Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips

The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips, is canny, smart, funny, and a bit heartbreaking. It's really nicely written. It's an epistolary novel with two deeply complicated, unreliable main narrators (though they are not writing to each other). One character is Ralph Trilipush, an Egyptologist working in 1922 to excavate the tomb of the (possibly false) pharaoh Atum-hadu (whose erotic poetry RT has already translated and published)--he is digging in Egypt right near where Howard Carter is about to discover the tomb of Tutankhamen. The second main character is an Australian private detective; he is in a nursing home and writing in 1954 (I think) about the events of 1922 when he was hired to hunt down the Egyptologist, whom he believes was a confidence man. Each character is complicated, alternately likable and disgusting, and very worthy of attention.

The book made me think about:

1. authenticity: What makes a person acceptable and accredited, bona fide? How can we identify people who are shams, or all we all shams? To what extent can we reinvent ourselves and transcend our past history? Is identity always a sham/temporary guise?

2. academic competition/classism: The novel reveals how social class/upbringing/going to the right schools could either set one up or sink one, particularly in the 1920s, when archaeologists relied on funding and patronage through an old boys' network of sorts.

3. immortality: The novel details various ways people seek it--Egyptian pharaohs through their tombs; academics through their work; archaeologists through their finds; collectors from the items they've assembled.

4. self-invention: The book is full of retellings and reinventions--both of personal history and of historical figures/history more broadly; at the end, the two intertwine in very funny, very horrible ways.

Really, this novel is so nicely executed, in my opinion. Others have compared it to Nabokov's Pale Fire; I'll have to read that.

Author has an excerpt of the book at his Web page. Also, apparently, a new Phillips novel, The Song Is You, is out.

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