- - Wednesday, July 11, 2018



By Edward St. Aubyn

Hogarth, $25, 244 pages

Re-telling a Shakespeare play in a contemporary mode is a daunting task. It is not the plot, but the psychology and extraordinary language that lie at the heart of Shakespeare’s genius. A very hard act to follow or imitate.

British writer Edward St. Aubyn has reshaped Shakespeare’s “King Lear” as his contribution to the Hogarth Press’ Shakespeare series. The locale of “Dunbar” is England, occasionally New York. Lear has become Henry Dunbar, head of the multinational Dunbar Trust, a ruthless 80-year-old man “running a global empire, his cruelty and his vindictiveness and his lies and his tantrums … disguised as the necessary actions of a decisive commander-in-chief.” He was blind to everything except the accumulation of power and money.

Dunbar gave his two older daughters, Abigail and Megan (syllabic resonance with Goneril and Regan) — sadistic nymphomaniacs both — his shares in the corporation. In a rage because she did not want anything to do with the business, he cut from his will his beloved younger daughter, Florence — the child of his second wife, Catherine, who had died in an automobile accident.

As the story begins, Abby and Megan, who plan a takeover coup at the next board meeting of the Trust, had incarcerated Dunbar in an institution in rural England with the assistance of corrupt Dr. Bob, a “cold-hearted bastard at the core of his being.” Like Shakespeare’s Edmond, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Dr. Bob shares both sisters’ beds.

Dunbar’s only friend at the institution, Peter, an alcoholic former comedian, helps Dunbar escape.

Abby and Megan immediately set out to find their father and lock him up again. “The Dunbar girls were arrogant, imperious, and tough, but toughness was not strength, imperiousness was not authority, and their arrogance was an unearned pride born of an unearned income.” They are vindictive and cruel; they hate their half-sister because she was always Dunbar’s favorite. There is a suggestion that Megan was responsible for the accident that killed Catherine.

The old man, driven by the desire to take back control of his empire, sets out to find his freedom. Peter leaves Dunbar to go on alone and soon falls into the hands of the sisters, who set him on fire and ultimately cause him to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, Dunbar journeys on foot over the hills and valleys of Cumbria in England’s Lake District, caught in an icy winter storm. “The leafless trees, with their black branches stretching hysterically in every direction, looked to him like illustrations of a central nervous system racked by disease, studies of human suffering anatomized against the winter sky.”

As he struggles to keep alive, Dunbar looks back on his life with regret for his misdeeds, and fear that his hallucinations are signs of madness. “When at last he dared to look up he saw a canopy of thin broken cloud and, behind it, the detached blue of the upper sky flooded with light. The clouds themselves appeared to be racing toward him, funneled by the high hills on either side of the lake … making him feel trapped at the convergence point of a horizontal V.”

He alternates between dread, fear, cold and remorse, as the memories of his childhood replay in his mind. “The broken layer of brown and purple cloud scattered in the yellowing sky reminded him of his mother’s tortoiseshell comb when he used to close one eye and hold it up to the lamplight and stare at it for ages, until its mottled pattern of light and dark patches fitted the whole visual field.”

When his hiding place is finally discovered, the race is on between Florence and her sisters. Florence gets there first, a virtual dea ex machina, swooping down in a rented helicopter to save her father. “Dunbar gradually emerged, his white hair matted and filthy, his face unshaven and emaciated, his overcoat streaked with mud, a penknife thrust forward in his right hand.”

The two are reconciled and it appears that there might be a happy ending. But this is “King Lear” after all, and in full fury, Megan sets out to have Florence poisoned. Dunbar, broken hearted, dies at the bedside of his dying daughter.

There are betrayals, malevolent machinations, legal manipulations, twists and turns. Unlike Shakespeare, Mr. St. Aubyn has let his villains live to face the consequences of their acts. Prison will not be far behind.

Mr. St. Aubyn has not used all of Shakespeare’s characters, but those he has are re-created in appropriate contemporary terms albeit everyone, with the exception of Dunbar, is totally good or evil. There is no character development. Nevertheless, the tale remains complex and moves along swiftly. It’s a good read.

The heart of the novel is the section on Dunbar’s flight through Cumbria. It is thrilling, beautifully written, and replete with descriptions of the raging storm outside and the turmoil inside Dunbar’s tormented mind.

• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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