John's Reviews > The Tragedy of Arthur

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
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Jan 15, 12

bookshelves: books-i-own, fiction
Read in July, 2011

In his funniest novel to date, Arthur Phillips ("Prague", "The Egyptologist", "Angelica", "The Song Is You"), pokes fun at the genre of memoir and of Shakespearean scholarship in his irresistible "The Tragedy of Arthur", which allegedly one William Shakespeare wrote as a play that was left out of the 1597 Folio edition of his plays; those recognizable to anyone familiar with Shakespeare's oeuvre. Pulling no punches, Phillips casts himself as the befuddled famous literary son of his father, the artful dodger and the likely forger of this "Shakespeare" play. Having inherited the play's manuscript from his deceased father, Phillips finds himself the unlikely protagonist of this tale, authorized by Random House in editing and preparing for publication this long-lost "Shakespeare" play. And once he realizes that this manuscript is most likely an excellent forgery, he finds himself legally compelled by his Random House publisher Jennifer Hershey and her colleagues (both real and fictitious, including his Random House publicist whom I have met) to fulfill his contract by producing a publishable manuscript.

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.). Phillips has to contend with his sister's objections to his decision to withdraw this manuscript from publication, once he realizes that the play "The Tragedy of Arthur" was apparently forged by their father.

Those willing to wade through Phillips's memoir will be richly rewarded by the play itself, with introductory notes from a Professor Roland Verre. Readers shall find most hysterical, the literary back and forth, the slingshot duel of bon mots between Phillips and Verre, with Verre denouncing Phillips's claim that this "Shakespeare" play is simply a forgery cleverly conceived and executed by his father. All of these comments are listed as footnotes, with competing explanations for certain lines provided both by Verre and Phillips.

Taken as a whole, "The Tragedy of Arthur" is a most elegant comedy of errors conceived by Arthur Phillips. It's one of the funniest novels I have read in years, and definitely this year's best. Phillips has added yet another remarkable novel to his oeuvre, and one which confirms his place as among the finest American writers of my generation.

(Reposted from my 2011 Amazon review)
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