Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth's Castle -- Liza Campbell

What one search term in Google will get you more than 61 million hits while also earning the title of most popular book subject of all time? If you guessed Jesus, you're wrong -- it's Bill Shakespeare (though I'm still coming up short on a source for that second claim; anyone else heard that piece of trivia that can tell me who discovered it?). From wondering about his sexuality to determining if he actually wrote the plays for which he has become known and adored, we seem to be inevitably drawn to him as an enigma to puzzle over and enjoy. In her new memoir, Liza Campbell capitalizes on all this Shakespearean popularity; by coupling one rubber-necker subject with another -- family dysfunction -- she ensured that her book would be a gripping late-night read for the widest possible readership.

And a gripping read it is, indeed. Liza Campbell is also Lady Elizabeth Campbell, and A Charmed Life chronicles the erosion of her family due to the lunatic machinations of her father, Hugh Campbell, 25th Thane of Cawdor, and heir to the Macbeth legacy. On that note, however, Campbell hurriedly sets the record straight, reminding us in chapter one that "the house we lived in wasn't built until three hundred years after King Duncan's death...and furthermore, Duncan had not been killed in his sleep at all. [...] Even more surprisingly, given the lasting slur of the play, Macbeth was a popular king...[and] I felt proud to come from such an ancient, myth-wreathed place" (8-9, St. Martin's Press 2006 edition). Despite the historical inaccuracies of Shakespeare's "Scottish play," as it has come to be known in theater circles, the effects of his characterization (Macbeth as hubris-ridden tyrant who succumbs to his own "vaulting ambition," in the words of the play itself) had significant impact upon the Cawdor thaneship. For centuries, the titled lords who reigned at this stony, isolated castle in the northern Scottish highlands were plagued by pride, greed, paranoia, and superstition -- the same ailments Shakespeare's Macbeth faced. Throughout her narrative, Campbell expertly weaves in shocking, sordid tales from the history of her fated family line, drawing parallels between bloody battles in the distant past to the turmoil within Cawdor she faced as a young child.

And bloody it was: Hugh Campbell's reign at Cawdor was filled with the stuff dreams are made of, except these dreams are a child's worst, most terrifying nightmares. From wrecking half a dozen sports cars by wrapping them around trees after driving drunk, to threatening to attack anyone who disagreed with him with his aikido skills, to smashing up every window at the family's hunting lodge along with hitting his wife so hard he "cracked the roots of her front teeth," leaving a "thin trail of blood along the carpet" for his young children to follow through the house (241-243, St. Martin's Press 2006 edition), Hugh lived up to every expectation of his anachronistically-portrayed ancestor. Liza's brutally honest depiction of their lives rushes us through the rollercoaster of fame, fortune, and folly as she comes to terms with her father's addictions, both to substances and to "supernatural solicitings" of entitlement (Shakespeare I.iii).

However, the book doesn't truly accomplish what Campbell set out to do. She tells us in her preface that a "writer friend" challenged her to "be sure of [the] underlying sentence" of her work: "'Everything should emanate from that. If the reader senses a firm foundation, they will trust digressions, but if they sence confusion, they will lose confidence in why they are reading'" (4, St. Martin's Press 2006 edition). Campbell goes on to tell us that her book's "underlying sentence" is "'Papa was odd, but I got even'" (4, St. Martin's Press 2006 edition). The first part of this is certainly true, but her "firm foundation" suffers from a lack of the second. At the end of her memoir, Campbell leaves us with a profound tragedy for which there is no remedy: a family that was literally torn apart by a tyrannical patriarch. There is really no sense of comeuppance, no retributive justice, no last laugh at his expense; instead, Campbell and her titled siblings are left with the shattered pieces of Cawdor's past glory. Beginning A Charmed Life with this claim leaves us without the cathartic sense of Shakespeare's play: that justice, however brutal, will inevitably be served.

But this might just be the genius of Campbell's work, after all. The original British version of her memoir was called Title Deeds. Changing the title for her American audience by invoking one of Macbeth's last lines in the play creates a feeling of destiny; the quote from which it is taken reads "Let fall thy blades on vulnerable crests;/ I bear a charmed life which must not yield" (Shakespeare V.viii). Perhaps Campbell intends for us to carry this connection out to its logical conclusion: that she, like Macbeth, will not yield to the tragedy which seems to have befallen her family at every turn, and will fight to the death rather than admit defeat. In that sense, unlike her ruined father, Campbell certainly has gotten even.

Final verdict: ***

1 comment:

  1. thank you!
    best wishes Liza Campbell