I was attracted to Edward St. Aubyn’s “Dunbar” because it was a retelling of Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. The premise is that the head of a media empire turns over control of the company to his daughters. He is banished to a care home in rural England.
I got about 50 pages into the novel and then I quit. I might being doing the work an injustice, but I did not feel it worthwhile to read a modern version of the King Lear plot unless there was some elegant prose or creative take on Shakespeare’s drama. I found neither up until the point that I read, I decide to read “King Lear” instead.
The plot of “King Lear” is not original. There are past and current versions among the wealthy and powerful. The Redstones come to mind. It is the language and not the plot to which readers are drawn. It is common to dramatize Shakespeare with modern garb, but the language is kept. It is the loss of language that undermined “Dunbar” for me.
“Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind”
” What! art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine !ears. See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places, and handy-dandy, which is justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?”
The language is current without superficial contrivances. What is arguably anachronistic is Shakespeare treatment of Goneril, a strong woman, who is the mirror of her father, but plays the villain. Beyond being ungrateful children, women in general receive treatment common for the period.
” Adultery? Thou shall not die. Die for adultery? No. The wren goes to’t, and small gilded fly does lecher in my sight. Let copulation thrive, for Gloucester’s bastard son was kinder to his father than my daughters got ‘tween the lawful sheets. To’t luxury, pell-mell! for I lack soldiers. Behold yond simpering dame, whose face between her forks presages snow, that minces virtue, and does shake the head to hear of pleasure’s name: the fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t with a more riotous appetite. Down from the waist are centaurs, though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit, beneath is all the fiends’. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit: burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!”
Earlier this year I reviewed Amos Oz’s revisionist interpretation of Christian mythology in “Judas”. Reinterpretations are in vogue. Translation of plays to novels are on weak footings in my view.