Book of the month

Each month, staff, students and friends of the English Seminar introduce books they enjoyed and wish to recommend. If you'd like to post your favourite book, please write to Lena.Linne@rub.de.

July 2022

Jan Mosch recommends The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (2011):

"Arthur Phillips's novel The Tragedy of Arthur (2011) rests on a few simple premises: William Shakespeare could have written a history play about the legendary British king Arthur. That play could have survived in a single manuscript, hidden in a private library. The printing rights for such an unknown, monopolised Shakespeare play would likely be bought by a publishing giant like Random House, which is, as it happens, the publisher of The Tragedy of Arthur.

Something is off, though, as different voices compete for the reader's attention. In a publisher's note, Random House asks us to focus on the second part of the book - the actual text of Shakespeare's Arthurian tragedy. Turning the pages, we do find the complete play but also two sets of footnotes: one by eminent Shakespeare scholar Roland Verre, who vouches for the authenticity of the play and confidently expounds its meaning; another by Arthur Phillips, the owner of the manuscript, who claims that the play is full of allusions to his family history and that it was, in fact, written by his father, a Shakespeare superfan and master forger.

Shifting our attention back to the first part of the book, we find that Phillips turns the introduction to the play (which he is contractually obliged to write and which Random House must print unchanged) into a memoir in which he ruminates on his and his sister's difficult relationship with their criminal father. Phillips reflects on the siblings' attempts to step out of their father's shadow and to tap into their own creative potential. He feels that his sister, an actress, has succeeded, whereas he - the novelist - has failed, gaining neither his father's approval nor creative independence from that most influential of Western writers, Shakespeare, whom the father adored and the son has come to hate.

Needless to say, the entire thing - the Shakespeare play but also the narrator Arthur Phillips, his bleak family history and his debilitating self-doubts - is a fiction that the actual Arthur Phillips has dreamt up. On the story level, however, i.e. with regard to the fictional universe, it is much more difficult to tell reality from fantasy. Is the narrator right in rejecting The Tragedy of Arthur as fake, or has his resentment of his father, and Shakespeare, blinded him to the truth?

Apart from its postmodern subversion of the notion of authenticity, this novel of ideas raises some fascinating questions regarding literature and literary scholarship. How does our reception of a text change when we believe that it was written by Shakespeare (or not)? Does it really matter who wrote it? Do we need literary patterns to structure the experiences of our lives - and can we (unlike Arthur, the narrator) avoid casting ourselves in our own 'tragedies'?

Poking fun at Harold Bloom's concept of the anxiety of influence (the esoteric notion that only the 'strongest' writers can distance themselves from their literary forebears and find their own voice), the novel ultimately celebrates creativity through intertextuality: its composition principle (fictional piece of literature with commentary) imitates Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, which in turn takes its title from a line in Timon of Athens, one of the tragedies written by, of course, Shakespeare."

June 2022

Uwe Klawitter recommends Dunbar by Edward St Aubyn (2017):

"Edward St. Aubyn's novel Dunbar tells the story of the fictitious Canadian media mogul Henry Dunbar who has given control of his worldwide media empire to his two eldest daughters Abigail and Megan, only to find out that they have him certified and institutionalised in a hospital for the elderly in Northern England. As he makes his escape across the wintry hills of the Lake District, his youngest, estranged daughter Florence takes up battle against her half-sisters to ensure her father's well-being. The personal conflicts are tied up with machinations in global finance, which feature some really unsavoury characters. St Aubyn plays out his talent here for the scathing portraiture of the life and mindset of the superrich (see his Patrick Melrose novels). Highly topical is his criticism of the power of media tycoons as well as ruthless takeover battles and their potentially devastating consequences. For those who want to register it, Dunbar is a clever rewriting of Shakespeare's King Lear. To find out how Aubyn adapts the Shakespearean text to his own purposes can add considerable pleasure to this really good read."

April 2022

The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth

Alina Rahn recommends The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth (2013):

"Alliteration, paradox, hyperbole-who in the English department doesn't know these terms, vital for the analysis of prose and poetry alike? But do you also know anadiplosis, hendiadys or epizeuxis? Don't worry, me neither-until I read The Elements of Eloquence. Charmingly written and with a never-ending bout of humor, this book breezes through nearly forty rhetorical figures, explaining what they do and how they do it. Forsyth plucks example from Shakespeare's plays as well as from pop culture like Star Wars, revealing why lines such as 'Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle' and 'Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering' carry such impact and remain memorable for decades and centuries to come. Rhetorical figures can be intimidating and confusing and most of all complex, but Forsyth proves how simple these figures are at their core, all with a light-hearted and amusing tone that belies his depth of understanding.

If you like to do things with language, whether by analyzing literature or writing yourself, this book will be an invaluable companion by your side, teaching you the tips and tricks of rhetoric eloquence, even if sometimes this rhetoric appears to be a talent beyond the ordinary person. In Forsyth's own words: 'Shakespeare got better because he learnt. Now some people will tell you that great writing cannot be learnt. Such people should be hit repeatedly on the nose until they promise not to talk nonsense any more.'"

February 2022

Ewan Dow recommends By the Sea Abdulrazak Gurnah (2001):

"Difficult to know where to start with the latest 2021 Nobel laureate, Abdulrazak Gurnah, given that he has written ten novels. However, his 2001 novel By the Sea rounded off my course on 'Life Writing: Narratives of Refugee Experience' well. This is categorically fiction - of a most accessible kind - but it does bring together two facets of Gurnah's own real-life story: his arrival from a post-revolutionary Zanzibar as a refugee and his work as a university lecturer in a UK university (Kent).

So the back-stories of the two narrators in stereo - refugee and lecturer, respectively - are surely written from a studied and reflected standpoint. The plot carefully uncovers their shared background from the perspectives of a drab English Channel coastal town and an anonymous London. By the Sea clearly pre-dates the current Channel 'boat-people' crisis, but could not be more contemporary in its post-colonial reach. Kent bed-and-breakfast shabbiness is contrasted with the brilliance of the trading melting pot that was Africa's pre-revolutionary Zanzibar. We meet a British do-gooder, pen pusher, lawyer and lecturer, alongside a cast of merchants from Zanzibar's Chinese, Indian, Arabic and European heritage. It even involves a side-trip to another lost world: the former GDR.

The trigger for the story-telling is a trading relic: a small, intricate box used to store the precious ud-al-qimari, the Khmer 'wood of the moon' fragrance, duly confiscated by an immigration officer. Once the box is opened, the story-telling genie is out of the bottle, revealing an Aladdin's cave of experiences and memories in a search of lost time.

I recommend you read the book, savour it and then watch Gurnah's quietly dignified Nobel acceptance speech."

January 2022

Yusuf Cil recommends Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (1996, translated by George Bird 2001):

"Have you ever written an obituary? If yes, also for someone who is still alive? Hopefully not, but this is what the protagonist, Viktor A. Zolotaryov, does for a living in the bleak city of Kiev. Having neither talent nor luck to pursue a career as a writer of prose, Viktor finds himself at the doorway of an ominous newspaper company after another rejection at the tabloids. What waits for him there is the offer to write obituaries called obelisk - finally a genre at which he excels. However, upon the beginning of his new literary career, these mysterious pieces intrude more and more into his ordinary life with his unusual pet and partner-in-crime: the depressed penguin Misha. Certainly a setting without compare, where one cannot but wonder,... what will happen when his first obelisk is published?"

Kurkov's novel is admittedly not an eloquent masterpiece - but why should it be? The paratactical tone of the text bears a simplicity which does not fret over details but fits the steady progress of the story. The form and pacing almost reminds one of an old film projector, rattling to produce thrilling pictures of black and white. Again, colour is not even needed, as the comfortable monotony of Viktor and Misha's life confronts the reader with the old dichotomy of "life and death" from a lightly angle; sometimes relatable and somewhat humble. And at the very end, one can only wonder, where to get a penguin?"