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

Lecturing at the start of the 20th century, A. As should be clear from even these brief quotations and summary, St. 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. 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. 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. Thou art a boil,
A plague sore, or embossed carbuncle
In my corrupted blood. DECEMBER 23, 2017
LATE IN THE Patrick Melrose novels — the quintet that made Edward St. Aubyn is writing a kind of loose homage to Shakespeare’s play. 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. 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. 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. 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. ‘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. 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. Meanwhile, there are some high-capitalist high jinks involving share prices and a hostile takeover by a rival corporation. “I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire that mine own tears / Do scald like molten lead,” he sobs. Dr. St. 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. The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long. As St. The talk would talk and go so far aslant. The Melrose novels star the dissolute, drug-addled Patrick, but they fixate upon his relationship with his father, David, who is a proper monster. St. Lear’s loyal helpers are no longer in disguise, and the stand-in for the Fool dies for easily explicable reasons. 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”). He no longer has much which is truly his own. This play is what Shakespeare reworked as his own   King Lear   in the early 17th century. 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. St. “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. 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. 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. 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. Or, as St. Lear curses his daughter Goneril as:
a disease that’s in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine. Aubyn has therefore cut too its force. ¤
The idea of updating   King Lear — or that the play is in need of some improvement — is an old one. In the second,   Bad News, he is dead, and Patrick, now grown up and a junkie, flies to New York to collect the body. 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. 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. C. Property, family, cruelty; the rage of inheritance, the violence of snobbery: in all this, St. In updating the play, St. By cutting those dramatic defects, St. 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. St. Aubyn’s characters are flat, and his plot is silly; we may, if we are feeling charitable toward 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. 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. 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. In the planning meeting, it must have looked like a brilliant idea, but it is equally a terrible match. Aubyn catches something of the peculiar doubling of this play in which all things are connected strangely, and all things are an echo. Aubyn’s handling of   King Lear. The second and final stanza correctly runs:
The contradictions cover such a range. It is foolish to ask: Is this novel as good as   King Lear? ¤
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. 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. 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. St. Bradley observed that the characters in the original play were flat; this is radically more true in the novel. Now, they go by private jet, specifically a Gulfstream, nicknamed Global One. Neither of these are satisfactory critical positions. Aubyn has not missed the point, exactly. St. Dunbar and Peter plan an escape from the teetotal nursing home to the local pub. 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. 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. That, of course, is the lesson of   King Lear. Aubyn’s mode is satire, and the twin marks of satire are a flattening of characters into absurd, exaggerated types, and a narrow worldview. 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. 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. We first meet Megan and Abigail in bed with Dr. This mode is not Shakespeare’s at all, nor is it the style of the gorgeous mess that is   King Lear. 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. In the place of that Bradleyan gloom, now everything is brightly lit and fully realized in the present moment. For Bradley, the source of the play’s power lies in its apparent weakness. Aubyn’s Melrose novels without that same Shakespeare play coming to mind. What are we left with? Aubyn has cut exactly those elements derided by Bradley. 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. Aubyn writes, Patrick “closed his eyes and stretched out in the back seat. That which is unknown is made explicit, simple. 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. Rather, he has exactly understood half the point. He is also a snob who boasts of being descended from King Charles II through a prostitute. When he addresses himself to the excesses of   King Lear, then, it is little surprise that he trims so much. Bob, who had been Dunbar’s personal physician and is now helping the two sisters drug their father into what looks like dementia. 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). Aubyn is a highly economic writer, and this is a compliment: his novels are single-sitting reads. Bradley — perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest critic in that century — noted that the play was marred by excess and confusion. Aubyn’s novel opens in a nursing home called Meadowmeade in the north of England. “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’s new version of   King Lear. They tend to be short and sharp. 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?). 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. The movements of characters are no longer vague. 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. 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. 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. The secondary plot, which troubled Bradley for its repetition, is gone. 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. 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. 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. Just as it is hard to read Empson without thinking of   Lear, so too is it impossible to think of St. St. You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there. Aubyn, say the same of Shakespeare. 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. 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 novel, Dunbar has simply been drugged. 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.