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'Dunbar' Is A Moving, Brutal And Apt Update Of 'King Lear'

King Lear, done right, verges on unbearable. A portrait of cruelty, betrayal, male power become impotent male rage, the disintegration of the mind, all delivered one after another like steel boots to the spine. "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods: They kill us for their sport," says one character.

So unbearable did audiences find it that for nearly 200 years it was performed with an altered ending, where Lear and his daughter live happily ever after.

But Edward St. Aubyn is good at swatting flies. An author whose books are brutal and exquisite novels of inheritance, wealth, families, and cruelty, he has never hesitated to inflict pain on his audiences, and the result here is a moving, brutal and apt adaptation of the play for the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

Media king Henry Dunbar, trapped in an English sanatorium, covertly spits his meds into a potted aspidistra. "They stole my empire and now they send me stinking lilies," he thunders. He is speaking, of course, about his daughters, who orchestrated his mental breakdown, aided by a crooked psychiatrist and Dunbar's turncoat personal doctor ("their all too personal gynecologist, their pimp, their copulator, their serpent dildo!").

With the help of Peter, an alcoholic comedian, he escapes into the hills of the Lake District, pursued by two vicious daughters and one faithful one. When Peter abandons him in search of a pub, he goes alone into the wilderness where his grasp on reality fragments further:

One thread of Lear that St. Aubyn picks up beautifully is the play's awful and intimate relationship to nature. Like Lear, Dunbar projects his inner confusion on outside objects; sitting at the pub to which he's escaped, he looks out at the landscape:

Dunbar is plagued by these dismembering resemblances — a stream that he feels as an incision in his chest, black trees flung against the sky like diseased neurons. Dunbar, much like Aubyn's addiction novel Bad News, shows how moods can seep and spread, and the world changes before you, and against your will, until everything takes on "the intimate authority of a nightmare." It's moving, and familiar, and awful. "Please don't let me go mad," Dunbar whispers. But before long, he is wandering the hills, "adrift in a compulsory daydream whose images were experts on what he did not want to feel and would rather not imagine."

As in Lear, Dunbar's moral crisis comes through exposure, both literal and figurative. Realizing he has wronged his one faithful daughter, Florence, he becomes desperate to beg forgiveness of her. This Cordelia character has a kind of bland virtue, as if St. Aubyn didn't quite know how to approach someone without his usual scalpel and set of matches. That is Shakespeare's Cordelia, too, to be fair, but St. Aubyn is one of the few authors I can think of whose novels are magnificent in spite of not having something I always assumed was necessary in great novels: generosity and empathy for people outside the protagonist.

In fact, perhaps one reason King Lear suits him so beautifully is because no one in the play has anything like the pull of Lear himself, just as no one stands up to Patrick Melrose in St. Aubyn's autobiographical novels. Rather, he cuts down character after character with all the precision of David Melrose at the beginning of Never Mind, standing outside his house in France killing ants with a hose (as flies, etc). His most memorable portraits are confections of contempt.

St. Aubyn is one of the few authors I can think of whose novels are magnificent in spite of not having something I always assumed was necessary in great novels: generosity and empathy for people outside the protagonist.

Certain elements feel airlifted from those exquisite Melrose novels — Dunbar and the brute David Melrose even share a motto: "Never apologize, never explain." But if some of his family portraits seem too familiar, it's hard to complain, faced with language like this:

St. Aubyn's writing has a lavishness that still retains precision — he never allows mistiness to descend on his metaphors, however extended. Take Peter, watching Dunbar as he finally gets to an ATM after escaping the sanatorium: "It reminded Peter of watching a flame being injected from the burner of a hot air balloon into the sagging, wrinkled fabric of the envelope, until it swelled and stretched upwards, tugging at the tethered gondola."

The Hogarth Shakespeare series, of which this is a part, has been a mixed experiment. Some writers (Jeanette Winterson, I'm looking at you) have been so carried away by the cleverness of mapping Shakespeare onto a modern world that the novel forgets to be a work of art. But Aubyn has built a career out of family pain, and his language has a wonderful poetic density, dry, expansive, self-conscious, and savage, all at once.

Though I half hoped he might spare us Shakespeare's ending, he is of course too honest to pretend that flies can live forever. The most St. Aubyn will give us is a little beauty on the way.

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Annalisa Quinn
Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.