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Edward St. Aubyn sets aside autobiographical fiction in 'Dunbar' and updates Shakespeare's 'King Lear'

Years ago in an undergraduate Shakespeare paper I posited that the lustful sisters of “King Lear,” Goneril and Regan, might have been affected by stages of the moon often mentioned in that play. “A bit far-fetched,” wrote my professor, dryly.

I wonder what that professor might think of Abby and Meghan, sisters so lustful in Edward St. Aubyn’s “Dunbar” that in this “Lear” reworking’s opening pages Meghan nearly severs their shared lover’s nipple. Fortunately, Dr. Bob is handy with syringe and needle; he numbs himself up and sews himself whole in the bathroom, the better to return to his demanding mistresses.

Dr. Bob’s nipple is just one way St. Aubyn signals he’s willing to be far-fetched in service of the Bard. The Hogarth Shakespeare Series began in 2015 with today’s finest writers tackling Shakespeare’s greatest plays as novels, in their own voices (Margaret Atwood updated “The Tempest” as “Hag Seed,” Tracy Cheavlier did “Othello” as “New Boy,” e.g.). Hence “Dunbar” in place of “King Lear.”

A great deal of the family tragedy is still there: Greedy older sisters, kindhearted youngest sister (Florence, rather than Cordelia), addled paterfamilias Henry Dunbar, a proper fool named Simon, and an even more proper deputy, Wilson. Over the course of “Dunbar,” Meghan (Regan) proves herself as bloodthirsty as her lovemaking indicates and takes on the (metaphorical) eye-gouging done by her husband (Cornwall) in the original play. Suspend your 21st century disbelief, readers, because it will be just as difficult to believe that the title character here survives outside in a blinding snowstorm as it was to believe King Lear survived the heath in a thunderstorm.

Henry Dunbar, the CEO of a global media empire, seems to have lost it. Once a kingpin with more than a passing resemblance to Rupert Murdoch and to the 94-year-old Sumner Redstone, whose family is battling about his estate. Dunbar is now confined to a middling Midlands eldercare facility, the kind where the public rooms are much nicer than the dormitories and designed to offend as few people as possible with their cream-tea décor. Meanwhile, his scheming older children are taking full advantage of Dunbar being offstage, planning a coup that will give them control of the company — but will mean it is no longer a privately held concern.

Miserable in his confined quarters, aware that something wicked his way comes, Dunbar plans escape with his fellow inmate Peter Walker, once a famous television comic and now a late-stage alcoholic. The two men are joined by a Mrs. Harrod, who functions less as a Lucy to their Ricky and Fred than as a deus ex machina who has the cash for the cab that will spirit them far enough away not to be found. And speaking of a deus ex machina, St. Aubyn gives Dunbar one, too, in the form of a hidden ATM card linked to a Swiss bank account with “no limit” that no one else knows about or can access. Before you can say “Interpol!” the dotard (he also bears more than passing resemblance to a current politician) has stumbled off alone into a fierce snowstorm beyond the reach of friend or foe. Who will find him first? The scheming daughters and their sheepish compatriots or caring Florence and her steadfast high-school love Chris?

If it all sounds a bit melodramatic, that’s because it is — Shakespeare (whoever he/they might have been) had the advantage of a facility with language the likes of which has not been seen in English literature for centuries. While St. Aubyn is an elegant and at times even superlative prose stylist, his 21st century verbiage cannot live up to his predecessor’s. “I love your majesty according to my bond/Nor more nor less,” says Cordelia, and while St. Aubyn doesn’t come up with a replacement nearly as memorable, he wisely skirts parroting the best-known lines from the play. Similarly, unlike the finale of “Lear,” the race to “Dunbar’s” finish line would make an excellent episode of “Dynasty” even though St. Aubyn has cut out a great deal of the political conspiring from “King Lear”; he can’t cut out the chase without sacrificing meaning.

Fortunately, St. Aubyn shines at skewering the rich and profligate. In “Dunbar,” Abby and Meghan’s thoughts about private jets alone make his point that you can be too rich — and meanwhile, their father has gotten too thin during his wanderings. This unhappy family is not at all like any others, because its cruel older siblings will stop at nothing to get what they want, no matter how many people die, no matter how many people are cheated.

And that is where the current author shines his light most beautifully — and also most usefully: on the aftermath of tragedy.

For those not familiar with St. Aubyn’s work, his five “Melrose” novels detail a man’s recovery from life in a very rich, very dysfunctional aristocratic English family. (The novels, widely known to be based on St. Aubyn’s own history, are in BBC production as a television series starring Benedict Cumberbatch.) We all know that things will not end well; it’s “King Lear.” While St. Aubyn remains faithful at the final moment to Shakespeare, allowing Wilson (Albany) to utter the final words, he also uses the words to his own suitably bleak yet ultimately hopeful finish — a true meeting of minds and not a bit far-fetched.

Patrick is a writer and critic whose work appears in the Washington Post and on NPR Books.

Dunbar

Edward St. Aubyn

Hogarth: 256 pp., $25

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