Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar is the latest addition to Hogarth Press’s Shakespeare project that commissions prominent authors to write contemporary novels based rather loosely on the bard’s plays.
Margaret Atwood, Howard Jacobson, Ann Tyler and Jo Nesbo among others have already had their takes on the plays. In Dunbar St. Aubyn takes a crack at King Lear, and turns out a rollicking social comedy that is hard to put down.
St. Aubyn’s Lear is Henry Dunbar, an 80 year old Canadian media mogul who is beginning to lose his grip on reality and on his multi-billion dollar “empire” which his two oldest daughters Abby and Megan, whom Henry frankly describes as “monsters,” are about to depose him from.
The sisters, in cahoots with Henry’s unethical doctor, have shipped him off to a sanitarium in Britain’s Lake District, not letting the younger sister, the steadfast Florence, know where he is.
Abby, Megan and Florence stand in for Shakespeare’s Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. There’s also A Fool in the person of Peter, an alcoholic former television comedian who helps Henry escape from the sanitarium and leaves him in a snowstorm half-mad and wailing into the wind.
Peter spouts nonsense rhymes and does funny voices but he’s really the only one apart from Florence who is straight with Henry.
St Aubyn has made his reputation on the five books in the Patrick Melrose series that sees his semi-autobiographical alter ego through four decades of life in lively satirical style. In those novels he has also peered closely at the world of the very wealthy with withering wit.
Dunbar has some lovely comic set pieces, such as Abby’s memory of hunting:
“She had hunted by helicopter before— gazelle in Arabia, wild bull in New Zealand, hog in Texas— it was something that ostentatious people kept thrusting on her as a special kind of treat, but to be honest it was absolutely deadly being trapped in one of those swaying, shuddering machines, wearing headphones and a pair of goggles while spewing hundreds of empty shells a minute into the pristine countryside below. It made one feel like such a litterbug.”
But there are also scenes of great cruelty and violence and not a few murders. The plot about taking control of Henry’s company gets a bit byzantine, with crosses and double crosses. It shows the treachery of the super wealthy in almost moustache twirling melodrama, but it adds to the fun and the pathos.
The plot and much of the dialogue are anything but subtle but the real emotions and sadness of Henry’s life are nuanced and touching despite the comic goings on.
Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn, Random House Penguin, 256pp.