Learing This Sad Time: On Edward St. Aubyn’s “Dunbar”

By Daniel SwiftDecember 23, 2017

Learing This Sad Time: On Edward St. Aubyn’s “Dunbar”

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

LATE IN THE Patrick Melrose novels — the quintet that made Edward St. Aubyn famous — our fairly loathsome hero, Patrick, is on his way back to rehab in a taxi, and a phrase from an old poem occurs to him. As St. Aubyn writes, Patrick “closed his eyes and stretched out in the back seat. ‘Talk would talk and go so far askance … something something … You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there’.” The phrase that Patrick half-remembers at this moment is from William Empson’s short poem “Let It Go,” which in slightly scrambled phrases depicts a mind mysteriously falling apart. The second and final stanza correctly runs:

The contradictions cover such a range.
The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there.

St. Aubyn quietly pulls off a neat trick: Empson’s poem mimes the decline of a mind in its own declining language, and Patrick’s misremembering in turn performs his own collapse. The lines of the self are dissolving like mist into the world, and Patrick’s inner life is now all made up from things he has overheard. He no longer has much which is truly his own.

As well as a poet, William Empson was a fine scholar of 17th-century poetry, most celebrated for his 1930 book Seven Types of Ambiguity, and it is hard to read this poem without at least the flicker of a suggestion that Empson was here remembering Shakespeare’s King Lear: for this play is the primal literary account of aphasia, dementia, the fear of madness, and the failing of language. In that play, an aging king gives away his kingdom and loses his mind and is sent out into the cold, and as his world collapses, so too do his words, until all he can do is howl. St. Aubyn to Empson to King Lear: here is a chain of echoes and dissolving language, one into the other, as if there were no real barriers between writers and every new work were only a recycling of all the old poems.

Just as it is hard to read Empson without thinking of Lear, so too is it impossible to think of St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels without that same Shakespeare play coming to mind. The Melrose novels star the dissolute, drug-addled Patrick, but they fixate upon his relationship with his father, David, who is a proper monster. He is a sadist who makes his wife eat a plate of roast pigeon on saffron rice without using a knife, fork, or her hands: like a dog, kneeling on the floor. He is also a snob who boasts of being descended from King Charles II through a prostitute. “The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries,” St. Aubyn writes, “and perfected itself in David’s face.” In the first novel, Never Mind, David sodomizes his five-year-old son and then has lunch. In the second, Bad News, he is dead, and Patrick, now grown up and a junkie, flies to New York to collect the body. When Patrick hears of his father’s death, he rages: “You’re not going to get away with this.”

The events of each of the Melrose novels take place, like classical tragedies, over the course of a single day; and they are built, too, upon the classic themes of tragedy, and one specific tragedy. Property, family, cruelty; the rage of inheritance, the violence of snobbery: in all this, St. Aubyn is writing a kind of loose homage to Shakespeare’s play. Lear curses his daughter Goneril as:

a disease that’s in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine. Thou art a boil,
A plague sore, or embossed carbuncle
In my corrupted blood.

Patrick feels his father’s ongoing presence in his life “like a pollution in his bloodstream, a poison he had not put there himself, impossible to purge or leech without draining the patient.” Later, he acknowledges: “[M]y hatred for my father, and my love for drugs, are the most important relationships in my life.”

Now, some bright spark has come up with the idea of getting Edward St. Aubyn to write a novel of King Lear as part of the Hogarth series of novelists updating Shakespeare’s plays: other titles and novelists in the same series are Margaret Atwood on The Tempest and Anne Tyler on The Taming of the Shrew. In the planning meeting, it must have looked like a brilliant idea, but it is equally a terrible match. As should be clear from even these brief quotations and summary, St. Aubyn’s mode is satire, and the twin marks of satire are a flattening of characters into absurd, exaggerated types, and a narrow worldview. They tend to be short and sharp. This mode is not Shakespeare’s at all, nor is it the style of the gorgeous mess that is King Lear. Satire is the mode of Shakespeare’s rival, Ben Jonson, whose plays are ruthless studies of a world gone mad, and which are only too relevant today. St. Aubyn would write an amazing update of a Jonson play, but what distinguishes Shakespeare is his resistance to satire: always to see everything as doubled, ambiguous, slippery.


The idea of updating King Lear — or that the play is in need of some improvement — is an old one. The play itself is an update of a previous play about the same king: The True Chronicle History of King Leir, which had been a success on the London stage in the 1590s. This play is what Shakespeare reworked as his own King Lear in the early 17th century. In the early 1680s, the Irish poet Nahum Tate again updated Shakespeare’s play, and this version, not Shakespeare’s, was performed on the English stage until the early 19th century. Lecturing at the start of the 20th century, A. C. Bradley — perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest critic in that century — noted that the play was marred by excess and confusion. “Not his best play,” Bradley sniffed (italics his), and insisted that the plot was filled with “improbabilities, inconsistencies, sayings and doings which suggest questions only to be answered by conjecture.” The play is divided, as often in Shakespeare, between a primary and secondary plot, and Bradley was particularly troubled that this secondary plot — concerning the Earl of Gloucester’s mistreatment by his bastard son Edmund and salvation by his other son Edgar — was little more than a repetition of the themes of the main plot. Bradley noted too the weird games of disguise played by both Edgar and Lear’s loyal servant, Kent, who remains hidden for far too long: “Why does Kent so carefully preserve his incognito until the last scene?” There is confusion around the geographical and political setting of the play, and the fate of the Fool is a mystery (Bradley: “carelessness”). Generally, Bradley noted, the characters could be divided into two categories: motivated either by “unselfish and devoted love” or “hard self-seeking,” and little more. King Lear was, Bradley hinted, hardly even a play at all: perhaps we should better see it as an epic poem, or something else entirely.

But there follows a surprising twist in Bradley’s argument, for all these defects add up precisely to what he calls “the peculiar greatness of King Lear” (again, italics his). Here is Bradley trying to define — or at least, lavishly gesturing toward — the elements of this greatness:

the immense scope of the work; the mass and variety of intense experience which it contains; the interpenetration of sublime imagination, piercing pathos, and humour almost as moving as the pathos; the vastness of the convulsion both of nature and of human passion; the vagueness of the scene where the action takes place, and of the movements of the figures which cross this scene; the strange atmosphere, cold and dark, which strikes on us as we enter this scene, enfolding these figures and magnifying their dim outlines like a winter mist; the half-realised suggestions of vast universal powers working in the world of individual fates and passions.

The play, Bradley concludes, is “imperfectly dramatic, and there is something in its very essence which is at war with the senses.” Bradley’s lectures were published in 1904, in the infancy of literary modernism. This was the year of the publication of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo and the first journalism by Virginia Woolf, and also the year in which James Joyce’s Ulysses is set, and now something like war with the senses looked like a literary merit.

Quoting Bradley at length is worthwhile partly because literary critics just do not write like him anymore; and mostly because his switchback, proto-modernist argument begins to explain both what is very good and very bad about St. Aubyn’s new version of King Lear. In updating the play, St. Aubyn has cut exactly those elements derided by Bradley. The secondary plot, which troubled Bradley for its repetition, is gone. Lear’s loyal helpers are no longer in disguise, and the stand-in for the Fool dies for easily explicable reasons. For Bradley, the source of the play’s power lies in its apparent weakness. By cutting those dramatic defects, St. Aubyn has therefore cut too its force. St. Aubyn has not missed the point, exactly. Rather, he has exactly understood half the point. In the place of that Bradleyan gloom, now everything is brightly lit and fully realized in the present moment. The movements of characters are no longer vague. Now, they go by private jet, specifically a Gulfstream, nicknamed Global One.

St. Aubyn’s novel opens in a nursing home called Meadowmeade in the north of England. One elderly patient, Henry Dunbar, is recounting to another — a former stand-up comedian and mimic called Peter Walker, who is suffering from manic depression — how he once had an empire but lost it. He wished to hand the running of his great media business over to his daughters; his lawyer, Wilson, tried to help; his two older daughters tricked him. Dunbar and Peter plan an escape from the teetotal nursing home to the local pub. Meanwhile, there are some high-capitalist high jinks involving share prices and a hostile takeover by a rival corporation. The evil older daughters, Megan and Abigail, are on their way to retrieve Dunbar from his nursing home, while the saintly younger daughter, Florence, is also racing toward him. This youngest daughter is, we are told, “a passionate advocate of workers’ rights, environmental concerns and high standards of journalistic integrity,” and she’s coming to save the day.

Bradley observed that the characters in the original play were flat; this is radically more true in the novel. We first meet Megan and Abigail in bed with Dr. Bob, who had been Dunbar’s personal physician and is now helping the two sisters drug their father into what looks like dementia. Dr. Bob is a loose echo of the character of Edmund in the play: the bastard son of Gloucester, who is lusted after by both Goneril and Regan, and who is driven by a rage against both his father and a world which discriminates against illegitimate children. The novel lacks the plot line which makes sense of Edmund’s character and motives, however, so in the novel, he is driven by nothing more than profit. That which is unknown is made explicit, simple. In the play, Lear is declining into a madness that is part-rage and part-dementia; he is old, and vengeful, and the play’s tension arises from a race against time, whether he will learn to be wise before he is too old. In the novel, Dunbar has simply been drugged.

St. Aubyn is a highly economic writer, and this is a compliment: his novels are single-sitting reads. When he addresses himself to the excesses of King Lear, then, it is little surprise that he trims so much. What is a surprise, however, is how much of the texture of the play he manages to smuggle back into his apparently unpoetic and light novel. That is: He messes up the Shakespearean plot (but who cares about Shakespeare’s plots, anyway?) but gets something deeply right about the language (and who doesn’t care about Shakespeare’s language?). When one evil sister, Abigail, tells Florence that “we might arguably be said to love him more — from an accumulated income point of view,” she approximates the play’s jumble of the languages of love and accountancy. Here is Lear on his daughters: “sea-monster,” “Detested kite,” “pelican daughters.” Here is Dunbar: “Monsters […] vultures tearing at my heart and entrails […] Treacherous, lecherous bitches.”

One repeated motif reveals much of St. Aubyn’s handling of King Lear. In the pub outside the nursing home, looking out onto a lake, Dunbar feels the madness creeping in: “Outside in and inside out, from lake to glass and glass to lake, and in between a chain, on which he could all too easily imagine himself tripping and being pitched forward on to the rocks; his precious, unreliable brains spilling out; the waves lapping hungrily.” Each time he thinks of madness, he thinks of water; later, “He stood on the flat stones, facing downstream, imagining that the glassy water spilling over the gray rocks in front of him and tumbling into a foaming pool was also flowing through his troubled mind.” Later still, he thinks of cutting his veins and letting the blood flow out; sensations enter his mind “[l]ike a deluge rushing onto a flat, rocky plain, with no slope to direct it or soil to absorb it,” and close to the end of the play, in case you missed it, he begins to return to clarity, “[l]ike a swimmer blowing the water from his flooded snorkel.”

This is all of course an homage to the central metaphor of King Lear: what Lear calls “[t]he tempest in my mind.” Lear is one for whom the external world comes crashing in too hard, who is so fragile that he loses the barrier between the weather and himself; he is always dissolving into water. In a heart-breaking speech that is only in the Quarto version of the play, a knight describes Lear in his fit of madness, standing out in a storm:

Contending with the fretful elements;
Bids the wind blow the earth into the sea,
Or swell the curled waters ‘bove the main,
That things might change, or cease; tears his white hair,
Which the impetuous blasts with eyeless rage
Catch in their fury and make nothing of,
Strives in his little world of man to outscorn
The to and fro conflicting wind and rain.

Out in the storm, Lear repeats his watery fury: “You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!” Madness is high winds and rain and is when the tempest soaks through into the mind, and men must struggle to control the weather and the waters. At the start, Lear vows, “let not women’s weapons, water-drops, / Stain my man’s cheeks,” but by the play’s end, the tears are his. “I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire that mine own tears / Do scald like molten lead,” he sobs. Or, as St. Aubyn has it: Dunbar “reached up to protect his eyes, but found that far from being hollowed out by liquid fire, they were wet with ordinary tears.”

That so much is pastiche does not mean it is not moving, and, in these twisted repetitions and echoes, St. Aubyn catches something of the peculiar doubling of this play in which all things are connected strangely, and all things are an echo. St. Aubyn’s characters are flat, and his plot is silly; we may, if we are feeling charitable toward St. Aubyn, say the same of Shakespeare. It is foolish to ask: Is this novel as good as King Lear? But it is equally foolish to restate the fruitiest critical prejudice of them all, which is that Shakespeare is the great bard and the sweet Swan of Avon and nothing compares, et cetera, et cetera. Neither of these are satisfactory critical positions. What are we left with? That, of course, is the lesson of King Lear. The play ends with the old tragic injunction, sadly handed down from one generation to the next, always unbearable:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


Daniel Swift is the author of Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two (longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Guardian First Book award), Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age, and The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound.

LARB Contributor

Daniel Swift is the author of Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two (longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Guardian First Book award), Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age, and The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the New Statesman, and Harper’s. He teaches at the New College of the Humanities in London.


LARB Staff Recommendations

  • How to Say Nothing

    Is it possible to read or write a book in a vacuum, disregarding prizes, public opinion, academic discourse, or artistic precedent? How do we shake...

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!