No less a Shakespeare critic than Stephen Greenblatt, writing in the New York Times in early May, praised Arthur Phillips’s, The Tragedy of Arthur, as a remarkable production, especially the penning of a so–say lost “Shakespeare” play which bears the book’s title. I mean in no way to lessen the impact of Phillip’s latest novel, when I say that in reading it I could not dispel the sense that I was trying to perform a work-book exercise of some distant school experience: connect columns of items set in parallel with properly drawn pencil lines. The book’s construction is by parallels – the Arthur of the title, the fictional Arthur Phillips who is the narrator (who presents himself as Arthur Phillips, the writer), the fictional Arthur’s father, also Arthur, and the Arthur of the “Shakespeare” play, The Tragedy of Arthur, which is the apparent focus of the work. These multiple Arthurs frame an elaborately constructed book – the novel in the form of the Introduction to a critical edition to the “Shakespeare” play. That the fictional Arthur’s father, Arthur Phillips, might have forged this play furthers the complications. Surely then, to read that there are plot parallels between the play’s five acts and the Introduction’s account of the life of the fictional Arthur Phillips, his twin sister, their artist/forger father and long suffering mother is only to be expected. Making the connections between and among all of these parallel developments of plot, character, and theme, is part of the delight of the fiction. Phillips must also convince us that the characters are in themselves worth our attention if his art is to go beyond puzzle making and masterful parody. On the whole Phillips populates the work with characters we can care about: Dana, the twin sister and unflattering mirror, the baseball loving step-father, the estranged Czech wife. Arthur, the father, is perhaps the most interesting in development; he lives a life of duplicity, on a quest to provide “magic” through his art of deception. He finds himself outside the law and behind bars for most of his life. His skills as a forger are the engines of the plot, and we have to suspend much disbelief to allow him to serve the role of master manipulator whose productions fall steadily short of escaping detection – the “Shakespeare” play being the one possible exception. But the relationship itself, between the narrator and his father, moves beyond improbability to revelation.
The desire for fictional autobiographical re-invention, to develop a main character who is not the author, but who bears many of her or his biographical details is a problematic penchant in other modern writers. I think of Paul Theroux and J.M. Coetzee in particular. These are not really confessional works, but they do raise a central question: what is the relationship between life and art? The tension is both important and irrelevant. I don’t want to indulge in silly paradoxes: an experience of the death of one close to us has a weight and force that the creation of a fictional death does not. The game element of art, the puzzle of the construction, distances us from what really greets us every morning, as opposed to that we confront in the turning of the page. These fictional autobiographies flag a form of deception and collusion between reader and writer – clearly mirrored in Phillips’ novel’s structure. The writer cheats the moment for a moment; our reading offers a reciprocal self- indulgence – we are privy to extraordinary confidences. But how deeply felt is the search for what one is (as in this novel’s case) in the momentous fictional missteps of failed marriages, estranged children, and betrayal of loved ones? The catalogue of crimes and the confessions that lead to greater realization in the end sit undoubtedly in the world of fictional exploration – what might have been or “there but for the grace of God . . .” The author creates a version of his or her “identity” which transgresses and survives to be overcome by the redemption (or loss) of the last lines of the work. Publication makes accessible this confession of another version of the self; its claims upon us can come only by way of what it offers by artistry in execution. We are left with puzzling out the significance of a fictional alter-self and wondering how far this goes beyond narcissism. Trust the tale not the teller, Lawrence warns us. In The Tragedy of Arthur, even the tale turns tail, and leaves us – if not betrayed, then hesitant to offer absolution.