Edward St. Aubyn: Dunbar

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 84

The title character of King Lear becomes a media mogul in Edward St. Aubyn's new novel, Dunbar, which retells the story of one of Shakespeare’s most dysfunctional families for the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Edward St. Aubyn is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published November 1, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, “Th’ Untented Woundings of a Father’s Curse,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California and Paul  Reuest at Argot Studios in New York. 

Read an excerpt from Dunbar on the Folger's Shakespeare & Beyond blog.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: Tolstoy said “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And why are we telling you that in a Shakespeare podcast? I’ll clear that up in a second.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director. It’s hard to think of an unhappier family than the one Edward St. Aubyn began to chronicle in 1992 with the publication of Never Mind, the first of what would become the Patrick Melrose series – five novels of torture, brutality, drug addiction, and denial all within the life of one upper class English family…and, for Edward St. Aubyn, much of it autobiographical.

So the publishers of the Hogarth Shakespeare project must have been thrilled when St. Aubyn’s agent contacted them to say that, if they were looking for a contemporary author to adapt one of Shakespeare’s most dysfunctional families—Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and their raving, vindictive father, King Lear—St. Aubyn was their man.

Edward St. Aubyn’s new book for Hogarth is titled Dunbar. The title character is a modern-day king—a media mogul on the scale of Rupert Murdoch—whose evil daughters have him locked away, against his will, in a psychiatric hospital.

Earlier this month, Edward St. Aubyn was in New York and we were lucky enough to get him into the studio to talk about his writing process, King Lear, and whether it’s true that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

We call this podcast “Th’Untented Woundings of a Father’s Curse.” Edward St. Aubyn is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I can see why Hogarth would look to you, someone who's consistently written about power and violence, and what one salvages from the wreckage of family to adapt Lear, but what attracted you to it? And I understand you heard about the adaptation project and approached Hogarth first.

EDWARD ST. AUBYN: That's right, my agent approached Hogarth. I felt attracted for the reasons you've already mentioned, that it was natural territory for me and also because I did King Lear for A Level, which is the exam you do in England to get into university. And it's the only time that we spend two years with the same text, probably, for the rest of your life. And so I felt that Lear was deep in my system, and it did in fact informed the Melrose books and is quoted several times in Mother's Milk and also mentioned in At Last. So it was already informing my books before it became the formal pretext for a novel of mine.

BOGAEV: Oh that's so interesting and I can imagine two years with a text, when you're so young, it does become somehow written into your DNA. But what did you specifically relate to, do you think, so powerfully when you were studying it when you were young?

ST. AUBYN: Well I was under an obligation to understand it. I suppose as a school boy that was my first relationship with it and, you know, I wish I still had my teenage copy. I think I wrote things like “Metaphor” in the margins; sometimes when it was a metaphor, sometimes when it wasn't. And “lack of self-K,” I remember being—K standing for knowledge—being a big entry which seemed to appear everywhere in the marginalia of my copy. But once I was immersed in it I did find the subject matter, the big themes of Lear, which were the things I felt I needed to remain loyal to in Dunbar; blindness and power and the nature of love and self-knowledge, to be fundamental and engrossing themes.

BOGAEV: And I want to talk about those, but I'd like to nail down some of the nitty gritty first. Once you got the go ahead what did you do first? Did you re-read the play or did you watch Ian McKellen on YouTube?

ST. AUBYN: I didn't watch Ian McKellen at first. I got hold of, without having ever seen it before, a Peter Brook film of King Lear with Paul Scofield playing Lear.

BOGAEV: Oh yes, that's a good one.

ST. AUBYN: It's extraordinary. And everyone is riding on Exmoor ponies across the windswept tundra, and seems to be dressed in a pelt that's just been torn from a dying animal. So it's very much a Lear set in 800 BC, when Holinshed said that Lear was King of England. But it's a very nihilistic, very extreme version of Lear and I was completely persuaded by its brilliance, and at the end I rushed to the phone and rang my agent and said, is it too late to back out? because I thought it was so much over in the bleak, existential vision of man's suffering and horror and cruelty, without a hint of redemption. Then I re-read the play and kind of saw how tendentious, although brilliant, Peter Brook’s version was, and I was reassured by that. I felt there was room for maneuver.

BOGAEV: And by "room for maneuver," what did you mean by that? Because as you speak I'm thinking of the other writers we've talked to who've done adaptations and they've all gone through some kind of similar panic. How can I ever change...? How can I ever match up to...? You know, the anxiety of influence of Shakespeare. And it's interesting with you that in your book you hew rather closely to the plot of Lear and not all the Hogarth authors do.

ST. AUBYN: Yes, I felt that while the themes are so large, as we've already mentioned, that there's an enormous amount of room for maneuver within them so I didn't see any point in either approaching it facetiously or tangentially. I felt it should be about a powerful man, because there are political dimensions to Lear which don't survive if you set Lear on a domestic scale, in the way that Balzac did in Le Père Goriot for instance. So I wanted to make my Lear a media mogul with genuine power who is part of the kind of permafrost of power that underlies the brief summers of electoral democracy. And certainly, the modern analog of a king is not a king. I felt that the analog of a king was a global, ultra rich, media mogul with a huge influence over the political process without being subject to its buffeting.

BOGAEV: So that was an aesthetic choice. You didn't want to get away from these larger themes of power. Because I'm thinking of Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, one of the best known adaptations of Lear to Americans anyway, and she of course stood the structure on its head, with Lear as a farmer in the American Midwest with three daughters; she makes it into a domestic power situation. And she also has the eldest daughter narrate the story; tells it from her point of view. What do you think of that approach?

ST. AUBYN: I haven't read Jane Smiley's novel, but I hear it's really good. Everyone who tells me about it says it's very good and I think it's a very interesting approach and I'm impressed by idea of it. But I wanted to go down the highway to keep the political dimensions and also to portray madness and the disintegration of someone's mind. I think that the theme of someone having self-knowledge thrust upon them unwillingly at a very late age, when their circuitry is barely able to take the charge is something that I find very poignant, and I wanted to be true to that. I also felt I should be true to the—basically true, although there are variations—to the tragic nature of King Lear and not do what Nahum Tate famously did by rewriting it with a happy ending, a forced—

BOGAEV: You're referring to the restoration folly of having a happy ending for Lear.

ST. AUBYN: Exactly. In 1681. We think of happy endings and forced happy endings as being some sort of Hollywood executive's prerogative, but in fact in 1681 Nahum Tate forced a happy ending on Lear, and the real Lear was not performed again until 1838. Because people found it too morally repulsive, for goodness to be punished in the way that Cordelia's goodness is punished.

BOGAEV: That's true. It's even later here in America before we had a tragic ending for Lear. And I think it was Edwin Booth, John Wilkes Booth's brother, who was the first to decide to play Lear without using the Tate version.

ST. AUBYN: Really?

BOGAEV: Yeah, it’s an interesting history. Within the exploration of themes of power you also pick up on the malevolent workings of it, with the daughters-with the evil daughters and it's something you've written a lot about, that being close to power or privilege makes you feel makes you feel more powerful or privileged, you know, beyond the confines of normal morality. And also that it makes you assume everyone can be treated as if they're not fully human. It gives more of a back story, certainly, than Shakespeare gave to the daughters in Lear.

ST. AUBYN: Absolutely. And I think that's really what was, from a technical point of view, fascinating for me; the refractive value of moving from a Jacobean play to a twenty-first-century novel and what happens when the play enters into something that's psychologically dense as a novel. You can't have a Cordelia character—in my book she's called Florence—who is as emblematic and thin as Cordelia is. She had very few lines and stands for an almost impossible goodness and as a novelist I have to make her fully human and flawed. And the evil daughters also have their own inner life. And this is what a novelist can bring, is a portrait of the subjectivity of the characters. And that's why, and I'm not shadowing King Lear, I'm filling in something that isn't in the drama. King Lear doesn't have any monologues; he doesn't come front stage and explain what's going on in his mind to the audience, because he has no self-knowledge which is very different from Hamlet who can hardly take a break from rushing forward to make a very eloquent description of what's going on in his mind. Lear doesn't do that once. So there was that opportunity to try and explore what was going on in his mind which is natural to the novel.

BOGAEV: Which I think are some of the best passages in your book, where you do that. These “please, please don't let me go mad” passages, where your Lear/Dunbar is unmoored in the wilderness, and you get into another theme of Lear which is the question of what is natural. What is natural in power? What is natural to man? And you write things like "His sense of self was so fragile and contingent it might dissolve like a watercolor in the rain.” And another beautiful passage, "As the ship disappears all directions are abolished. There's no gravity, no tangible surface or meaningful reference point. Only the hollow scepter of infinite space." What experience have you had personally with this to help you imagine yourself into the mind of Lear, into the mind of a disintegrating, his physical and mental disintegration and his distress about it?

ST. AUBYN: It's my job to imagine other people's mentalities, but I do find it frighteningly easy in the sense that I think probably historically it was so uncomfortable being myself, that I was always pretending to be someone else. That was a deep mimetic habit, which probably had pathological origins, but then which was transformed into something very useful for me as a writer. And yes, we should say that the ship in that gradation is a spaceship, it's not an ordinary naval ship. I track his disintegration and madness as he goes through the wilderness on his own and, again, that's a variant with the play. King Lear is always with an entourage and I think that it's isolation that produces madness, that very few people go mad with a large entourage. And so I've put Dunbar on his own. And he's almost never been on his own before. He's always been surrounded by flatterers, and minions, and secretaries, and in that solitude the pressure of guilt and anxiety and the memories of what he's done in his life drive him mad.

BOGAEV: It is a hard act to manage though, to balance. I was thinking you have Dunbar, all of this is happening in the wilderness as he flees the sanitarium that his daughters have exiled him to and I know you've said that you sometimes long to write poetry instead of having to do all this novelistic stuff like “wretched settings and description,” I think you said. But you do quite a bit of that in this book.

ST. AUBYN: I think this is my most plotted book. I think that's driven by the drama that it comes from. I felt it needed to have momentum and real plot in the way that Lear does, you know, about the invasion of the country and the outcome of the battle and so forth. So I felt I had to be true to that and it's much more plotted and thriller-like book than the Melrose books or any of my other books.

Yeah, so I wrote about—I did want to write poetry when I was young, and as a late adolescent and into my early twenties. And I think it's because I'm very interested in imagery in a communication that goes straight from one imagination to another and it just needs to be imagined rather than explained. And I think that's still present in my writing, it's full of similes and it's strongly visual, but for some reason I also want to tell stories, you know, so the poetry side of me got wrapped up into prose.

BOGAEV: Well this merging of the inner and outer landscapes and how they feed each other, it is very evocative, and it made me think of something you once said about your Patrick Melrose series, that the books trace Melrose's attempt to emerge with dignity from an impossible assault on dignity. And that seems to apply very much to Dunbar. It made me question whether, as you wrote this book, you associated Dunbar more with yourself, or yourself as a Father, or perhaps your Father, or all of your personas, because that is the mystery of having children, you have two children, you're always living many generations at once, and you had a particularly traumatic experience as a child. You're always experiencing yourself as a child and as a parent at the same time. Were any of these things swirling through you as you wrote this book?

ST. AUBYN: They may have been in the background because every writer is writing from the sum of their experience, but it's a very different drama. I agree that there's a misuse of power and there's a bad father, but Dunbar is an entirely different kind of bad father than David Melrose. We can't just throw all kinds of bad parenting into the same supermarket trolley. He's not a pervert, he's not a sadist, he's not a murderer, he's not a psychopath, he's just a tyrant, you know, who's been used to having his own way and he wants to keep the trappings of power without the responsibilities of power. So it's a different story. The key to the story lies in Shakespeare's character not in my own past characters, I think.

BOGAEV: How was that for you? I imagine that's rather liberating after writing five books based on your past. I know you've written other books as well, since then, but...

ST. AUBYN: It was delightful to be writing about someone else's unhappy family, yes. A tremendous relief.

BOGAEV: Well, in most of your work you do balance the satire with tragedy. So was it clear from the beginning, as you said that you weren't going to go the Tate way, which way you'd ultimately go with Dunbar, because at the end it's tragic, but there is some hope that's tempered by some hope.

ST. AUBYN: It is, my ending is different from the ending of the play, very significantly different, but I did feel that it would be really disreputable to follow Nahum Tate rather than William Shakespeare. And so I did want to stay true to the tragic nature of Lear, but that's why in a way I was so disconcerted by Peter Brook's film that I saw at the beginning, because it's so nihilistic that in a way it eliminates the possibility of tragedy. Absurdity and tragedy are not the same thing. If everything is meaningless then there can't be any tragedy. Lear needs to gain some insight just before it become useless. He needs to rediscover love just before it disappears and that's tragic. It's not tragic if things are just meaningless and relentlessly horrible. That's why I think there needs to be some sense of redemption, which is then annihilated, in order to create the experience of tragedy. And I felt I had to be loyal to that without any doubt, but that there would be lots of departures. The subplot, which might be resonant or reflective in the play, would just be redundant or repetitious in a novel. I felt I would break with Shakespeare in having a fool who was actually funny whereas the fool in Lear is a torment, isn't he. For all we know, the audience in 1606 were clutching their sides when he made jokes about cracking eggs, you know, the two halves being hollow crowns and so forth, but...

BOGAEV: Oh, it's such a groaner. And I have to say you have some very delightful Shakespearean dialogue between Dunbar and Peter, your fool. He's a fellow nursing home or sanitarium resident and he's a television comic and he says things like "I suffer from depression, the comic affliction, or tragic affliction of the comic, or the historic affliction tragic comedians, or the fiction of tragic affliction of historic comedians.” It goes on and on. The banter between them really has this Shakespearean flavor.

ST. AUBYN: Yes, and he's also a compulsive mimic who switches voices the whole time and that's the kind of comedian he is. And he's too fond of drink and so he's in the sanitarium to cure his alcoholism, but they decide to escape together and I think Peter is understanding. Anyways, he's more entertaining than the Fool is. I'm setting a very low bar.

BOGAEV: Lucky for you. I'd like to switch gears a little bit and broaden this to Shakespeare in general as opposed to focusing on Lear and I know you said that there's a marked difference in your reading habits when you're writing a novel and when you're not, and that between novels you try to read in a focused and disciplined way choosing a theme or genre to get to know better. You gave the example of memoir and autobiography, but it did make me wonder, is the genre ever Shakespeare, or does it ever include Shakespeare?

ST. AUBYN: I did read a good book called The Year of Lear about the historical context in which King Lear was being written and it...

BOGAEV: That's one of my favorites.

ST. AUBYN: It's a great book. Yeah, in 1606 when it was performed in front of James I. That was fascinating in terms of the connections between the play and the political scene at the time which is quite interestingly close to some of the political context we're in now. James I, who'd only been crowned two years before the play as a King of Great Britain, was obsessed with the unity of his kingdom and wrote a treatise for his son saying that the worst possible thing would be to divide the kingdom. So for Lear to be tearing up the map of Britain, you know at the beginning of the play, was an acutely relevant and charged act at that time and strangely enough, thanks to the worst Prime Minister we've ever had, it's become very relevant again, that we almost lost Scotland and Britain has extracted itself from the European Union. So all sorts of maps are being torn up in modern Britain just as they were at the time that Lear was first performed, in the anxiety of the King's mind, you know, that was what he regarded as the worst possible outcome.

And then the question of nature which you've already mentioned which is like a word which is so complex in the play it's more like a delta of meanings and we now live in the death of nature, you know, if there is any wilderness left in England it's a bureaucratic entity, it's a national park, it's not really wild, it's deliberately, carefully planned wildness. And so all of these things take on new contemporary meanings which were in the play. And Shapiro's book is very good I think about all of that.

BOGAEV: No, and those were things that Shakespeare was already thinking about then, and that's why they're there, this death of the wilderness that England was no longer the idyllic park it once was.

ST. AUBYN: Well, is nature healing, or is it wild and destructive and threatening? is a question that the play goes back to again and again.

BOGAEV: Again, stepping back from Lear, you said that Joyce and Beckett might be the only two writers you've ever praised wholeheartedly. That's what a friend of yours told a reporter. Where does Shakespeare rank?

ST. AUBYN: Who was that?

BOGAEV: Someone's really walking around with a lot of dirt on you.

ST. AUBYN: I wouldn't want anyone else to be in charge of these preposterous claims. There are lots of writers that I admire hugely, and James, and Tolstoy, I mean the list could go on, and Nabokov,  but I don't know...

BOGAEV: I'm sure, but we only care about Shakespeare right now. Where does Shakespeare come in the Pantheon?

ST. AUBYN: Well obviously he dominates all of English literature and that's why he's—

BOGAEV: But not for everyone individually. Not for everyone personally. And again, Lear, Thackeray once said it was a huge bore watching Lear.

ST. AUBYN: Oh, did he?

BOGAEV: And a tedious bore and of course we know it's sacrilegious, it's blasphemy to say Shakespeare isn't brilliant, but he just couldn't wrap his head around it.

ST. AUBYN: Well a lot of people thought he was un-stageable and unwatchable. There's a very long tradition, including Lamb and so forth, of saying that Lear could only be read, it couldn't ever be staged. But nobody can read Lear without being blown away by the intensity of the rhetoric. The language is not a bore, even if one particular production is a bore to go to. I'm sorry for Thackeray, but if he had started home reading it he could not have been bored by the language. And that's what I mean by Shakespeare towering over all of English literature, I just think that there is no comparable height of rhetorical achievement and I don’t know if there ever will be. In that sense I'm just like everyone else, I recognize that. I think that's just a sort of bold fact. It doesn't mean that every play of Shakespeare's is a delight, but the great plays, it's almost not worth saying, but the great plays contain some of the most beautiful language in English literature.

BOGAEV: Well we started this conversation talking about how you read Shakespeare as a teenager and how much it resonated with you and how much you had to find it resonated with you. But it is a question for me how what you value about the play, about Lear, shifted at all as you've grown older and grappled with your past? And now, after writing this book, whether you have different insights, or different perspective on the play?

ST. AUBYN: I think because of writing a novel that's based on King Lear, and because of the psychological density that we were talking about earlier, and the novel's ability to drop into the mind of any of the characters, that convention that the novel enjoys to be able to do that, I think that I have a much more tender feeling about Lear. And I didn't in any way set out for Dunbar to be a tender character, but I think that he is portrayed with a kind of compassion which has altered my feeling about Lear, which is the alteration of the feeling… that because of trying to—there has to be a Queen Lear. You know, Freud asked where is Queen Lear, you know. I put in a Queen Lear. Why are the daughters so different from each other? They have different mothers, and so forth. And the more we get to know about Lear's life, then the more understandable he becomes, and as the French famously say, to understand everything is to forgive everything. So I think that my sense of empathy with this old man, who's being forced to understand something that he's evaded his whole life under very extreme conditions, means that I feel more compassion for Lear than I do when I go to the average production, along with William Thackeray, or the movie.

BOGAEV: Well there are, of course, heartbreaking moments. And your heartbreaking— one of the many in the wilderness is Lear saying, if his daughter's had turned out monstrous it's because he had raised them, a monster had raised them.

ST. AUBYN: Exactly.

BOGAEV: That moment of self-knowledge.

ST. AUBYN: That moment of self-knowledge is, his older daughters have become his creation. They've slavishly imitated him in order to try and win his love: imitated his ruthlessness, his impatience, his short temperedness, his habit of his imperiousness, all the things—

BOGAEV: His brutality.

ST. AUBYN: And his brutality. And they've imitated that to please him, but then the use they make of those qualities is against him, but he does recognize at some point that they're not just maltreating him, but that they are his creation. That's true.

BOGAEV: I can't keep you longer. I want to thank you, thank you so much for this. I've so enjoyed talking with you.

ST. AUBYN: Thank you, Barbara. It's been a pleasure.


WITMORE: Edward St. Aubyn is the author of nine books, the most famous of which are the Patrick Melrose novels. His latest book, Dunbar, is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, published by Random House in 2017. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.  “Th’ Untented Woundings of a Father’s Curse” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Andrew Feliciano & Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California and Paul Reuest at Argot Studios in New York.

If you’ve been enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, I hope you’ll consider reviewing the podcast on whatever platform you get the podcast from. It helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it, people who might enjoy it. We’d really appreciate your help. Thanks.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.