ELit Book-Tip: An Old Man on the Moors by Rainer Moritz 

Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear adaptation: Dunbar und seine Töchter

In 2016 and to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the Hogarth Shakespeare Project was launched. Eight renowned writers (male and female) were invited to adapt Shakespeare’s time-honoured plays and translate them into a contemporary setting. In Germany, Munich’s Knaus Verlag accomplished this project and has already presented several of these versions – with varying success – including by Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler or Howard Jacobson.

Edward St Aubyn (born 1960) accepted the challenge of working with Shakespeare’s King Lear and this could not have been a better idea. St Aubyn, whose ancestors hail from established British aristocracy, has proved a past master – in his five “Melrose” novels – of tracing complicated, intriguing and humbling family circumstances. He is in the best company with the story of Lear which he translates into the contemporary world of English commerce and media.

Henry Dunbar, an eighty-year-old Canadian media CEO who is not only vaguely reminiscent of the figure of Rupert Murdoch, is St Aubyn’s broken hero. Like Lear, he has three daughters who show very different levels of moral integrity. And just like in Shakespeare’s tale, the powerful figure proves mistaken about his offspring – incidentally, in German-speaking countries this motif is familiar from the Grimms’ fairy tale of Die Salzprinzessin (based on the original “Princess Mouseskin”). The two older daughters Abigail and Megan believe their time has come to seize control of their father’s empire. They develop a scheme and evil intrigue to coincide with a decisive meeting of the executive board: a loyal aide and friend of their father, Wilson, is sacked, and a manipulated psychiatrist proves willing to declare Dunbar non-“compos mentis”. The old man, who is mad with rage, is transported from the metropolis to a sanatorium in the Lake District from where he is no longer able to influence the destiny of his media empire. His kind-hearted and once disinherited daughter Florence refuses to accept this, although in the beginning she doesn’t seem able to gain access to her unfailingly beloved rather.

Edward St Aubyn in his own sharp and brilliant style presents a lively social novel full of twists and turns that makes a family hive of intrigue into the starting point for a clever analysis of commercial life. The novel stays close to the plot (and sometimes even the dialogues) of King Lear. It unfolds a concentrated and tense plot-line and reveals an aging media mogul who has no intention of being pushed to the sidelines. With the help of a fellow patient at the sanatorium, Peter Walker, an alcoholic-comedian who can only think from one bottle of whisky to the next, Dunbar manages to escape from the institution – and one of the evil daughter’s overlooked Swiss credit cards proves invaluable in his escape.

Despite all the physical frailties, he makes it to the wild Cumbrian moors and proves how tough he is. He hides in a copse from irate pursuers who even enlist the help of a helicopter pilot to catch the escapee and put him out of action. The question is which of the three sisters will be the first to reach their father. The other question concerns more existential matters such as how Dunbar, who is left to his own devices and must battle with nature, now looks back on his life and his shortcomings. St Aubyn brilliantly succeeds in sketching hilarious scenes and soon afterwards plunging his stricken protagonist into a deep crisis. The retrospective of his life is no game, no wheeling and dealing over power, and thanks to the clear-sighted Florence, he is offered one last chance. Although it is impossible to undo the past, he can embrace a different perspective towards his life experience.

King Lear has found a worthy literary successor in Henry Dunbar.

By Rainer Moritz

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

Dunbar und seine Töchter

Written by Edward St Aubyn

Translated from English by Nikolaus Hansen

Published by Knaus, Munich (2017, 253 pages)

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 1 February 2018.

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