The Tragedy of Arthur
Gerald Duckworth & Co
Whether it's the mysterious Arabic manuscript undergirding Don Quixote or the autobiography at the heart of Robinson Crusoe, novels have long relied on "false documents" - elaborately conceived texts that, by claiming to be factual, boost a novel's sense of realism, of being a credible world unto itself. These writers worked hard to create a sense of authenticity around their false documents, writing introductions or commentaries that painted themselves as humble custodians of the found text. The technique could also be useful for disassociating an author from a book's political content, as Voltaire did by claiming that Candide was translated from the work of a "Dr Ralph".
Readers of yore may not have been as credulous as we would like to believe - Voltaire was widely acknowledged as the author of Candide - but the false document served as a useful device for stretching the boundaries of the novel and for justifying the publication of otherwise controversial work.
Today, a writer is more likely to use a pseudonym to distance himself from a potentially inflammatory work. The false document has matriculated to the realm of fanciful conceit, occupying territory adjacent to - if less ambitious than - the Oulipo group's constrained writing or John Barth's metafiction. In the 20th century, Jorge Luis Borges was among the great practitioners of false documents; in a sense, they populated his entire world.
In its self-consciousness, a false document emphasises a novel's sense of play. It is also a gesture towards the outside world, laying claim to a life beyond the text. A protagonist's reading of a fake Le Monde article may be just as effective as his visiting the Louvre to remind the reader that while a novel isn't life, it is composed of the stuff of life. According to EL Doctorow, whose essay False Documents presents an insightful meditation on the technique, "in order to have its effect, a false document need only be possibly true".
The Tragedy of Arthur, the fifth novel by the American writer Arthur Phillips, is a worthy addition to the shelf of novels built upon this premise. With occasional winks at his complicit reader, Phillips's book cannily employs fictional texts to interrogate notions of authenticity, artistic licence, inspiration and the nature of celebrity.
The first 250-odd pages of The Tragedy of Arthur are an introduction to what appears to be a rediscovered Shakespeare play, The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain. The introduction is written by a novelist named Arthur Phillips, a man who shares many biographical details with the real Arthur Phillips. The last 110-plus pages of the book are the play itself, a wonderfully conceived imitation of a Shakespearean tragedy, down to the Elizabethan diction and measured iambs. To further the illusion, the book includes a preface from his publisher, touting its role in bringing this "lost" Shakespeare play to life, as well as the customary author biographies and bibliographies for both Arthur Phillips and William Shakespeare.
So why all the gamesmanship? In a sense, this is Arthur Phillips's literary funhouse; we're just passing through. But there's also a finely tuned novel here, as well as some fiercely moving storytelling. It's a fiction to which curious readers would be well advised to submit.
The introduction - a pastiche of literary criticism, a self-abnegating memoir - takes us through the life of the fictional Arthur Phillips, who grew up in Minnesota under the intermittent spell of his similarly named father, an art forger and Shakespeare-devotee who spent most of his adult life in and out of prison. When he's not in jail, the elder Phillips reads his children - the younger Arthur and his brilliant twin sister, Dana - Shakespeare and takes them on magical night-time excursions to create crop circles. He is what we expect from a forger: shrewd, seductively charming, artistically frustrated, and wholly unreliable.
Eventually, the children's mother divorces her conman husband and marries the steady, reliable Silvius, but the twins grow up in the shadow of their larger-than-life father and his beloved Shakespeare, the central figure of his life. Dana learns to adore both her father and Shakespeare; by age 11, she is able to recite from memory large sections of the Bard's corpus. But for her brother, Shakespeare is just as fraudulent as their father, a composer of "blank-verse torture" whose reputation as the preeminent artistic figure in the Western world owes more to good PR than literary genius.
Arthur's criticisms of Shakespeare are occasionally tempting - he's right that Shakespeare benefitted from the loss of many of his contemporaries' works - but they are more emotional and visceral than literary. Dana aptly summarises her brother's position: "You're the first person ever to suffer from a double Oedipal complex, and one of your dads is four hundred years old". (Arthur's neurosis isn't helped by the fact that he and Shakespeare share a birthday.)
As the idol of both Western literature and his childhood, Shakespeare is, in a sense, one of Arthur's fathers, with all the attendant complexes. But it only takes one look at a bookstore's Shakespeare section to remind oneself that the interpretations of Shakespeare, and his role in Western culture, are endless. Depending on your intellectual proclivities, he may be the greatest writer in the English language, a historian in playwright's clothing, inventor of the modern idiom, theatre's most influential personality, Christopher Marlowe's overrated rival or a philosopher of human nature. This abundance is not lost on Phillips, who writes: "Shakespeare was the greatest creator of Rorschach tests in history".
The critic Harold Bloom, whose theories often attempt to lasso together all of literature in one go, has called Shakespeare the inventor of the modern human. He has gone farther than most down the path of what Bernard Shaw derisively labelled "Bardolatry," the worship of Shakespeare as a kind of secular, humanist religion. Arthur Phillips may be Bardolatry's great apostate or, by his very refusal, an effective apostle.
Bloom's other major critical theory concerns the anxiety of influence, the way in which writers, particularly poets, must wrestle with their forebears. Phillips, who cites Bloom explicitly in the novel, takes this concept to a literal extreme. Arthur Phillips, the character, is not only battling his literary and familial influences; he is practically living them, with his own life mirroring the newly discovered Shakespeare play. Like the King Arthur presented here, Phillips is guilty of living for sensual pleasures, of not trusting those who give him counsel, of a hot-blooded impulsiveness. But like his mythic forebear, he has some inborn potential for greatness - in the writer's case, of the literary kind - if only he can listen to his better angels.
Is The Tragedy of Arthur - the more digestible shorthand for the play - a fake? Is it simply the elder Phillips' finest act of forgery, or is its discovery and preservation the only thing the old man got right? The answer to that question nearly drives the son mad, as it represents the keystone to his existence. If the play is real, as many believe it is, then his conception of his father as a consummate liar must be overturned. If it's fake, then all the better - it'll cast his father out of his life forever - but what if Arthur is the only doubter left standing?
In his carefully sculpted prose, Phillips is capable of marvellous bursts of humour, such as when the elder Phillips, employing the language of the antiquarian book trade, describes how he feels in jail: "Gently used. Slightly foxed. Warmly inscribed". In a later scene, a sign on an old man's lawn reads: "YARD SALE - I'M DYING". But at times the novel's language, if not quite purple, becomes a rich lavender - for example, when Phillips, speaking of his latest infatuation (he has several), writes: "she seemed like an oracle extracting hidden truths from my clotted veins, reading the world to me".
Unnecessary and a tad mawkish, this is a frustrating kind of excess, but it's also of a piece with the memoirish confessional that forms the "introduction" section. Phillips is a sine wave of emotions; his language can be thrown off course by the turbulence, but more often strikes somewhere poignant and true. As with most confessions, he leaves us feeling empowered at his own expense.
By the time one finishes the introduction, the play itself is almost an afterthought. But it has its own pleasures - among them, the duelling footnotes between a doubting Phillips and a convinced Shakespeare scholar - and reads as a fine homage. (An intrepid director should put on a production of it.) It also casts Phillips's experience into relief, giving it the emblazoned quality of myth.
In one of the play's finer lines, the Earl of Cumbria says: "Each folly doth insist it is first-born / And nothing owes to madness gone before". In The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips - in all of his real and fictional permutations - bears this sentiment as a kind of mantra. The Bard might call it his tragic flaw.
Jacob Silverman is a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The New Republic.