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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Fear and madness in the snow, Edward St Aubyn revisits King Lear

This modern retelling of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy 400 years on rivals the original for blood, guts and treachery

Act 5 Scene 3 from King Lear by William Shakespeare, 19th century. Lear grieving over the death of his daughter Cordelia. The play was first performed in c1605. Artist Unknown. Historica Graphica Collection / Heritage Images / Getty Images
Act 5 Scene 3 from King Lear by William Shakespeare, 19th century. Lear grieving over the death of his daughter Cordelia. The play was first performed in c1605. Artist Unknown. Historica Graphica Collection / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Hogarth Shakespeare project is finding out which of the bard’s plays has been paired with which contemporary novelist. Of all the thoughtfully considered unions – Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest in Hag-Seed, Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew in Vinegar Girl, to Jo Nesbø’s forthcoming version of Macbeth, to name only a few – Edward St Aubyn and King Lear seems like a match made in heaven.

Shakespeare’s black tragedy about despotic patriarchal power couldn’t be in better hands than those of a writer who made his name with the majestic tale of a dysfunctional, aristocratic family with its own tyrannical Lear-like father figure at the helm.

One couldn’t go as far as to describe the story therein as directly inspired by Shakespeare’s tale – something others have done, most notably Jane Smiley in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres – nevertheless, there are subtle references to the play enfolded within St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books.

In Dunbar, however, the acclaimed British novelist remains firmly faithful to the original narrative, something I have to say I’m not always the biggest fan of.

It’s dispiritingly inevitable that in even the very best examples of a classic retold, a story that in its original form is lauded for the scope of its vision and the way in which it speaks to universal truths larger than the individual and very specific concerns of its characters, once repackaged in a modern guise somehow contracts to a micro portrait.

Dunbar is a delight to read because St Aubyn is too talented a writer to have produced something that doesn’t chill, thrill and entertain as the narrative demands, but ultimately it still leaves the impression of being a slight book, a little too derivative – yes, I know that’s the point; there’s the rub! – to make a mark entirely of its own. This, however, is no black mark against St Aubyn himself, but rather the inescapable conundrum that faces each and every classics retold project, however well conceived.

That said, St Aubyn does an admirable job in bringing all elements of the original up to date. “We’re off our meds,” whispers Dunbar, St Aubyn’s Lear, in the novel’s opening line. Dunbar is a famous Canadian “media mogul” (think Rupert Murdoch), one of the world’s richest and “arguably the world’s most powerful man”. His “empire,” with its 40,000 employees, is more than large enough to rival that of any Shakespearean monarch’s kingdom and the subjects he rules over.

“We’re off our meds / we’re off our heads,” choruses Peter Walker, St Aubyn’s take on the Fool, an alcoholic celebrity comedian and Dunbar’s partner in crime.

A cleverly managed boardroom betrayal organised by Dunbar’s two eldest power-hungry daughters, Abigail and Megan – like father, like daughter – has seen him stripped of his authority and interned in a posh sanatorium in the Cumbrian hills, sedated and supposedly secure.

This is where he teams up with Peter, though the poor man eventually pays a tragic price for his involvement in his new friend’s great escape. No sooner have the two men made a run for it than Abigail and Megan launch a furious pursuit, and it’s a race against time to see whether they and their private security thugs, along with the scheming Dr Bob, Dunbar’s private physician/walking pharmacy who has a double cross of his own up his sleeve, can hunt down the old man before his loving youngest daughter Florence sweeps down in her helicopter to save the day.

The narrative is off to a flying start from the first, the drug-addled Dunbar roaming craggy passes “under the relentless assault of his diseased imagination”, still reeling after being stabbed in the back by those he deemed closest to him.

St Aubyn conjures up the shining baubles of his characters’ gilded world with a sort of horrifying, nightmarish realism. Characters used to such privilege, they don’t have to stop and think about the lives of others. Yet all it takes is a command from on high to fundamentally alter someone’s existence, whether it’s a salacious newspaper headline that ruins lives, or the shout of “put him on the payroll”.

Both in the grips of his delusions, and as a calmer soul recalibrating his values, Dunbar undoubtedly steals the show – as should be the case. As his right-hand man Wilson puts it, “He had a phenomenal physical energy that made all contact with him seem urgent and adventurous”.

By comparison, the other characters all lack this three-dimensionality or gravitas. Florence, for example, remains a saintly caricature until the bitter end. Happily married with two children and living in beautiful Wyoming away from the rat race, she has spurned her father’s money and power – a distrust that began during her adolescence, “when she turned into a passionate advocate of workers’ rights, environmental concerns and high standards of journalistic integrity” – hence the estrangement between them at the start of the story.

Abigail and Megan are no less superficial; they’re just a lot more interesting with it because they lean so far in the other direction. The evil machinations of Shakespeare’s vile originals are hard enough to stomach, but impressively St Aubyn has somehow managed to make his pair even more depraved and corrupt, from their insatiable personal needs to the cruelty of the merciless bullying they indulged in during their teenage years at boarding school; Megan in particular, who’s nothing short of a “psychopath”, is the one character in real need of being locked up.

After such lengthy – though never tedious – peregrinations out in the wilderness, the story’s conclusion feels rather rushed, and, of course, we know how it ends. Luckily this doesn’t much detract from the charm of the larger whole.

Dunbar isn’t going to set the world aflame, but it is both a welcome addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare project – there’s blood, guts and treachery enough here to rival the original – and a delightful reminder of just how deliciously and perfectly piercing a writer St Aubyn can be.

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