Phillips, Arthur

views updated

Arthur Phillips


Born 1969, in Minneapolis, MN; married, 1996; wife's name Jan; children: two sons. Education: Harvard University, graduated. Hobbies and other interests: Jazz music.


Home and office—c/o Random House, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036. Agent—Marly Rusoff, Marly Rusoff & Associates, P.O. Box 524, Bronxville, NY 10708.


Writer. Worked variously as a child actor, jazz musician, speechwriter, and entrepreneur.

Awards, Honors

New York Times Notable Book selection, and Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, Los Angeles Times, both 2003, both for Prague.



Prague, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.

The Egyptologist, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor to Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier, edited by Boris Fishman, Justin Charles Books, 2003. Author of introduction to The Diaries of Geza Csath.


The Egyptologist was adapted as an audiobook by Recorded Books, 2004.

Work in Progress

A novel.


Arthur Phillips was raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and graduated from Harvard University. A participant in the expatriate culture of Budapest, Hungary, from 1990 to 1992, he also lived for a time in Paris, France. Prior to becoming a novelist, Phillips had a colorful career; he was an actor, a jazz musician, a speechwriter, an entrepreneur, and a five-time Jeopardy! champion.

Drawing on its author's years in Europe, Phillips's first novel, Prague, explores the world of twenty-something American expatriates living in Europe in the days following the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The novel takes place in 1990 and follows a group of five characters who are drawn to the fledgling democracy of Hungary, where they hang out in the cafés of Budapest and soak up the post-communist milieu of decay and deprivation for their own amusement. The egocentrism and capitalist desires of these five contrast with the novel's Hungarian characters, most of them older survivors of war, chaos, and torture who are dismayed to find their homeland overrun with backpacking Westerners eager to stake a claim on capitalism's latest frontier. The five North Americans, chagrined to find nothing much going on in ancient and decaying Budapest, become convinced that their counterparts in Prague, Czechoslovakia, are witnessing a more exciting, more spectacular facet of this moment in history.

A Novel of Cultural Dissonance

Readers meet Phillips's characters as they play a game they call "Sincerity." In this game, each player takes a turn concocting lies and truths about his-or herself and daring the others to tell the difference. In reality, each remains oblivious to his or her true nature, which includes the vampire-like tendency to prey upon the dregs of a troubled culture for artistic and intellectual sustenance. Laura Miller noted in a review for that Prague describes "a particular historical wedge of humanity with a penetrating accuracy, a generation so gorged on images and conceits that everything it sees or does feels 'impossibly and automatically insincere.'"

Prague's protagonist is John Price, an eager reporter for the English-language newspaper BudapesToday. John's critical view of women and his commitment to celibacy are both thwarted by the fetching Emily, a Nebraska native employed at the city's U.S. Embassy. While John idolizes his older brother, English teacher and fitness fanatic Scott, whom he has followed to Budapest, Scott has nothing but contempt for John. The brothers' relationship is further tested when John commits "fratultery" by sleeping with Scott's fiancée. Meanwhile, Charles Gabór, a young Hungarian-American armed with a newly minted MBA and an inflated sense of self-importance, schemes to buy out Budapest's prestigious but financially troubled family-owned Horvath Press, while Mark Payton, a gay Canadian Ph.D. student researching the history of nostalgia, becomes weighed down by the philosophical questions his presence in Budapest engenders.

The Hungarian perspective is represented by Nadja, an elderly pianist who entrances John with tales of daring escapes and rescues spanning one oppressive

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

regime after another, and Imre Horvath, patriarch of the Horvath Press, who sees Charles as something less than a gallant protector of his company. Miller noted the similarity between Charles and Imre, "two men of similar talents and temperaments [who are] rendered very different as a result of having been born at different times in different nations."

Phillips's novel derives its title from his characters' desire to be in the beautiful city of Prague rather than in Budapest, a city one fictional resident describes as a "paprika-stained Austrian test market." Prague, then, becomes a symbol of longing, of wanting to be somewhere else, of thinking that the grass is always greener on the other side. Phillips explained in an essay posted on the Marly Rusoff & Associates Web site that to John, "a young man who aspires to Life, but only leads a life, Prague glows—the place where Real Life carouses, a party where you were expected an hour ago." Phillips continued: "In Prague, the present limps to a sorry third-place finish, far behind the potential glories of the future and the fairytale splendor of the past. That the actual city of Prague resembles the lovely, ghostly setting of a dimly recalled and yearningly significant fairytale is no mean coincidence."

Positive Critical Reception

Phillips's fiction debut was well received by reviewers, who compared his work to that of literary artists ranging from nineteenth-century novelist Henry James to filmmaker Whit Stillman. Also noted by many reviewers was the influence of Milan Kundera, whose novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being served as a handbook for many American expatriates during the early 1990s. Edward Cone commented in Library Journal that "Phillips's exhilarating exploration of time, memory, and nostalgia brings to mind such giants as Proust and Joyce," while Los Angeles Times writer Heller McAlpin found the novelist's narrative style reminiscent of "Robert Altman's overlapping simultaneity and Bertolt Brecht's alienation technique." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly dubbed Phillips's writing "swift, often poetic, unerringly exact with voices and subtle details of time, place and weather." McAlpin further compared Phillips to twentieth-century novelists Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote about the "Lost Generation" of Americans living in Paris between the two world wars, and stated that Prague "has scope, historical perspective and complexity, especially rare in many first novels." Janet Maslin noted in the New York Times that while the novel tends to "tilt toward its most easily satirized fixtures at the expense of its more admirable ones…. the beauty of Prague lies in Mr. Phillips's empathy for their lapses. In the end he presents them with a wry generosity and haunting poignancy to rival his wonderfully subversive wit."

The contrast of American naïveté with European reality is one of Phillips's main themes. His setting is a "vividly evoked backdrop of a bullet-pocked country with a century's worth of hardships that are essentially unfathomable to most Americans," explained McAlpin. In his essay posted on the Marly Rusoff & Associates Web site, Phillips explained that during his own tenure in Budapest he observed that "every last Hungarian had lived through scathing events that most of the invading young Westerners had only read about or seen on television. This often inspired an odd, mutual envy."

Another theme of the book is the characters' inability to comprehend that they, by their mere presence,

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

are not the saviors or liberators of Eastern Europe. Adam Goodheart explained in the New York Times Book Review that "as Prague progresses, each of the five foreigners … becomes less and less attractive, and the satiric edge to Phillips's portrayal sharpens into something close to anger: at their solipsism, their savage cynicism, their detachment from their surroundings and from one another. For all their pretensions to something grander and more picturesque, they are nothing but tourists—not just in Hungary but in their own lives and in the world at large." McAlpin concluded that Prague is "a substantive book that braves the clichés of expat ennui to consider such issues as sincerity, scruples and the vicissitudes of history." Similar praise came from New Yorker reviewer Daniel Mendelsohn, who wrote that "what's gratifying about Prague is that, beneath the up-to-the-minute cleverness, it's really an old-fashioned novel of ideas—one of those books in which the plot feels like allegory and each character stands for some grand concept."

Writes The Egyptologist

Phillips's second novel, The Egyptologist, was published in 2004. Described as "a slow and intricately built whodunit for the King Tut lover in all of us" by Esquire contributor Benjamin Alsup, the work concerns Ralph Trilipush, an eccentric, Oxford-educated archaeologist who launches a search for the treasures of Atum-hadu, a pharaoh-poet whose very existence is doubtful. Trilipush, the discoverer and translator of Atum-hadu's erotic hieroglyphs, persuades his fiancée's wealthy father to subsidize an expedition to Egypt in 1922, the same year that real-life archeologist Howard Carter, the fictional Trilipush's bitter rival, stuns the archeological world by uncovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. Decades

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

later, the legitimacy of the Trilipush expedition is called into question by Harold Ferrell, a retired private detective whose most puzzling case, an investigation into the disappearance of a young Australian Egyptologist, leads back to 1922 Egypt. "Trilipush and the detective are two quite unreliable narrators, and the effect is that of a hall of mirrors," observed a critic in Publishers Weekly.

If you enjoy the works of Arthur Phillips

If you enjoy the works of Arthur Phillips, you may also want to check out the following books:

W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, 2001.

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated, 2002.

Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, 2003.

Phillips did substantial research for The Egyptologist, relying on books and correspondence with experts at the Theban Mapping Project and the Griffith Institute at Oxford, which holds Carter's journals. "That said, it didn't feel like research," he noted on The Egyptologist Web site. "I did it as the need arose. The novel would have a blank space, labeled 'insert research here' and then I'd go looking for my answer." The author frequently e-mailed a curator at the British Museum for assistance, as well. "Over several months, my novel's giddy plot persisted in yanking me into the dark and dusty chambers of the unknown-dank basements where I had no context for my characters, no understanding of their daily habits or the world they inhabited, none of the necessary foundations of a story," Phillips commented on the Marly Rusoff & Associates Web site. "But in that darkness, without fail, every single time, I was met by my loyal British Museum staffer, flashlight in hand, ready and willing (if not precisely delighted) to wrangle me and my proliferating characters spanning 3,500 years back to the well-lit halls of plausibility."

Gains in Critical Esteem

Like the author's debut work, The Egyptologist garnered strong praise from critics. "This is a suave, elegant novel, replete with sinuously composed sentences and delicious wordplay," noted a contributor in Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal critic Edward Cone called the book a "potpourri of intrigue, subterfuge, and deception." Other reviewers noted the author's unusual narrative style; according to Kansas City Star reviewer John Mark Eberhart, "The scheme of telling the tale through a series of letters and other written materials forces Phillips' characters—and readers—to learn things in epistolary increments, and also provides 'a retro patina.'" Joanne Wilkinson, writing in Booklist, concluded, "Phillips proves himself once again to be a wildly creative storyteller."

Though penning novels was not Phillips's first career choice, he greatly enjoys the process of crafting a story. "It's an egotistical challenge, and it's just fun," he told Eberhart. "Writing offers all kinds of pleasures, some of which are parallel to the pleasures of reading and some of which aren't—and the ones that aren't include just amusing yourself by creation. It's a tiny little bit of God envy, I guess."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Book, January-February, 2003, David Bowman, "The New Expatriate: Arthur Phillips," p. 41.

Booklist, June 1, 2004, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Egyptologist, p. 1671.

Entertainment Weekly, September 3, 2004, Gregory Kirschling, "Prince of Egyptology," p. 80.

Esquire, September, 2004, Benjamin Alsup, review of The Egyptologist, p. 90.

Kansas City Star, October 3, 2004, John Mark Eberhart, "Arthur Phillips Isn't Shy about Taking a Novel Approach."

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2002; August 1, 2004, review of The Egyptologist, p. 710.

Library Journal, April 1, 2002, Edward Cone, review of Prague, p. 142; July, 2004, Barbara Hoffert, "Arthur Phillips," p. 71, and Edward Cone, review of The Egyptologist, p. 73.

Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2002, Heller McAlpin, "Blue Danube."

Newsweek, June 17, 2002, Malcolm Jones, review of Prague.

New Yorker, July 8, 2002, Daniel Mendelsohn, "Ironists Abroad."

New York Times, June 17, 2002, Janet Maslin, "American Overseas, Lost and Generally Oblivious," p. E8.

New York Times Book Review, July 21, 2002, Adam Goodheart, "Two Expatriate Novels Explore Other People's Pasts"; September 12, 2004, Tom Bissell, "Who Is Buried in Atum-hadu's Tomb?," p. 8.

People, June 24, 2002, Kyle Smith, review of Prague, p. 39; August 30, 2004, Kyle Smith, review of The Egyptologist, p. 49.

Publishers Weekly, April 8, 2002, review of Prague, p. 201; July 5, 2004, review of The Egyptologist, p. 35.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), December 8, 2002, review of Prague, p. 7.

U.S. News & World Report, September 6, 2004, Vicky Hallet, "Dear Pharaoh," p. 92.

Washington Post Book World, October 3, 2004, Barbara Mertz, review of The Egyptologist, p. 6.

World Literature Today, July-September, 2003, Robert Murray Davis, review of Prague, pp. 98-99.


The Egyptologist Web site, (May 1, 2005).

Prague Web site, (May 1, 2005).

Rusoff & Associates, (May 1, 2005), "Prague by Arthur Phillips"; "The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips.", (June 20, 2002), Laura Miller, review of Prague.

About this article

Phillips, Arthur

Updated About content Print Article