Excerpt from Dunbar: Edward St. Aubyn retells King Lear

Dunbar author photo by Timothy Allen
Photo by Timothy Allen

In Dunbar, a new novel by Edward St. Aubyn that retells the Shakespeare play King Lear, Henry Dunbar makes the mistake of handing over control of his global corporation to his eldest daughters, who bribe a doctor to declare him mentally unfit and send him to a care home in England. Can his youngest daughter (the only one who loves him) find him in time?

Dunbar, published Oct 3, is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which modern writers re-imagine Shakespeare plays as novels. The series has so far included retellings of The Winter’s Tale, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, and Othello by Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, and Tracy Chevalier, respectively.

⇒ Q&A: Tracy Chevalier on New Boy, her retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello

In an interview with The New York Times, St. Aubyn says he likes the play “for being very familial and political, as well as metaphysical.” He also explains why he made his protagonist a media mogul:

Your version of Lear is a ruthless Canadian media mogul. Why did a media titan seem like a fitting parallel for a monarch?

I wanted to keep the political dimension of it, so I needed to have someone who was powerful, and a king obviously doesn’t make the grade in the 21st century. I felt elected politicians were these brief summers of electoral democracy, and I wanted to deal with the permafrost of power, the people who are always there. Administrations come and go and prime ministers come and go. I think that [a media titan] is the modern analog to a king.

The opening scene of Dunbar, excerpted below, finds Henry Dunbar plotting his escape from the care home with the help of another patient, Peter.

“We’re off our meds,” whispered Dunbar.

“We’re off our meds/ we’re off our heads,” sang Peter, “we’re out of our beds/ and we’re off our meds! Yesterday,” he continued in a conspiratorial whisper, “we were drooling into the lapels of our terry cloth dressing gowns, but now we’re off our meds! We’ve spat them out; we’ve tranquilized the aspidistras! If those fresh lilies you get sent each day . . .”

“When I think where they come from,” growled Dunbar.

“Steady, old man.”

“They stole my empire and now they send me stinking lilies.”

“Oh, you had an empire, did you?” said Peter, in the voice of an eager hostess, “you must meet Gavin in Room 33, he’s here in disguise, but his real name,” Peter lowered his voice, “is Alexander the Great.”

“I don’t believe a word of it,” grumbled Dunbar, “he’s been dead for years.”

“Well,” said Peter, now a Harley Street consultant, “if those troubled lilies were suffering from schizo­phrenic tendencies; tendencies, mind you, a little pen­chant for the schizoid, not the full-blown thing, their symptoms will have been mitigated with a minimum of fatal side effects.” He leant forward and whispered, “that’s where I put my dead meds: in the vase with the lilies!”

“I really did have an empire, you know,” said Dun­bar. “Have I ever told you the story of how it was sto­len from me?”

“Many times, old man, many times,” said Peter dreamily.

Dunbar heaved himself out of his armchair and after a couple of stumbling steps, straightened up, squinting at the strong light that slanted through the reinforced glass of his premium cell.

“I told Wilson that I would stay on as non-executive chairman,” Dunbar began, “keeping the plane, the entourage, the properties, and the appropriate privi­leges, but laying down the burden—” he reached over to the large vase of lilies and lowered it carefully to the floor, “laying down the burden of running the Trust from day to day. From now on, I told him, the world will be my perfect playground and, in due course, my private hospice.”

“Oh, that’s very good,” said Peter, “ ‘the world is my private hospice,’ that’s a new one.”

“ ‘But the Trust is everything,’ Wilson told me.” Dunbar grew more agitated as he moved into the story. “ ‘If you give that away,’ he said, ‘you’ll have nothing left. You can’t give something away and keep it at the same time.’ ”

“It’s an untenable position,” Peter cut in, “as R. D. Laing said to the Bishop.”

“Please let me tell my story,” said Dunbar. “I told Wilson that it was a tax measure, that we could get around the inheritance tax by giving the girls the company straight away. ‘Better pay the tax,’ said Wil­son, ‘than disinherit yourself.’ ”

“Oh, I like this Wilson,” said Peter. “He sounds like a sound fellow, he sounds like a man with his meds screwed on, I mean his heads screwed on.”

“He only had one head,” said Dunbar impatiently, “he wasn’t a monster; it’s my daughters who are the monsters.”

“Only one head!” said Peter. “What a dull fellow! When I get anti-depressed I have more heads on my head than bees in a bonnet.”

“Very well, very well,” said Dunbar. He looked up at the ceiling and then boomed down in the voice of Wilson, “ ‘You can’t cling to the trappings of power, without the power itself. It’s just,’ ” he paused, trying to avoid the word, but eventually letting it fall on him from the plaster above, “ ‘decadent.’ ”

“Oh, decadence, decay, and death,” said Peter in his thespian tremolo, “descending, syllable by sylla­ble, into a narrow grave. How lightly we have tripped down those stairs, like Fred Astaires, twirling a scythe instead of a cane!”

“God in heaven,” said Dunbar, his face flushing, “will you please stop interrupting me? People didn’t used to interrupt me; they listened to me meekly. If they spoke, it was to flatter me, or to make lucrative insinuations. But you, you . . .”

“Okay, guys,” said Peter, as if addressing an angry mob, “give the man some space. Let’s hear what he’s gotta say.”

“ ‘I can do what I bloody well like!’ ” cried Dunbar, “that’s what I told Wilson. ‘I am informing you of my decision, not asking your advice. Just make it hap­pen!’ ”

Dunbar raised his eyes to the ceiling again.

“ ‘I’m not only your lawyer, Henry; I’m your old­est surviving friend. I’m saying these things to protect you.’ ”

Reprinted from DUNBAR. Copyright © 2017 by Edward St. Aubyn. Published in the United States by Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC, New York.