Edward St. Aubyn’s latest novel, Dunbar, is the latest entry in the popular Hogarth Shakespeare series — a project of the 2012 relaunch of Virginia Woolf’s publishing house Hogarth Press. The project’s mission is to publish big-name novelists’ retellings of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Dunbar is King Lear re-imagined in the modern world. St. Aubyn — the acerbically witty author of the Patrick Melrose novels about family wealth, abuse, and deep psychological scars — is a nice match to take on Lear.
Unfortunately, Dunbar will probably appeal more to those who remember the basic plot and premise of King Lear from a high school reading, rather than Shakespeare die-hards who deeply love what some consider the bard’s greatest tragedy.
In this novel, Lear is a business tycoon named Henry Dunbar, who has been recently deposed of his global media empire by his two daughters, Abigail and Megan. As in the original, Dunbar sees himself “a man more sinned against than sinning.” The two women have conspired with Dunbar’s personal physician — a fellow named Dr. Bob, with whom they’re both sleeping, sometimes at the same time — to get Dunbar committed to a cushy sanatorium in the English countryside. St. Aubyn uses a couple of his better sentences in the novel to describe the two daughters, as Dr. Bob sees them:
“[Abigail] was mostly amoral, sometimes conventionally moral, and often opportunistically moral—in other words, normal, like him. Megan, on the other hand, was a fucking psychopath, whose displays of affection should be confined to a hospital that was equipped to deal with the consequences.”
Then there’s the third daughter, Florence, who Dunbar disowns and disinherits from his business because she doesn’t want his wealth, money, or advantages. She just wants to be a normal person. Instead of refusing to profess her love, as she does in Lear, she instead refuses to be part of the family power structure—which is the twenty-first century version of love for some families.
The first fifty pages of this novel show St. Aubyn at his best. Dunbar and a friend of his from the sanatorium, a former comedian and current alcoholic named Peter Walker, escape to go have drinks in the small town nearby. Peter is an absolute riot. As does Lear’s Fool, he talks and sings in silly and odd logic puzzles and imparts wisdom dressed up as goofy witticisms: “Once you set sail on a ship of fools, there’s never any shortage of passengers,” as one example. As another:
“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 the tragic comedians, or the fiction of the tragic affliction of the historic comedian.”
Peter is unquestionably the highlight of the novel. It’s too bad, then, that he disappears from it relatively early as Dunbar continues his escape alone, wandering through the freezing English countryside, possibly descending into madness, or possibly ascending to an epiphany. Meanwhile, his furious daughters and ambitious former associates search for him, all the while maneuvering and betraying each other for supremacy of Dunbar’s capitalist kingdom.
This backstabbing intrigue is mildly interesting, but it’s too convoluted for such a short novel — it feels glossed over and cursory. Many of Dunbar’s self-searching ruminations just read as dull when juxtaposed with the maneuverings in the previous chapters. But it’s worth plowing through to find out what St. Aubyn’s got up his sleeve at the end — will Dunbar meet the same fate as Lear?
All in all, Dunbar is a solid if not spectacular entry in the Hogarth series. It’s a good read if you’ve enjoyed the series so far, or possibly a good starting point if you haven’t dove in quite yet.
Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn
Published October 3, 2017
Edward St. Aubyn is an English journalist and the author of eight novels, including the Patrick Melrose series. He lives in London.
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