Dunbar, by Edward St Aubyn

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Back at the energy level where full reviews are hard but I still want to write about what I’m reading, I’ve decided to try—for probably the seventeenth time—just writing shorter ones. Dunbar is the most recent installment in Hogarth’s Shakespeare update project; this time, Edward St Aubyn takes on the monumental King Lear. Of the aging king, he makes a self-made media mogul, Henry Dunbar, who has signed over most of his assets and all of the real decision-making powers to his daughters Megan and Abby. They, in turn, have colluded with the crooked Doctor Bob to medicate Dunbar to the point of paranoid insanity, and after an unfortunate incident on Hampstead Heath, he’s been relegated to a nursing home in the Lake District. Escaping with his roommate, the alcoholic ex-comedian Peter Walker (who bears a personality resemblance to Tommy Cooper), Dunbar must brave a stormy night in the fells, and the good daughter Florence must find him before it’s too late.

Dunbar, like most of the Hogarth series, fails, and like the others, it fails for several reasons. Most particularly, it fails because it entirely lacks a moral component, and—relatedly—any sense of universality. Shakespeare’s Lear is a King, of course, so hardly an Everyman, but the actors who play him have the opportunity to invest him with the most human of fears: “let me not be mad”. Dunbar says this too, but St Aubyn doesn’t give him the chance to be an Everyman; instead he’s an aggressive and deeply unpleasant businessman who’s suffered a drug-induced psychotic break. Where is the tragedy in this? Where is the audience’s self-identification with the fallen man, the terror and the catharsis? Nothing in Dunbar’s state of mental collapse is inherent to him; it is all the result of Doctor Bob’s prescriptions and his daughters’ machinations. By contrast, Lear’s fall comes about precisely and only because he is who he is. A different man would not have made the decisions he makes. That’s the heart of tragedy—the fatalism of it—and St Aubyn misses it entirely. Glimpses of Dunbar’s childhood—a cold and distant mother, a stint in provincial Winnipeg—might have made it possible for a reader to identify the events and experiences that have warped Dunbar from the start, but St Aubyn never does more than glance at them. (The mother, clearly, is meant to explain some of the Lear story’s misogyny).

Additionally, there are technical issues. The characterisation is both tissue-thin and daft. Abby and Megan are psychotic vamps without a shred of psychological realism between them; it’s totally possible to write believably empty characters motivated only by sex and violence, cf. Patrick Bateman, but these women are cartoonish nymphomaniacs, first presented having sex that terminates with the biting off of a man’s nipple. Doctor Bob (that very man) is a helpless, hand-wringing fool without any clear motivations or passions. (He’s also an instance of bad naming; quite apart from the fact that his name is inexplicably bland, anyone who’s ever seen The Simpsons will think of Sideshow Bob whenever the good doctor is mentioned.) Florence, as is often the case with Cordelia, is sweetly dull. Mark, the Albany analogue, could have been interesting given more time and attention—Albany’s horror as he realises what his wife has done is one of the more moving and distressing elements of Lear, like Emilia standing up to Iago at the end of Othello—but in this treatment, he comes across simply as a pawn, doing what he does because that’s what happens in the play. St Aubyn’s much-vaunted prose style, meanwhile, is nowhere in evidence. I’ve read one of the Melrose novels, Never Mind, and am willing to accept that he could write a good sentence in 1992. But this is 2017, and the sentences in Dunbar are, at best, fine. Absolutely none of them stands out. Taken together, they comprise a thoroughly medium-roast reading experience.

I’m left wondering, as always, whether this is an inherent problem of form; whether these stories are so plainly play-shaped that making them into novels is doomed; or whether there is something about consciously attempting to adapt Shakespeare that makes even revered writers choke; or whether (shall we whisper it?) these writers have been ill-chosen, whether they have been selected on the basis of name recognition or other dubious merits, and whether the Hogarth committee ought to have looked further afield for their project. It is clearly not impossible to write an excellent novel that brings the concerns of King Lear into the present day: Jane Smiley did so years ago, with A Thousand Acres, and Preti Taneja has just done the same thing in We That Are Young. But maybe we ought to stop expecting such a thing from established literary names. There have been too many disappointments already.

Dunbar was published in the UK on 5 October, 2017, by Hogarth Press.

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11 thoughts on “Dunbar, by Edward St Aubyn

  1. I always thought that this project was a bad idea and very little that I’ve read so far has done anything to change my mind. The best I can say is that Vinegar Girl gave me a chuckle one Sunday afternoon. I haven’t yet seen a copy of this. Is there no mention of the Gloucester story?

    • I was wondering the same thing about Gloucester. Also, I’m trying to remember which one you liked, Eleanor – was it Hagseed?

      I’d like to have seen the Hogarth project assigned to young, diverse writers willing to take big risks and, at least, make their stories novel-shaped.

      • No, the Gloucester story is completely cut, although the sisters do torment Peter Walker in a way that is sort of reminiscent (but has nothing to do with eyeballs). I did like Hag-Seed, thought it was exactly the sort of approach that made the most of the project brief. Haven’t loved any of the others, though.

        Agree with you completely about commissioning young, diverse writers. Would at least have been more interesting than this.

  2. I tend to think you might be right about the author choices in this. I’ve read a couple – Vinegar Girl was OK but disappointing given how good Ann Tyler usually is and Shylock Is My Name was one to forget for me. Mind you having said all that, I’m still looking forward to seeing what Jo Nesbo does with Macbeth next year!

    • Interestingly, Nesbo seems to be doing what Nesbo does best: the novel is actually entitled “Macbeth” and focuses on a crooked cop. I think you’re right in that the author choices, though technically poor, are probably driving a lot of the sales (how many other people are going to be interested to see how their favourite author handles a Shakespeare plot?)

  3. It’s a really interesting point about whether the Shakespeare adaptations can be pulled off. I tend to think that the versions that explore a side plot or side character work better than the straight retellings, although I agree with you that A Thousand Acres is an exception. And yes, perhaps newer writers would have done a better job!

  4. Mike Evans says:

    Excellent review. None of the books in this series has impressed me. I disagree with you about “1000 Acres”, though. Turning Lear into a violent man who rapes and molests his daughters throughout their adolescence–and gets away with it– does not exactly lead to self-identification and gives the daughters reason to hate him.

    • Well, okay, maybe asking readers to identify with a rapist is a big ask. But I do think that it works within what Smiley is trying to do; remember that she writes the whole thing from Goneril’s point of view, which changes the emphasis of whose tragedy it is.

  5. I’ve been buying them all and putting them on the shelf (beside my Canongate Myths, and New Mabinogion series) but have yet to read any of them – even Hagseed. I’m coming to believe that because the original source material is (mostly) so good, there is no need for retellings of this kind. With the Myths and New Mabinogion and other relellings that concentrate on ancient writings, the writers can be freed from it and do better methinks…

    • Your mention of the Canongate Myths and the New Mabinogion makes me think of another thing, too: with those stories, there *is* no standard text. (In the case of the Mabinogion there’s a standard collection, but it’s a bit like the Kalevala, I think, in that it’s obviously an edited and streamlined version of material that existed in lots of different iterations.) With Shakespeare, you do have a standard text to work with (pace the Bad Quarto edition of Hamlet and so on). So, as you say, re-tellers of myths and legends are free to work with the ideas, but they don’t need to overcome something as concrete as Shakespeare’s canon in the way that the Hogarth series must.

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