The Tragedy of Arthur

Arthur Phillips’s new novel The Tragedy of Arthur was great fun. I’ve seen comparisons of this book to Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and the comparison works to a certain extent — they have a similar structure, both made up of a primary text and a commentary on that text — but it’s a rather unfortunate comparison for Phillips’s sake because who can compare to the great Nabokov? This book doesn’t have the insane brilliance of Pale Fire, but there’s a charm and wit to it that are appealing.

The text in Phillips’s case is a “newly discovered” long-lost Shakespeare play, printed in its entirety in the back of the book. The commentary takes the form of a memoir and fills up the first 250 or so pages. This commentary/memoir was supposed to be a standard critical introduction, but the guy who owns the manuscript, a character named Arthur Phillips, agreed to publish the introduction himself and decided to do it exactly as he wanted. It takes the unusual form of a long self-justification including his entire life story and an argument about the play’s authenticity. This question of authenticity is at the heart of the book, and it’s a particularly vexed question because the man who “discovered” the play, Arthur Phillips’s father, is a notorious con man who spent much of his adult life in jail for various forgeries (another book hovering in the background is William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which is also about artistic forgeries and a difficult father/son relationship).

In this memoir of sorts — which describes a life at least superficially resembling the real Arthur Phillips’s life, both people having published the same novels and lived in at least some of the same places — Phillips tells the story of what it was like to grow up with a criminally unreliable father. This is a father who woke his two children up in the middle of the night, Arthur and his twin sister Dana, and dragged them around a field with strange, heavy machinery for hours and hours in order to convince people that aliens had left crop circles. Arthur grows up not knowing whether anything his father gives him — a signed baseball for example — is real or a forgery. As you can imagine, Arthur has some psychological issues to work out.

His father’s legacy wasn’t all about forgery, however. The cons and forgeries had at their root — or at least this is how the father would explain it — a certain creativity and love of creating experiences of wonder. Thinking about the crop circle and the farmer who originally found it, Arthur writes,

My father didn’t want to make people stupider or mock stupidity or celebrate stupidity. When the farmer said, “The shape. The shape is so … beautiful, so …” and trailed off, my father was right there with him in spirit. I suspect that he wished, of all the participants in this whole enterprise, to be that farmer, to be fooled. My father had given him (and the world) this glimpse of something hidden. He was only dissatisfied to be the giver and not the recipient.

The father is also, along with Dana, thoroughly obsessed with Shakespeare. Arthur grew up with Shakespeare’s language forever in his ears. But this also is a complicated legacy. Arthur decides early on that he doesn’t like Shakespeare much, and while he correctly points out that this isn’t at all unusual, in his case it has at least something to do with the fact that Dana and their father bond over a love of the playwright and Arthur feels left out. He loves his sister dearly and feels he has some very weighty competition for her attention.

So, when his father bequeaths Arthur the lost Shakespeare play, Arthur has some serious thinking to do. Is it possible that this one time his father is telling the truth?

The memoir part of this book is a mix of a whole bunch of things — in addition to memoir, it’s also an anti-memoir, as Arthur complains about the genre every chance he gets, although it’s clear he needs the genre in order to make his point about his father and thus about the Shakespeare (?) play. It also contains a synopsis of the play, because that’s what an introduction is supposed to do, of course, and in that same spirit, it discusses the play’s themes and background. In addition to being all mixed up with the personal stories, however, this critical material is shaped in such a way as to further Arthur’s arguments about his father. It all ultimately revolves around Arthur himself — is the character Arthur in the play The Tragedy of Arthur supposed to be him? Was his father sending him a message?

Arthur writes notes for the play as well, and here it’s personal too: some of the notes speculate on where his father might have gotten his material from, if indeed he did write the play himself. In addition to Arthur’s notes, there are notes from a Shakespeare scholar, and these two voices contradict each other. In addition to everything else going on in this book, it’s also about the uncertainty of scholarship and the impossibility of finding a truly objective point of view. Arthur is obviously a biased reader — given the circumstances there is no way he could be anything else — but the scholar’s readings struck me as questionable as well. It’s clear that he wants the play to be authentic  and some of his justifications and explanations seemed just as unreliable as Arthur’s speculations.

As for the play itself, it’s not bad. Those who claim it’s authentic say that it’s clearly very early Shakespeare, which means readers should not expect greatness of the Hamlet level and that is most certainly not what you get. But for what it is — whatever that is — it’s entertaining, with some fine speeches, interesting action, and a little bit of humor.

This is a playful book — complete with author biographies and publication lists of both Arthur Phillips and Shakespeare, because Shakespeare deserves credit, of course! — and I love that spirit. Give me a highly literary, self-reflexive, self-aware book that’s good but doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I’m a happy reader.


Filed under Books, Fiction

17 responses to “The Tragedy of Arthur

  1. The unserious Pale Fire—well, that doesn’t sound half bad to me. I’ve read only Phillips’ Angelica, and it was goodish, but I’ve always felt like I’d like his other work more. If The Egyptologist (on the shelf) passes the test perhaps this one should be next.


  2. An undiscovered Shakespeare play? Well with ‘Cardenio’ opening this weekend in Stratford I absolutely have to read this, don’t I. Please tell me it’s available in the UK.


  3. I’ve never heard of this but it sounds so good. I love playful, experimental texts and I’m on a memoir kick at the moment and keen to read subversive versions of the genre. Most intriguing!


  4. ted

    This sounds great! And I’ve yet to read an Arthur Phillips novel, so this sounds like one to try.


  5. Wow, that sounds so fun! Thanks!


  6. This sounds like lots of fun! And my public library has it too. I’ve not read Pale Fire so it seems I have two books to investigate!


  7. This sounds right up my alley! Love the meta structure and the playful unreliability you mention.


  8. Michelle

    I hadn’t heard of this book, so you’ve got me really intrigued. Perhaps I should read Pale Fire first? I’m supposed to be starting my Nabokov read, but it might take me awhile to get to Pale Fire…in any case, I’ve noted this book and look forward to reading it at some point.


  9. Nicole — people I’ve heard from lately say The Egyptologist is their least favorite Phillips, so I hope that one doesn’t turn you off of him. I’m curious to see how experimental and playful his other work is, if at all.

    Annie — I’d love to know what you think! I don’t know if it’s available in the UK, but I’m afraid — oh, just checked, and it looks like it’s coming out in the UK in September. So not too long to wait!

    Litlove — you would be interested in this one then — it complains about memoirs all the time but is one, sort of, except it’s really a novel, but the novel is an awful lot like Phillips’s real life … it’s all very confusing!

    Ted — it’s my first Phillips novel, and I liked it more than I thought I would, so I’m very pleased!

    Bardiac — I’d really love to know what you make of the “Shakespeare” play!

    Stefanie — oh, Pale Fire is awesome! Highly recommended. It’s strange, though. Prepare yourself for that 🙂

    Emily — it does sound like something you would like! I love it because it experiments with structure and is also very engaging and fun to read.

    Michelle — the two books are so very different in tone that in a lot of ways the comparison doesn’t make sense, but the similarity in structure is striking. How great that you are starting your Nabokov read-through. What a wonderful project.


  10. It sounds ingenious, and twisty in all the layers. I’ll have to try it out.


  11. Brian Marino

    I have read Prague and The Song is You by the author. These two seem to be his least experimentally or genre playful books, at least in comparison to Tragedy of Arthur and the other two. I am so far a huge fan of his. I am loving Tragedy of Arthur so far (he seems to have a very deliberate voice, as it is a very similar narrative and writing style in both Prague and The Song is You). He is always astonishing to me in his jokiness and emotionalness (not words I know) at the same time. Prague was very mocking, but also very lovely. Lots of cliche, lots of mocks of cliche, all great. Song is You was really romantic and lovely, but also quite hilarious and mocking. I think if you like Tragedy of Arthur you should give them a chance. Even if they are somewhat different styles of story, it is a very similar style of writing (and Prague does interrupt its narrative to give you a century long history of a Hungarian publishing house). I have also heard that Egyptologist and Angelica aren’t the best places to start.


  12. Maybe it is shallow of me, but I’ve always been an Arthur Phillips fan since I saw him on Jeopardy 😉 Seriously, though, I have a couple of his books on my TBR and yet this one sounds most intriguing so perhaps I will have to start with this one, finally, to have a basis for my fanship!


  13. I have a couple of Arthur Phillips’s books, but I didn’t realize he was such an experimental writer. There seems to be an interesting combination of things going on here–I like the idea of it all but I sometimes wonder if I am a smart enough reader for books like this. I’ll have to try something by him sometime!


  14. This just sounds… entertaining. I heard about this one and was apprehensive because playfulness can often backfire and I was worried the self-awareness would twist the whole novel. Seems like it’s well balanced, though.


  15. This sounds really interesting – lots going on, in a good way!


  16. Sounds like a multi-layered and very complex read. And, I suppose, one has to be well versed in Shakespearean texts to fully appreciate it? You see, your 5/5 stars on Goodreads is high praise indeed. So today I saw it in the library and grabbed it right away, a brand new copy too. But now reading your review I’m afraid I might not even know how to begin appreciating it… esp. when I haven’t read any of AP’s previous works.


  17. Lilian — I hope you like it, if you do decide to read it! Ingenious is a good word for it.

    Brian — thanks for the information on his other books — that’s very useful! Prague will definitely be the next book of his I pick up, and I’m glad to know you liked The Song is You so much.

    Melwyk — how interesting that he was on Jeopardy! I wonder how well he did … 🙂 I’d love to know what you think of this book.

    Danielle — you are definitely a smart enough reader for this book! It’s not difficult at all — really, except for the play itself, it reads like a memoir, just a story of his life. But it all fits together in interesting ways. I get the sense that this is his most experimental book, but I really don’t know what I’m talking about!

    Biblibio — I found it well-balanced and not too precious or pretentious. There’s a lightness and sense of humor about the whole thing that makes it work well.

    Heather — yes, definitely a lot going on, both plot-wise and idea-wise.

    Arti — I don’t think you have to know tons about Shakespeare to appreciate the book. I certainly am no Shakespeare expert, and I didn’t feel I needed to be. The main character dislikes Shakespeare, anyway! There’s a lot going on in the book, but it’s not difficult to read or to appreciate it. I think you would do just fine with it.


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