The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips

This 2011 work is a marvelous conceit. It also belongs to the new world of metafiction. It is about Arthur Phillips, a novelist, our novelist, who lives under the spell of his brilliant twin sister Dana and his equally brilliant father Arthur.

The son Arthur, the narrator of this tale, feels that he has to continually prove himself to his own father. This is a father who is constantly absent because he is in jail, sent there as a con man with an ego who time and again has created fraudulent, if almost harmless, plots to fool the public. For example, as a boy, the son had once watched his father create crop circles in order to suggest an alien invader.

This novel is about what may be the father’s greatest con. It is built around the question of whether the Shakespearean play the father has “discovered,” the tragedy of ancient King Arthur, may actually be real, may actually be by Shakespeare. The father gives the play to his son to have it vetted and published. But is it truly by Shakespeare? Arthur has his doubts, even when classical scholars begin to verify its authenticity.

What is Arthur to do?  Does he go ahead and support what he senses is a lie? Or does he withdraw his support and risk the trust of his publisher and perhaps his own literary future?

But what makes this novel truly work as literature is less the moral issue that the son faces than his complex relationship with both his father and his sister. The son Arthur is a quiet, insecure man who appears to have no ego. But maybe he does, for he is constantly dueling with his brilliant sister for his father’s attention, as well as seeking his father’s approval. Perhaps knowing his father’s attraction to Shakespeare, the son turns himself into a writer; and this work lists the actual books the real author has written.

There are interesting psychological connections to the relationship between father, daughter, and son. The daughter is continually ingratiating herself with her father, always believing in his love, and now accepting that the Arthurian tragedy was really written by Shakespeare. While son Arthur deeply regrets a dispute over the authenticity of the Arthurian tragedy is coming between him and his sister. This is compounded by more guilt feelings prompted by his failing hopelessly in love with Petra, the lesbian lover of his sister. This is a sub story that is not convincing, however, and really goes nowhere.

But most of all, the son, who since his boyhood has sought the love of his distant farther, and has long resisted the belief that his father loves him, now is persuaded that his father may have given him the manuscript of Arthur in order to demonstrate his love of his son. For the father has now given up all monetary rights to the manuscript, and has left his son a legacy that will make him and his mother and sister rich for the rest of their lives. Which, of course, troubles the son. How can he reap the benefits of what he believes is a fraud?

The novel that we are reading is the son’s solution to his problem. It is an introduction to the play that offers his evidence of why he believes the text is a fraud, even if he cannot actually prove it. But as a tantalizing aside, the son also comes to realize that by writing novels, he is in one sense no better than his father, for as a novelist he himself is creating a fraud, a fraudulent reality.

This novel itself is actually fun to read after its slow start in which the author establishes the family relationships and the father’s fraudulent career. One, in fact, wonders at first where this novel is headed. But once the Shakespearean play appears, first as a 1904 printed work, and than as a 1597 original work, both interest and suspense build. Is the text truly real? Will son Arthur be able to prove it either way? How will his relationships end, with his father, his sister, the lesbian lover? And how will the publisher Random House react to his conviction that the discovered text is a fraud?

The reader is offered brief, but to me unimpressive, samples of the Shakespearean work, as well as emails from the father defending the veracity of the work, and emails from an understanding editor at Random House questioning whether son Arthur really means the manuscript is a fraud. There are also emails and conversations with his sister, betraying his uncertainty, both regarding the manuscript and his relationship with his father.

At the end of 256 pages, the entire novel, is a script of the actual Arthurian play of more than 100 pages. I confess I did not read this. I have never been able to connect with a Shakespearean play by reading it, only by seeing it performed. So after dipping into it and seeing the same problem, the archaic and poetic language that made no conversational sense, I abandoned it. Anyway, I knew it was not real; it was Phillips’ own work. There was no reward in reading it, except to admire the author’s nimble exercise in literary egotism. Yes, it lends authenticity to the novel, and we see what it was all about, but I so enjoyed the novel, I did not need that.

What I admire about Phillips is his literary adventurism. Every novel is completely different. This one is the most daring, for it takes on Shakespeare. No, not takes him on, but rather takes off from him. (September, 2013)

The Girl at the Lion d’Or, by Sebastian Faulks

This 1989 work is a perfect little novel. The reader is drawn into the story of two fine people, and wonders what will happen to them. The novel does nothing else; it simply explores their story and probes their desire for human contact. While they belong to different social levels, their affair is not a metaphor of a clash between those levels. Nor, with one person being married, is there a reference to the morality of their situation.   It is simply the story of Anne, the servant girl at the Lion d’Or inn, and Charles Hartmann, a married, more wealthy bar patron at the inn. They meet casually and are slowly drawn to one another. She is alone in a world that has abandoned her, and he is married to a wife he no longer loves. Each seems to provide what the other needs, and they take advantage of a burgeoning friendship to fill the emptiness in their lives.

The reader wonders, given the couple and their situation, how this affair could possibly arrive at a romantic conclusion. One even wonders—remember the perfection—if this could be a modern version of Madame Bovary; that is, whether or not both Anne and Hartmann will survive their affair.

Indeed, it is clear from one late scene that Faulks himself considered the impact of the Flaubert novel. In that scene, one character picks up a knife, and the reader senses that person’s world about to end. What I think this scene is is a young novelist’s salute to Flaubert.

At the end, however, he resorts to neither romanticism nor tragedy, as he resolves with empathy the outcome of this ”impossible” affair.

The background is just substantial enough to highlight the difficulties that their affair represents. It is not the society that each belongs to that is in conflict, but the separate needs of this couple from contrasting backgrounds. That background is the 1930s in a France weakened by the world-wide depression, and a France that looks nervously on the threat from Hitler’s Germany.

In the background is also the terrible toll that World War I took on the manhood of France. And this is made tangible by the story of Anne’s father, who refused an officer’s order for a futile charge of the German lines. Anne has long kept secret her father’s fate, fearing that knowledge of it would create scandal and destroy her own hopes for the future. But as finally she reveals her secret to Hartmann, she becomes more human—and we realize the need she has for human commitment, as well as the need he has for a deep emotional connection to another human being.

Faulks probes just deeply enough in the psychology of Anne and Hartman to make their affair convincing. And despite the “impossibility” of their affair, he does make the resolution effective, as he explores the internal psychology that brought them together and now may or may not separate them. In one case it is the threat of abandonment, and in another it is a matter of conscience.

And whatever the resolution, the reader feels that both have benefitted from their affair. Both have profited from the kind of deep human contact that they had previously denied themselves. And both come to a better understanding of themselves as a result.

And yet the peripheral characters also have substance. We see the inn owner in a different, less dominant light, as well has the inn’s brutal manager in a softer light, at prayer. There is also the incompetent contractor Roussel, and the predator Mattlin who takes advantage of young women. And most of all, there is Hartmann’s wife, the patient Christine, a good but dull woman, who sees she is losing her husband and realizes she can only wait for the outcome. Her strategy is to rely on her husband’s conscience. She becomes a sympathetic character, despite our primary concern for the fate of the two lovers.

Perhaps the simplicity of this work is typical of an early novel, as Faulks focuses on his two main characters, particularly on Anne. Of note is that this is the first of three novels that Faulks set in modern France, three novels built around the emotional lives of three young women of need. The other two works, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, are superior because they are conceived on a grander scale, particularly with their military environment. And their heroines face a far greater challenge than their search for love.

If this had been my first Faulks novel, it would have piqued my interest, but nothing more. Since it was not, it reveals to me the foundation of his later and more powerful work. (August, 2013)

Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally

This 1982 work is not a novel, as Keneally claims. It is closer to Mailer’s “history as a novel, the novel as history.” But whatever it is, it is magnificent, even moving as it describes Oskar Schindler life as his World War II heroism ends.

What Schindler did was save about 1,400 Polish Jews from death during World War II. He was a complex man, Keneally reminds us, a Nazi spy originally, later a briber and a blackmailer of both the SS and German industrialists in behalf of the incarcerated Jews, and also a liar and a seducer of women, a man who enjoyed the pleasures of life amid the horror around him, and yet a man who was kind and generous toward helpless Jews, the victims of war.

And for a reason the author cannot pin down, the debonair Schindler converted from being a greedy businessman taking advantage of the Jews to a savior of these persecuted Jews. Was it an ethical residue of a Catholicism he had long abandoned? Was it simply a recognition of the evil, the unfairness of the Nazis regime? Itzhak Stern, one of the men he saved, believes it happened after Stern reminded Schindler of a Talmudic verse: “he who saves the life of one man saves the entire world.”

Schindler worked with the Nazis as the owner of manufacturing firms licensed to operate in labor camps, using conscripted Polish Jews. His base was Krakow, and his labor camp was close to the Auschwitz death camp. In fact, those who were not healthy enough to work for him were sent by the Germans to die at Auschwitz.

The bulk of this work is a series of anecdotes dug up by Keneally’s remarkable research. He interviewed perhaps 50 former prisoners, who told him what had happened to them and to others in two labor camps over a period of about six years. The most evil man they encountered was Amon Goeth, the German in charge of the workers in the Krakow labor camp. He would take out a pistol or a rifle and shoot the Jewish workers for doing nothing, or at most irritating him—which became an enduring image from the great Spielberg film.

Schindler despised the pleasure-loving Goeth, but met his blatant needs and cajoled and bribed him in behalf of the Jewish workers. He also bribed many other influential Nazis with liquor, cigarettes, jewelry, money, and more black market items. But more significant here is the desperation of a dozen or more Jews: their efforts to escape punishment, seek food, obtain medical care, avoid the death camps, etc. In fact, it is these horrible experiences, not Schindler’s, that give weight to this book.

The result is the most complete report of the suffering of the Jews that I have read since Hersey’s The Wall. Which was also based on historic records. And I would put both on the same literary level. It is this narrow focus on a small group of people that produces each book’s powerful rendition of what it was like for the many that were persecuted.

At the same time, the cumulative evidence of such suffering, based on these former prisoners’ reports, underscores the significance of Schindler’s efforts. Schindler himself, however, rarely bragged about what he did. “You are safe with me,” is what he often told his workers.

The greatest example of his subterfuge was moving his entire labor force from Poland to Czechoslovakia as the Russians advanced on Poland and the Germans tried to destroy all evidence of the camps, including the captive Jews. Determined to save those he had been protecting, he first moved the men to Brinnlitz, to an abandoned factory, and weeks later the women endured a harrowing experience before they also arrived. These men and women were the people on Schindler’s list, although it is disputed who actually created that list.

Schindler continually protected his Jews by telling the Germans that he had highly skilled workers who could never be replaced. He also reminded his superiors that the new factory was producing top secret armaments, while in fact the workers deliberately miscalculated exact measurements and never produced anything that could be used. In addition, Schindler himself backed up his commitment to his workers by using his own money to feed, house, and care for them.

As powerful as are the scenes of German cruelty and Jewish suffering that comprise the bulk of this book, the final moments of the Schindlerjuden, Schindler’s Jews, as the Russians approach their camp, and the Germans flee, became unexpectedly moving. Schindler himself pleaded that the prisoners conduct no reprisals. Such as in one case when retreating German motorcyclists approached, but simply to ask for gasoline. The same prisoners even feared to walk out the camp gates. As for Schindler, he rode away in striped prison garb as his disguise, and while the Americans helped his flight to Switzerland, the French were suspicious until his accompanying Jews testified how he has saved them.

As to the question of the “novelization” of this story, this work is a narration; it is not a novel. Keneally relates every event based on the tales of his sources, but while each event concerns Schindler’s Jews, the events are not dramatized; they are reconstructed. And equally arbitrary are the sequence of events. There is no linkage between these events. They are separate. They do not develop reader interest by telling a story. The tales simply enrich the horror of the scene. Keneally also rarely uses quotes, and when he does it is usually without quotation marks around them. Again, reconstruction. Occasionally, however, he will break the narrative to step back and interpret for the reader either certain events or Schindler’s unique motives.

Keneally has used this approach to history before, such as in Gossip from the Forest. He in no way compromises his reputation here. He enhances it (September, 2013)

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

This 2005 novel is remarkable. But, half-way into it, I was puzzled by the book’s purpose. I was prepared to experience different stories at various time levels, but was not prepared to experience its various genre styles. At one point, I wondered if these different writing styles merely reflected the author showing off.

The story begins with Adam Ewing recording a sea adventure from the 19th century. Then it moves to an introspective study of a composer and his innocent student, Robert Frobisher, suggesting a similar account about a young man and Frederic Delius. Next, we move to a somewhat sinister tale of a reporter, Luisa Rey, who is tracking down a scientist fleeing a powerful energy company, which resorts to violence when the scientist claims its new atomic plant is unsafe. The fourth tale introduces Timothy Cavendish, a publisher who ends up fleeing London, only to find himself locked up as crazy in a rest home.

It is with the fifth tale, however, that Mitchell really suggests showing off. Set up as an interview with Somi-451, an android type, this is a science fiction tale set in a world the reader finds difficult to grasp as it begins underground in a controlled society, a society from which the android heroine attempts to escape to become a human. An entirely new vocabulary (and references) are introduced for the first time.

A new vocabulary continues in the sixth tale, set in a Hawaii of the distant future after a world calamity, for here the narrator uses a blend of slang and a Western cowboy accent to tell of a violent war between two tribes, plus a mysterious woman who may be ready to help the narrator’s side. This is the only tale which is told completely in one take. After one gets past the idiomatic narrative, however, it ends with an exciting attempt to escape across the Big Island to safety.

The other five tales have stopped abruptly, and now they resume, each reaching an exiting climax. As the Times review notes, the narrative sequence is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, which underlines the deliberate structure of this work.

We return to Somni-451’s search to be human and the adventurous finish— except hers turns out to be a shaggy dog tale, as the author pulls the run from under our feet. Next to reappear is publisher Cavendish, whose fast-paced adventure rises to a climax with his escape from the home, except it then winds down gently.

By now the reader is wondering where Mitchell is going with these tales with the suggestion of a link between them. One link, a comet-shaped birthmark, suggests reincarnation. Another link occurs when, somehow, a book, a film, or letters fortuitously appear that refer back to a previous tale and enable the characters (and the author) to connect the various stories.

The most exciting return is to Luisa Rey, and the reader wonders what has happened to her after she has been run off the road and presumably killed. This return to Luisa Ray demonstrates how well Mitchell can write a clever suspense novel if he wishes. Luisa’s adventures keep moving as she escapes peril after peril, with surprising deaths hindering her along the way. Until, as in most mysteries, the corporate skullduggery is revealed and justice is served. Except, before we leave her Luisa receives a mysterious package with letters Frobisher wrote back in 1931 during his life with the composer.

These letters reveal Frobisher’s frustration both in love and in composing. His tale also reaches a definite, unexpected conclusion, as he culminates his short career with the Cloud Atlas Sextet. Except…he himself has discovered an old book in his room, propping up a bed leg. The book contains the second half of the Adam Ewing tale that began this novel.

Ewing’s tale returns us to his harrowing adventure on the high seas and a threat to his life. It also climaxes with an unexpected surprise, before offering a 19th century conclusion that says life is a struggle, often against evil, but that men must dedicate themselves to doing good and enjoying the fruits of that effort.

So what is Mitchell trying to achieve here? It appears to be a summary of human experience. Through six tales of adventure, he ranges from the 1800s to an unknown distant future. And in each adventure, his heroes and heroines confront evil, sometimes triumphing, sometimes not. Which, of course, is the human experience.

At the same time, Mitchell also decided to challenge himself. He will use different writing styles to relate different stories with different outcomes. The artist in him also suggests those links between the stories—either a comet tattoo, or the letters, manuscript, or film that advances the narrative to the succeeding tale. Except, I think that these links are decoration, an author’s maneuver to justify his six tales being brought together. It has nothing to do with the novel’s meaning.

What makes this book work is its cleverness: its fascinating adventures, its frequent surprises, its believable characters in every era, its shifting styles, its solid reality both in the past and in its world of fantasy. One review sums it up: “Cloud Atlas is a narrative about the act of narration, the ability of story telling to shape our sense of history, civilization, and selfhood.” Or another: “It knits together science fiction, political thriller and historical pastiche with musical virtuosity and linguistic exuberance.”

The one area that did not persuade me was the suggestion of a kind of simultaneousness to these stories, a suggestion that they exist outside of time and will repeat over and over. This is most obvious in a scene in which a bomb blows up an airplane, and a suggestion that the characters will return and meet again. This thought does blend with the idea of six separate time frames joined together in one book. But surely it is much less effective in raising a philosophical point than it is in being a technique to join these stories. Indeed. Mitchell seems aware of this, as publisher Frobisher rejects the mere idea of reincarnation in a manuscript about Luisa Rey

To sum up, I felt it was unnecessary to link these tales through letters, manuscripts, and film. The work does not need this. It is the range of the tales and their similarities that justify bringing them together. One similarity, for example, comes from each character striving against all odds to reach a goal, mostly succeeding, sometimes not. Still another is the narrator always trying to escape pursuers to achieve this. Finally, there is also a similarity, paradoxically, in each tale being related in a different literary style.

And yet the imagination behind this work is truly impressive. Indeed, while Mitchell had to receive pleasure in answering the challenge behind his structure, I cannot help but think that he also sought, through the narrative within each tale, to create maximum pleasure for his readers.

Is there another book like this one? Can there be? It would certainly seem that only this author could top this book. Which makes me truly interested in his future works, even as I suspect that the literary risk that he takes will not always work. Yet I cannot help but salute him for trying. (August, 2013)

Wicked, by Gregory Maguire

This 1995 work is a long and complex novel. Its narrative flows rapidly, but it also jumps over long passages of time, which produces about five separate stories. The consistent character is Elphaba, the Wicked With of the West, and the novel is about how this sympathetic, victimized character evolves, and how and why she becomes wicked.

The entire work was inspired by The Wizard of Oz, but is a rather free adaptation of the events that led up to the L. Frank Baum novel. Also, it’s for adults, not kids. Maguire interprets the events for his own purposes, one of which is to explore the existence of evil and the possible consequences in an afterlife. But in doing so, through the five stories, he creates a confusing narrative, as the surrounding characters change in each story and Elphaba herself changes.

Also confusing for a long while is the presence of Animals and animals. The former have human characteristics, but are not recognized as human by much of society, which nevertheless uses them. The lowercase animals are mere animals. Upper case Animals are close to the slaves of our past, but Maguire does not stress this.

The land of Oz consists of five separate governments, none of which trusts the other; and the Wizard as the villain apparently wishes to dominate Oz overall. (Note that his role is quite small; and he is no jovial, unthreatening Frank Morgan.) Thus, there is a strong political element to this novel, an element which for me offers an unwanted distraction from the adventures of the main characters. Although I do grant that some of the characters are deeply involved in this struggle for power.

In the first story, Elphaba is born to an evangelical-type minister, but has green skin, a temper, and a deathly fear of water. When a sister, Nessarose, is born, she is quite beautiful, but has no arms. She is her father’s favorite and Elphaba becomes jealous of her.

In the second story, Elphaba go off to Shiz University where she rooms with snobby and beautiful Galinda, watches over Nessarose, and meets other friends. There is a murder over the status of Animals, and Elphaba decides she must rebel and join their cause.

The third story, five years later, has Elphaba deeply involved in the underground. She has a futile affair, and, after failing to assassinate a target, she flees, mute, to a nunnery.

In the fourth story, seven more years have passed. Elphaba is called by her father to Munchkinland to help set “queen” Nessarose on the right path. Nessa promises to give Elphaba her magic ruby slippers when she dies. Elphaba wants these slippers because she has learned how to do magic. She is on her way to becoming a witch.

The final story, another seven years later, begins when Dorothy’s house from The Wizard of Oz falls on Nessa and kills her. Elphaba expects to get the shoes now, but Galinda, now Glinda, arrives first and gives them to Dorothy for the girl’s safety. Elphaba is furious; the slippers are rightfully hers. This turns Elphaba into the Wicked Witch of the West, as she plans to kill Dorothy to get the slippers.

Thus, Elphaba has become wicked, even though she has done much good in life, i.e., supporting the Animals and rebelling against the dictatorial Wizard. This contradiction is what enables Maguire to raise the question of evil. Are evil acts ever justified? Can/should a good person commit evil acts, and remain good?

At the end, Elphaba is evil. But how much has this grown out of her unfortunate circumstances: her green skin, her temper, her paternity, etc., and how much has been introduced by the author—both to conform in part to Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and to enable him to explore the complexity of existence, such as whether there is a God (the Unknown God) and an afterlife. This is what might prompt one to reread this work. Knowing the conclusion, even though Maguire does not resolve those eternal issues, would one appreciate the issues better?  Would one also detect more clearly the author’s Catholic background?

I have not seen the musical, Wicked, but my impression is that Glinda has a more prominent role there than she does in the novel. Is it because the musical presents only part of the novel, the early portion when Glinda is more prominent? More likely it is a reworking, based on the realization that someone has to be in dramatic conflict with Elphaba.

To sum up, this is a story of fantasy, evil, and politics. Its content is the fantasy, its core is the evil, and its theme is the political struggle in Oz. Wally Lamb sums up this work quite well: “Maguire’s adult fable examines some of literature’s major themes: the nature of evil, the bittersweet dividends of power, and the high costs of love. Elphaba…is as scary as ever, but this time in a different way. She’s undeniably human. She’s us.”

Maguire achieves here what many authors strive for: a sympathetic villain. He creates sympathy with the good that Elphaba does in her family life and her political life. Then he confronts her with emotion and circumstance that twists her frame of reference. It is a twist I am still reluctant to accept at face value, even as I understand how it works in the novel. So A for effort; B+ for achievement. There is a certain confusion when the separate adventures, as entertaining as they are, do not flow from one story to the next. (July, 2013)