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The Tragedy of Arthur, By Arthur Phillips
Jonathan Gibbs reviews books for The Independent and elsewhere. His novel Randall, about the contemporary art world and the fate of the YBAs, is published by Galley Beggar Press. He blogs on this aspect of his writing at tinycamels.wordpress.com
Monday 12 December 2011
In terms of sheer audaciousness there will have been few novels this year to match The Tragedy of Arthur, which includes - as its greater or lesser portion, depending on your tastes - an entire "lost" Shakespeare play.
This, the "Tragedy of Arthur" itself, is presented complete with notes and editor's preface laying out its claims to authenticity. Unfortunately, it also comes with a long and rambling introduction by US novelist Arthur Phillips, who is owner and licensor of the sole existing copy of the play: a 1597 quarto copy discovered by his father, hidden in a private collection in England in the 1950s.
I say "unfortunately" because, as Phillips states in his introduction, he has "never much liked Shakespeare." Worse, he is convinced that the play is a fake, the last arrogant joke played by his forger father on a world that refused to accept him as a genuine painter.
The reasons why Phillips is able to spend 250 pages denouncing the text he is supposed to be honouring become clear. He lays out the tangled history of his family, which boils down to the fraught relationships between father and son (both called Arthur), and between him and his twin sister, Dana: a troubled actor as devoted to the playwright as he is opposed.
That all of this is just so much psychology Phillips willingly admits. But he thinks that is all there is, too, to our relationship to Shakespeare. "If it didn't have his name on it, half his work would be booed off the stage, dismissed by critics as stumbling, run out of print. Instead we say it's Shakespeare; he must be doing something profound that we don't appreciate." Actors and directors struggle to find ingenious solutions to intractable passages, then congratulate the writer for his subtlety.
He turns, too, on the likes of critic Harold Bloom, with his "maximalist and insane thesis that Shakespeare invented how people now live, communicate, think". Reflecting on the death of his mother's second husband, he writes: "If Dana and Harold Bloom are right, if we're all just walking figments of Shakespeare's imagination, then where in the canon is my mom, who could not quite say the truth about what she'd lived?"
And the Shakespeare itself? An enjoyable pastiche, with some intriguing experiments (how would Shakespeare have written a labour scene?) and jokey footnotes that tip the hat to Nabokov's Pale Fire, without ever trying to rival that virtuoso performance. For all its metafictional audacity, The Tragedy of Arthur is, in the end, a triumph of humility, and a worthy offering.
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