By Charles Matthews

Monday, November 28, 2011

5. The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, pp. 96-123


In 1992, Arthur takes a business trip to London, and writes to Dana about his visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he meets a couple of Germans, Heidi and Günter. Arthur lets his skepticism about and distaste for Shakespeare appear on his face when Günter is praising him, and Heidi notices it. When Günter stops to take a leak by the side of a building and is busted by a cop, she and Arthur beat a retreat, leaving Günter in the hands of the law.

She then confesses to Arthur that she dislikes Shakespeare too. She kisses him and launches into an attack on the improbabilities of the plots of various plays, including The Merchant of Venice:
"Okay, so all your Shylock has to tell to that little bitch is 'Hey, it is Antonio's debt to pay me, so he can cut his own flesh without me and give me my pound, and if he spill his own blood or cuts out too much, that is his problem. Now pay me, Christian bastards!' Am I not right?"
Arthur admits that he'd never thought of that either, and shares with her Dana's theory that all of the Antonios in Shakespeare are gay. (It's certainly true that the Antonios in Merchant and Twelfth Night can be, and often are, presented that way.)


Arthur's letter to Dana about meeting Heidi ends rather vaguely, he admits, and he tells us that he had fallen for her so hard that he decided to skip out on the rest of his business trip and run away with her. "I considered leaving behind everything of mine except wallet and passport but, as always, was terribly concerned with what others would think of me (in this case, that I'd been kidnapped)." He leaves his paperwork on the advertising account outside the door of his colleague's hotel room, and flies off to Venice with her.

But in Venice, as he is struggling through the streets with his suitcase and hers, she disappears. He doesn't even know her last name. He doesn't know whether he's been conned into buying her a plane ticket or she is lost and looking for him, or even if she has gotten into some sort of trouble. He goes to the police and tries to explain, but realizes the absurdity of his situation:
You did not know her last name? You had known her less than twenty-four hours when she vanished? At the time you were lovers, signore? You met when she left her previous lover in a London prison, because he had irritated her by taking her to too many Shakespeare plays? All of your conversation in that twenty-four hours -- perhaps two hours total -- was built on a mutual distaste for Shakespeare? The playwright, signore?
There are no documents in her suitcase by which he can trace her. He thinks that she would never have left her clothes and her toiletries, but realizes that he had left more than that in London, "traded it all for a new chapter of life." Moreover, he realizes that "she had had more effect on me than any woman in my life in New York except Dana." Once he recovers from the shock, he stays on in Venice, observing and writing. "Heidi was my muse, I came to understand in a flash of self-love. I have since wondered if I didn't imagine her."

Dana writes that she learned of his resignation from the advertising firm from one of the women in his office he had slept with, but she is not impressed with his claim to have broken free from his past, and particularly from Shakespeare:
It's all been done before, and you claim that you are free of influences? Anxious brother, he [Shakespeare] shares your birthday. Why do you have to deny him for that? You will somehow reduce him, beat him, ignore him, prove he doesn't own you? Even if those weren't contradictory, you miss that he has invented you already. The boy intent on being free of his family? The dreamy artist who roams Italy for inspiration? The Jew in Venice? You learned all this from him, or from people who learned it from him then mushed it into sitcoms and weepy movies for you. We are all his ideas.
Dana is here echoing two of Harold Bloom's books: The Anxiety of Influence and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. But the die is cast: "I fled from my father, my mother, my twin, my work, an entire life, which I at twenty-eight dismisses as unoriginal and a failure. Just like my father, I did not come home for years."


So Arthur goes to Prague and marries a beautiful Czech model named Jana. In 1995 they have twin boys "who for a while thought their foreign father was okay, but then grew increasingly embarrassed by his accent and general air of not belonging and his stupid answers to their czildhood predicaments." (That "czildhood" is evidently intentional and a rather silly joke.) He admits that he "did not find my lost half in Bohemia after all," but that he did become a successful writer, "publishing four novels from 2002 to 2009." (As did the actual Arthur Phillips, though not in Prague.)

After the publication of his first novel, he goes to see his father in prison, but is upset by his apparent indifference to the novel. "'I think he traded it for cigarettes,' I told Dana back in New York on the way home, futilely garbing pain in a joke for her." As usual, Dana finds the source for his resentment in Shakespeare: "The half-made man, self-loathing, comes to his wizardly father for approval, for his freedom to become fully human. Sound familiar, Caliban?" (Arthur notes here that Dana is reading Harold Bloom's book with "the maximalist and insane thesis that Shakespeare invented how people now live, communicate, think.")  Dana is also nursing a crush on "the young actress Anne Hathaway" -- with no overt recognition of the Shakespearean tie there.

He returns to Prague, but experiences a kind of psychological disassociation: "I started to lose my language skills. I had increasing difficulty recalling Czech vocabulary and grammar." He also reveals that he has been devising an anagram for his father to decipher: "The first letters of the titles of my novels are S, P, E, and A.  I planned to write, with all my remaining years, books initialed S, H, A, K, E, R, and E, and then, maybe, A, N, D, M, E. (The real Arthur's books do begin with those letters, except that The Tragedy of Arthur breaks the planned pattern.) But he prides himself that he has never titled a book with a quote from Shakespeare.


Returning to his plan to provide plot summaries of the play, he gives us one for the fourth act, in which Arthur names Philip of York his heir. "Is it the dialogue headings down the left margin over and over again -- 'ARTHUR PHILIP ARTHUR PHILIP ARTHUR PHILIP' -- that make me leery?"

In 2009, Dana calls to tell him that Sil is critically ill, so he flies to Minneapolis. But before he leaves Prague, Jana confronts him with the suspicions of her mother and sister that Arthur has been having an affair. "My stead, then angry (and truthful denials launched her defensive weapon: she had slept with ... it doesn't matter whom. I said I didn't believe her, which was a serious tactical blunder because I thought she was unattractive, did I?"


He arrives in Minneapolis to find that his stepfather has died while he was en route. Dana has moved back to Minneapolis and is teaching drama at their old school. And she is living with a new lover.

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