Reviewed by Lawrence Manalastas
By Edward St. Aubyn
256 pp. Hogarth.
In his heyday, Henry Dunbar has had the world at his fingertips: he was the head honcho of a global media empire that has, over the years, held sway over public opinion; he has rubbed elbows with the highest and mightiest of society, and has traveled the world in style aboard his own 747 to boot. “Just make it happen!” he used to just say (not without a dictatorial air), and minions are prompted to do his bidding, indulge his every whim. Indubitably, a man of inconceivable wealth, power, and influence—a king in his own right.
At the outset of Edward St. Aubyn’s new novel where Dunbar is the titular antihero, this stature of his, however grand and noteworthy, is sadly a thing of the past. In fact, the media magnate is introduced not as the chairman emeritus he had envisioned himself to be, but as the reluctant denizen of a posh Lake District care home, thanks to a pair of ingrate daughters (Abigail and Megan) who—after wresting control of his company in cahoots with his personal physician—had consigned him there in view of his deteriorating physical and mental faculties.
Worse, the old man’s addled state is compounded by the painfully haunting memory of his deceased mistress Catherine, and his estrangement with their daughter Florence, whom he had deprived of the family legacy more for her lack of entrepreneural savvy than anything else. Now, reduced to a vestige of his former glory with nothing else to lose, Dunbar enlists fellow patient Peter Walker—an inebriate comic has-been with a knack for impersonation and wordplay—to help him out of incarceration in a daring plot to repossess his business, have his vengeance on his vile eldest daughters, and rectify things with his mistreated youngest, if they’re the last things he’ll accomplish alive.
If this sort of premise is striking familiar chords, that’s because Dunbar is the latest installment in a series of Shakespeare-inspired adaptations published by the Hogarth Press that has been gracing the shelves since 2015, and boasts of a stellar cast of contemporary writers at the helm. St. Aubyn—author of the commercially successful and critically acclaimed Patrick Melrose novels—joins the roster of Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler, and Nobel Prize contender Margaret Atwood, in lending a modern voice to some of the Bard’s more prominent and beloved works, his assignment being the stygian tragedy that is King Lear.
That St. Aubyn had been the clear-cut choice to reimagine Lear is a no-brainer—who better to tackle the demons of domestic discord and dysfunction than someone who is more than familiar with them from a firsthand aspect? Doubtless Lear, with the eponymous tyrant king at its center, resonated well with the writer in that he himself had been a hapless victim of paternal dominion and abuse. Not to mention that his quasi-autobiographical Melrose books are pulsing along the same veins, placing sadistic partriachs, familial strife, and the general English upper class all under a satirical light, with a dash of Wodehousian flair.
Retelling the greatest English poet and playwright that ever lived is as daunting a task as reading him, if not more. Noble as the objective of making Shakespeare more relevant and accessible is, purists will always have something to nitpick about. That’s not to say that St. Aubyn and company are any less equipped to venture in Shakespearean waters, it being a realm that has been charted many times before. In 1991, Jane Smiley came up with her own take on Lear with A Thousand Acres; when it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize the following year, it attested to the payoffs that await artistic audacity, and the separate enjoyment and praise that such efforts deserve on their own.
To St. Aubyn’s credit, Dunbar hovered close enough to Learian territory, nearly straighforward in approach, not losing the essence of its model despite the exclusion of the Gloucester plotline, and a few other expedient tweaks. His revamp of the original dramatis personae was more of a hit-or-miss thing—while Florence as the virtuous Cordelia is a passable facsimile, Abby and Megan as the treacherous siblings Goneril and Regan is a bit over the top, their despicability needlessly expounded in a graphic carnal scene involving an almost severed male nipple.
St. Aubyn’s creative focus is at its sharpest in his treatment of Dunbar and Peter—his respective Lear and Fool counterparts. Peter is as tiresome as ever with his antics, but his humor provides the necessary breather amid the novel’s otherwise stifling gravitas. It’s mostly through him that St. Aubyn channels his inner Shakespeare, with dialogues that somewhat capture the lexical prowess and playfulness of the latter:
“You see, [I] am or I was, or I used to be—who knows whether I’m history or not?—a famous comedian, but I suffer from depression, the comic affliction, or the tragic affliction of the comic, or the historic affliction of tragic comedians, or the fiction of the tragic affliction of historic comedians!”
Dunbar, meanwhile, echoes Lear in the doggedness with which he confronts his dire circumstances. Incapacitated though he is by the frailty of his body, the vertiginous workings of his mind, and the blindsiding betrayal of his own flesh and blood, he’s not the sort to acquiesce to a humbling—not too easily, at least. Exhausting whatever was left of the formidable man he once was, he escapes from the sanatorium and braves the tempestuous Cumbrian moorlands in search of a way home, if not a simple way out. As in the play, nature yet again becomes the indispensable element in the central character’s excruciating journey to self-discovery. Amid violent weather and the hounding of unknown adversaries, Dunbar is finally given a sense of his own decrepitude and vulnerability, as he finds himself at the mercy of forces that are beyond his power and control.
But for all its fancy trappings and conscientious mimicry, Dunbar is fundamentally a satire on the follies of powerful men, as well as a treatise on the things that have the most significance in life. While fortune and fame sure are worth a man’s aspirations and dreams, they are but immaterial in the face of imminent mortality. Family, faithfulness, and even Florence were just another bunch of F words to Dunbar, albeit ordinary, until he loses grip on everything and realizes their invaluability. Ultimately, it was Florence who has become Dunbar’s best chance at redemption, and in her hands lies the one thing that, more than ever, mattered most to him than all his prized possessions—absolution.
A must read for anyone who wishes to brush up on their rusty Shakespeare, or in the case of the uninitiated, a random sampling of the kind of world he inhabits in the boundless literary universe.
Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn is available at Fully Booked Stores.
Back in high school, Lawrence has had a fancy for Shakespearean sonnets, and contributed a few of his own to the school paper. He initially aspired to be a poet, but ended up writing prose instead. He lives by the river.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]