The Tragedy of Arthur

( 14 )

Overview

The Tragedy of Arthur is an emotional and elaborately constructed tour de force from bestselling and critically acclaimed novelist Arthur Phillips, “one of the best writers in America” (The Washington Post).

Its doomed hero is Arthur Phillips, a young man struggling with a larger-than-life father, a con artist who works wonders of deception but is a most unreliable parent. Arthur is raised in an enchanted world of smoke and mirrors where the only unshifting truth is his father’s...

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Overview

The Tragedy of Arthur is an emotional and elaborately constructed tour de force from bestselling and critically acclaimed novelist Arthur Phillips, “one of the best writers in America” (The Washington Post).

Its doomed hero is Arthur Phillips, a young man struggling with a larger-than-life father, a con artist who works wonders of deception but is a most unreliable parent. Arthur is raised in an enchanted world of smoke and mirrors where the only unshifting truth is his father’s and his beloved twin sister’s deep and abiding love for the works of William Shakespeare—a love so pervasive that Arthur becomes a writer in a misguided bid for their approval and affection.

Years later, Arthur’s father, imprisoned for decades and nearing the end of his life, shares with Arthur a treasure he’s kept secret for half a century: a previously unknown play by Shakespeare, titled The Tragedy of Arthur. But Arthur and his sister also inherit their father’s mission: to see the play published and acknowledged as the Bard’s last great gift to humanity. . . .

Unless it’s their father’s last great con.

By turns hilarious and haunting, this virtuosic novel—which includes Shakespeare’s (?) lost King Arthur play in its five-act entirety—captures the very essence of romantic and familial love and betrayal. The Tragedy of Arthur explores the tension between storytelling and truth-telling, the thirst for originality in all our lives, and the act of literary mythmaking, both now and four centuries ago, as the two Arthurs—Arthur the novelist and Arthur the ancient king—play out their individual but strangely intertwined fates.

New York Times Notable Book • A New Yorker Reviewers’ Favorite of the Year • A Wall Street Journal Best Novel of the Year • A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year • A Chicago Tribune Favorite Book of the Year • A Library Journal Top Ten Book of the Year • A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year • One of Salon’s five best novels of the year

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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
…Arthur Phillips has found the perfect vehicle for his cerebral talents: his ingenuity; his bright, elastic prose; and, most notably, his penchant for pastiche—for pouring his copious literary gifts into old vessels and reinventing familiar genres…With The Tragedy of Arthur Mr. Phillips has created a wonderfully tricky Chinese puzzle box of a novel that is as entertaining as it is brainy. If its characters are a little emotionally predictable, we don't mind all that much: we're more interested in seeing how the author cuts and sands his puzzle pieces, assembles them into a pretty contraption and then inserts lots of mirrors and false bottoms.
—The New York Times
Stephen Greenblatt
…the novelist's art is a cunning ability to lure the reader into treating counterfeit bills as if they were current. And this particular novel—a fictional memoir posing as a fraudulent introduction to a forged play—is a spectacular instance of the confidence game. It is a tribute to Arthur Phillips's singular skill that his work leaves the reader not with resentment at having been tricked but rather with gratitude for the gift of feigned wonder.
—The New York Times Book Review
Michael Dirda
I suspect that most readers will greatly enjoy Phillips's easygoing and digressive, if admittedly self-absorbed introduction. Just think of the joyless academic prose that a professional Elizabethan might have produced!…The Tragedy of Arthur, however you view it, shows off a writer at the top of his game.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
A long-lost Shakespeare play surfaces in Phillips's wily fifth novel, a sublime faux memoir framed as the introduction to the play's first printing—a Modern Library edition, of course. Arthur Phillips and his twin sister, Dana, maintained an uncommon relationship with their gregarious father, a forger whose passion for the bard and for creating magic in the everyday (he takes his kids to make crop circles one night) leave lasting impressions on them both: Dana becomes a stage actress and amateur Shakespeare expert; Arthur a writer who "never much liked Shakespeare." Their father spends most of their lives in prison, but when he's about to be released as a frail old man, he enlists Arthur in securing the publication of The Tragedy of Arthur from an original quarto he claims to have purloined from a British estate decades earlier, though, as the authentication process wears on—successfully—Arthur becomes convinced the play is his father's greatest scam. Along the way, Arthur riffs on his career and ex-pat past, and, most excruciatingly, unpacks his relationship with Dana and his own romantic flailings. Then there's the play itself, which reads not unlike something written by the man from Stratford-upon-Avon. It's a tricky project, funny and brazen, smart and playful. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“[Balances] a moving story of familial and romantic love on a deliberately unsteady fictional edifice . . . [an] exuberant chimera of a novel.”—The New Yorker
 
“Splendidly devious.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Wily and witty . . . an engrossing family saga [with] sparkling and imaginative prose. Shakespeare would applaud a man who does him so proud.”—The Boston Globe
 
“Arthur Phillips has found the perfect vehicle for his cerebral talents: his ingenuity; his bright, elastic prose; and, most notably, his penchant for pastiche—for pouring his copious literary gifts into old vessels and reinventing familiar genres.”—The New York Times
 
“Devious and exhilarating . . . an irresistible family drama bundled into an exploration of fraud and authenticity.”—The Wall Street Journal
 
“A circus of a novel, full of wit, pathos and irrepressible intelligence.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“The story of a family that is Shakespearean in several senses . . . [The Tragedy of Arthur] contains literary echoes of Nabokov, Stoppard and even . . . Thomas Pynchon.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Library Journal
A memoir and a Shakespearean play wrapped into a novel? Who could pull this off but the prolific Phillips (Prague; The Egyptologist; Angelica; The Song Is You)? The narrator—a knockoff of the author himself?—relates the obsession of his father and twin sister with the Bard of Avon and the discovery within the family of a hitherto unknown play by none other than. Our narrator then recounts the tribulations of family life, centered on his dad's frequent incarcerations for forgeries of artworks (and plays?). At length the father persuades his son the narrator to sell the play, and it is bought by—you guessed it—with the understanding that the narrator would pen an introduction to contextualize the play, the "introduction" becoming the memoir that is considerably longer than the play. This drama, The Tragedy of Arthur, is presented in full herewith, duly annotated by both the narrator and an academic. The Bard would be amused to be set center-stage by someone who professes to have no patience with him, while the narrator pokes wicked fun at the ubiquitous memoir genre. VERDICT Highly recommended for all who enjoy inspired, original, entertaining writing—deftly delivered here by one of our most talented arthurs, uh, authors. [An LJ Editors' Pick, p. 29; see Prepub Alert, 11/22/10.]—Edward Cone, New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594494713
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/19/2011
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Arthur Phillips is the internationally bestselling author of The Song Is You, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best novels of the year by The Washington Post; Angelica; The Egyptologist; and Prague, which was also a New York Times Notable Book and the winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. He lives in New York with his wife and two sons.

Biography

It takes a lot of guts to call your first novel Prague. The name alone has become shorthand for a temporary fantasy world populated by overprivileged, post-collegiate Westerners trying to find themselves. It takes even more guts to call your first novel Prague and set it in Budapest.

Luckily for Arthur Phillips, the confidence is backed up by talent. His 2002 debut became a national bestseller that landed on several critics' year end "best of" lists, including Newsweek, Publishers Weekly, and The New York Times.

The seeds for Prague were planted in 1990, when Phillips graduated from Harvard and moved to Budapest. After the fall of Communism, Central Europe became the latest stopping point for would be bohemians looking to recreate the spirit of Paris in the ‘20s. Phillips spent the next two years working a variety of odd jobs, including stints as an executive assistant, an entrepreneur, a jazz musician, and a repo man.

While in Budapest, Phillips was struck by the radically different communities living together in the Hungarian capital. On one side were the expatriates: young, carefree, self-consciously aware of their role in history. On the other side were the natives: experienced, distant, routinely suspicious of the invading foreigners, yet smart enough to exploit the boon for their own benefit.

The gap between and necessary collision of the two worlds resonates throughout Prague. As Phillips writes on his website, "For some people I knew, the ear-popping pressure of so much history and self-consciousness made it hard to get up in the morning, to justify your lunch, let alone your existence. What does it mean to tell a girl you ache for her as the two of you stand in front of a building with bullet holes in it? What does it mean to fret about your fledgling and blatantly temporary career when the man next to you managed to get himself tortured by the secret police of two different regimes?"

In 1992, Phillips returned to the States to study music at Berklee in Boston. He graduated after a year and a half and started playing music professionally. Shortly thereafter, he got married. It did not take long for his wife to become "increasingly dubious about [his] abilities to make any money," so Phillips did what any man in his situation would do—he tried out for Jeopardy. Six months later, Phillips was on the show, earning enough money as a five-night champion to fund his next few years of exploits.

He began work on Prague in 1997. "I had been back in the States for about 5 years, and I felt so overwhelmingly nostalgic for that time and place, that I really was kind of a drag to be around," Phillips said in a 2002 interview with NPR's All Things Considered. "And my wife and others would ask me to stop talking about Hungary. And so I thought, well, maybe I could write about this time and then maybe I can work through some of my nostalgic issues."

It took Phillips four years to write the book and another six months to find an agent. Random House picked up the novel and published it to nearly universal acclaim. Janet Maslin praised it in The New York Times as "an ingenious debut novel." Other critics called Prague "devilishly clever" (Publishers Weekly), "hilarious and scathing" (Salon.com) and "astonishingly good" (Minneapolis Star Tribune). Phillips, it seems, had finally found his niche.

Two years later, Phillips published his second novel, The Egyptologist. Phillips came up with the idea for the novel when asked by his sister to describe the writing process. To Phillips, writing is like, "an archaeological expedition. You think you're describing the main chamber, but then you discover another door and you go through it and find an even larger room, and what you thought was your goal turns out just to be a piece of a much larger structure you hadn't expected to find."

Phillips has gone on to write Angelica, The Song Is You, and The Tragedy of Arthur, all to critical acclaim.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 23, 1969
    2. Place of Birth:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      B.A., Harvard College, 1990
    2. Website:

Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 8, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Great for Fans of Shakespeare!

    This is an interesting take on the legend of Shakespeare. Arthur Phillips and his his twin sister Dana are influenced by their father. He was a master conman who ended in prison. He taught them both, especially Dana, all about Shakespeare and told them that he had been handed down a copy of an unpublished work called The Tragedy of Arthur. As you can never believe what their father said you can never know whether the book is genuine or an elaborate hoax.

    Dana is infatuated by Shakespeare and even concocts an elaborate tale of who wrote his works based on some theorists that beliefs that somebody else, possibly more than one person wrote those great dramas. Arthur adores Dana and she becomes his most trusted confidante throughout life, while Arthur tries to find himself. He seems to go through life hoping for his father's approval and always comes away disappointed by his brief visits to see him in jail.

    Arthur goes into writing and makes a life for himself in Europe. After a failed marriage he comes back and tries to make a new start of it. Throughout the book he narrates different acts from the Tragedy of Arthur and the last third of the book is the actual manuscript. For those that are Shakespeare buffs, they will probably rate this book higher and spend hours reading and dissecting the manuscript. I found the book to be a very interesting human interest tale and made me more interested in finding out more about Shakespeare's plays.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 16, 2011

    What a ride!

    Arthur Phillips is one of the most original writers we have these days. Each book he writes takes you to new places in new ways. This one skewers the memoir and takes aim at the cult of Shakespeare. Who was this guy? Why do we revere him and consider his work above criticism. I just laughed all the way through this. Enjoy.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2012

    Good book

    Thought this book was a little weird in a good way

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 22, 2011

    Great fun.

    Illuminated by Nabokov's Pale Fire and obscured by Pirandello's nesting-doll sensiblities, this novel is consistently entertaining.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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