Thursday, July 03, 2008

Arthur Phillips on the British Museum

Just read - or skimmed, actually - Arthur Phillips' The Egyptologist. (You may recall that his debut novel, Prague, got quite a lot of publicity.) It opened fine, but one of the novel's main narrators got to be quite a bore (as several of the other character correctly complain). His delusional, self-centered world is appropriate enough - required, actually, for the novel's story logic to work - but even Nabokov (Phillips' model here) couldn't do much to retain one's interest in such characters. They're shrill, I find, and largely unsympathetic. (Not that Nabokov would've cared a Christly fig for a reader's sympathy, which would explain why Nabokov is (I suspect) more admired than read, Lolita notwithstanding.) Although the final ironic turns of The Egyptologist cast everything that has gone before in a tragic and moving light, the fact that it's obvious from very early on that one of the main characters is masquerading under a false identity (and I'm not good at deducing such things) rather undermines the impact.

But I took great delight in the mini-essay Phillips wrote for the "reader's guide" that appears at the back of the paperback edition of my copy of The Egyptologist, in which he praises the invaluable assistance he got from an expert at the British Museum, courtesy of the internet, answering questions that were often arcane:

If you should decide to write a novel about a topic you know almost nothing about, a scholarly discipline requiring years to master, if you feel compelled to set the story in a land you've scarcely visited, during an era you can only dimly conjure from childhood reading and yellowed clippings, if you have followed your hyperactive and petulant imagination down a rabbit hole and there gazed at glowing, magical projections of inverted pyramids and pith-helmeted lunatics and pharaohs with unconventional appetites, but found little by way of actual knowledge, rest easy, because at the British Museum you will make a new friend: an expert who not only knows everything, but who is required -- yes, required -- to answer all your e-questions, no matter how many, how foolish, how wrong-headed, fantastic, or just downright dirty.

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