos or academic exercise.
Above all else, The Tragedy of Arthur is a reminder that ideas and emotions remain inextricable. The fictional Arthur thinks Shakespeare is an over-praised writer, and makes what seem like fair arguments for that position. But this rejection of Shakespeare is also a rejection of his unreliable, capricious father; as Arthur's twin sister puts, in a speech that is perhaps too thematically blunt, "You're the first person ever to suffer from a double oedipal complex, and one of your dads is four hundred years old." Likewise, the academic specialists who pronounce for or against the play's authenticity offer specific claims, but at heart their belief is based on something intangible, on that sense of Shakespeare's fingerprint that every reader of the poet-playwright knows and few if any can describe. Who is right, about Shakespeare's merit, about the play, about a flim-flam father's love? Like any good post-modern novel, The Tragedy of Arthur abjures answers, but deserves praise for the dazzling way it poses the question.
The "Introduction" , which is written as a memoir is a testament to the sometimes painful relationship between fathers and sons. Especially should that father be a less than stellar character. Throw a twin sister into the mix and the relationship becomes far more complex based on the close ties between the two siblings.
As Arthur Philips points out in this story, I and many generations of readers have grown up with Shakespeare as part of our literary heritage and the Bard is never far from the tongue....how often we quote lines from his works would probably make an interesting case study. However I am not well versed in Shakespeare, nor would I consider myself a "fan".....not my choice of reading material.
Having said that, I would like to say that one need not be familiar with Shakespeare's works to enjoy this novel. Though the book is, in part, about the great writer, it is much more than just that.
It was ambitious of Phillips to take this on, especially in the manner he did but he pulled it off.
As I read "The Tragedy of Arthur" I learned a bit about the great Shakespeare and his work I was entertained, laughed out loud and felt deeply for the main character's struggle to connect with a father he had little reason to trust.
This reader enjoyed the time spent with the pages of words contained in this book.......isn't this what it is all about ?
Thank you Mr. Phillips !