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:
There had once been a man called Henry Dunbar, an expert on the glories and shortcomings of some of the greatest properties in the world, but he was barely discernible now, familiar yet lost, like the pattern in a blind bleached by the sun; it was the man freezing to death under a ledge of rock who was the real Dunbar, with the numbness spreading from his hands and feet towards his heart, a heart that had never pumped so hard, or felt so much, but which would soon come to a stop on this frigid mountainside.
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:
Outside in and inside out, from lake to glass and glass to lake, and in between a chain, on which 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; his blood the colour of the cross on the flag, trembling and wrinkling in the wind. Dunbar clasped the table for support. There were too many dismembering resemblances between one thing and another. He must try to keep things in their proper place, the lake in the lake, beer in the glass, the blood in his body."
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.
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:
One time he was beaten for lighting a fire he had 'specifically' been told not to touch. He was haunted by that word long before he knew what it meant. He assumed it conveyed a dreadful moral weight, referring to something for which 'evil' was no longer adequate. When he learnt its real meaning, the neutrality of its precision bewildered him. How could she hope to load so much terror and violence on to such a prim, narrow word?
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.