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Arthur Phillips – The Tragedy of Arthur

May 1, 2014

26. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (2011)

Length: 384 pages
Genre: General Fiction

Started: 21 March 2014
Finished: 07 April 2014

Where did it come from? Library Booksale.
Why do I have it? I really enjoyed The Egyptologist and heard a bunch of good things about this one too.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 30 May 2013.

HaiKU is NOT the
paired Iambs.. oh, hell.

Summary: This novel is not a novel, it is a newly discovered play of Shakespeare’s called “The Tragedy of Arthur”. Arthur Phillips never much liked Shakespeare; it’s one of the few things he didn’t share with his twin sister Dana, who obsessively read Shakespeare with their equally obsessed father… or at least she did when he was out of prison. He was mostly a small-time con artist and forger, and judging by how frequently he got caught, not a very good one. Arthur grows up in this world where the power of the written word to create magic is revered, yet trust in another person typically leads to heartbreak, eventually becoming a novelist himself. But not until he’s an adult does his father disclose a family secret: he’s got a copy of a previously unknown play by Shakespeare, and he wants Arthur to publish it. Arthur, still secretly hungry for his father’s approval, agrees, but the further and more inextricably he gets involved in the process, the more he begins to wonder: is the play legit? Or is it the last, greatest con his father will ever pull?

Review: This book was brilliant. So brilliant. My summary is much more of the plot than I would normally give away, but at the same time, it’s not really giving anything away, because that’s all essentially given away in the first few pages, even if Arthur doesn’t get around to the details until late in the book, and really, the details are where the story actually is.

Okay, let me back up. The structure of the book is an annotated edition of the play. The first few pages are a Preface introducing the new edition, by the editors at Random House. Next is the introduction to the play, written by Arthur Phillips, that takes up the bulk of the pages. And then comes the play itself, the full five-act Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Arthur, in all its iambic pentametric glory (with footnotes both by Phillips and by a Shakespearean scholar).

So let’s talk about the play first. The play reads like Shakespeare. As the Introduction points out, maybe not like the best Shakespeare, but like one of the earlier history plays. I am not a particular fan of the history plays, but in general, it’s good, some of the scenes are very good, it’s believably Shakespearean, it doesn’t break iambic pentameter during the important speeches (and if you think I wasn’t constantly drumming out the rhythm with the hand that wasn’t holding the book, just to check, think again. I do things like count neck vertebrae on biological illustrations of mythical creatures; of course I’m going to be checking for meter in Shakespeare.) It is good enough that it makes the rest of the book that much better, because it *is* believable, that while you know that Arthur Phillips (the novelist, not the protagonist) wrote it, that it’s a modern invention, there’s always that niggling question: do you *know* you know that it’s modern? Are you sure it’s not authentic? And that’s one of the themes of the book, of how and why we say that something is and isn’t Shakespeare, and if we want it to be, then we’ll find ways to prove that it is, and vice-versa, and why it’s important one way or another, if it brings a little more joy and magic into the world, but would that joy and magic be there if we knew that it *wasn’t* Shakespeare? And why do we like Shakespeare anyways? Is it just because that’s what we’ve preserved? Or have we preserved him because he really was the best? And did he really create all the basic plots, or are we just drawing parallels because we think we should? (And boy howdy, there are plenty of parallels to be drawn between Arthur’s story and various Shakespeare plays… but are you going to get that every time you’ve got a set of twins?)

The whole thing is so layered, and so meta, that it could have easily spun out of control. (It certainly made talking about this book at book club a little confusing, trying to differentiate Arthur Phillips the novelist from Arthur Phillips his protagonist.) Normally overly meta books that are trying to be clever just wind up annoying me (see: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe), but Phillips layers it all so intricately, and makes it all hang together so well, that every bit you think might be a loose end just opens up a whole different web of connections that you hadn’t seen before. I can see how this book would bug if you don’t like unresolved endings that are open to interpretation, but since that is so much of Phillips’s point, it actually made the book stronger that you come out of it not really knowing one way or the other.

So, yes, I loved this book, despite the introduction (which is most of the book) having a definite whiff of “look at my terrible childhood” memoir (or fake memoir) (or is it?) that is the genre that put me off of memoirs in the first place. I love Shakespeare, and I love clever books that make me feel clever too, and books that make me think while still telling a good story, and this book has got all of that and then some. (Where “some” equals a full five-act Shakespearean play. I mean, damn.) 5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: A lot of the thematic ideas were reminiscent of The Forgery of Venus – the question of forgery, and if you like something when it’s got an old master’s name, why does it become any less good if you find out it was painted last week? But the reading experience was actually much more reminiscent of Ella Minnow Pea: a book that is clever, that is a brainteasing puzzle, but one that is so intricately and elegantly crafted that it’s completely seamless and totally enjoyable. Normally I’d recommend it to Shakespeare fans, but honestly, anti-Shakespeareans would probably find just as much interest in this book as well. Recommended for people who like puzzles, unresolvable philosophical debates, and feeling clever?

(And for the record, I think I’m leaning towards the side of Shakespeare did it. If you’ve read it, let me know and we can debate the details.)

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First Line: I have never much liked Shakespeare.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 318: “In the ambassador’s accent, “Arthur,” a troublesome trochee (AR-thur) becomes a convenient iamb (ar-TOOR). ” – A metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, as in season, or of a long syllable followed by a short syllable.
  • p. 321: “Arthur plays dim, claiming not to understand Gloucester’s point, but his request for less synecdoche is surely ironic, since “this crowned head” is an example of synecdoche.” – A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword).

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2014 10:32 am

    This sounds amazing. I read another book by this author a while ago and liked it pretty well, but somehow haven’t picked up anything else of his. I love the premise of The Tragedy of Arthur though. I didn’t know it was the text of the play plus commentary — that sounds amazing.

  2. May 10, 2014 7:15 pm

    Jenny – Was the book you read The Egyptologist? That’s the only other one of his I’ve read, and it was pretty awesome. (Although I’ve got Prague on my TBR pile as well.)

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