Still Learning

A Review of Edward St. Aubyn, Dunbar


Francisco Unger

Edward St. Aubyn’s novels, rather like Frederick Seidel’s poems, have achieved their special niche in an age of the tempered and the middle-class by chronicling a world of extreme brutality and dysfunction at its most dapper and de luxe. The effervescent wit of the novels is linked at just about every turn to a pathetic sense of upper-crust homo homini lupus, and even stray notes of relish, as in a tryst or a prescribed high or a spot of time, can in St. Aubyn’s prose seem mere refractions through which an underlying consciousness of suffering and damage must pass. The Melrose novels, for which St. Aubyn is best known and admired, tell a transmogrified version of his biography, starting out, in his fortunate-yet-cursed early chapters, as the son of a father as sadistic as he was well-heeled. In its twisted genesis scene, the father rapes the boy (not for the last time, nor is his son the father’s only household victim) in a moment of almost unconveyable shock and unmooring. St. Aubyn’s narrative composure here is filmic, and this might be taken to be a specialty of his. In St. Aubyn, a lyricism of deft control and piquant detail brings to vivid life a world of thinly buried monstrosity and injury. The intricate social world that St. Aubyn goes on to chronicle with such flair across the Melrose novels is one of lives that risk an aimless intensity, threatening to end in implosion (suicide, rehab, unhinged philanthropic escapades) or, as likely, mere vacuity. The sinister first-rate banter, and spectacles of rickety excess, make St. Aubyn something like a Juvenalian satirist and worldly-wise elegist of the inner lives of an especially disfigured clan of the super-rich. The Melrose novels are so freestandingly self-contained, so resolvedly fixed in the skein of St. Aubyn’s own imaginings and biography, that it can be a surprise to find that the Hogarth Shakespeare series tapped St. Aubyn to play one of its contemporary re-tellers of Shakespeare’s major plays— or rather, that he agreed to answer the call. (Other works in the series include Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest and a forthcoming rendition of Hamlet by, a bit incongruously, the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn). Indeed, an amusing interview with The Financial Times has St. Aubyn somewhat glibly accepting Hogarth’s pitch, and then returning to the play with fresh eyes only to frantically rush back to his agent to beg to get out of it altogether: against the stupefying darknesses of Lear the novelist’s own sordid subject-matter was apt to look like sheer divertimento. Yet, perhaps to test his own mettle, or to find a way forward through uncharacteristic deviation, St. Aubyn persevered in the assignment, and brought forth a novelistic retelling, entitled Dunbar, that sifts the play’s unholy lessons with at least something of the aplomb St. Aubyn has brought to his own tales of disturbed lineage and the war of the generations. At times, one can feel that the novel— with its brisk effort and in places overeager burlesque— risks contributing to that dubious genre of contemporary re-presentation that searches for its cheap thrills by making Shakespearean eloquence pop-cultural. Yet the exercise, even where it seems more like facetious work-between-novels than a work of genuine novelistic ambition, sets up an intriguing call-and-response. In it, one of our age’s most stylishly dour chroniclers of high-class devolution explores the gnarled terrain of Shakespeare’s own grim masterpiece of tenacity, frailty, and destructive agony. To the master of the universe, flattered in his power and fortune, the world may seem all sweet prerogative, but even a king, King Lear teaches us, will catch an ague. St. Aubyn’s ersatz Lear, named Dunbar, catches his in the Cumbrian wilderness — a Murdochian mogul escaping the ritzy sanatorium where his two usurping daughters have deposited him. Stripped of his vestigial, oxymoronic rule as “non-executive chairman” over the Dunbar Trust, he, like his prototype, has desired power’s trappings without its cumbersome offices. “The world will be my perfect playground,” he crows — a Botoxed, globe-trotting hedonist’s spin on the ‘kind nursery’ Lear ‘thought to set [his] rest on.’ But as Dunbar’s riddling sidekick reminds him (by way of R.D. Laing), his halfway measures have left him in an “untenable position.” “I really did have an empire you know,” Dunbar protests on the ward, like any kook ginning up factitious glory days. In one of his last moments before confinement, in a high rage, Dunbar grabs a Russian dealmaker’s gift, a Fabergé egg, and tries to smash it — but it only thuds. The egg, with its useless luxury and smirking affront to his powers, pays nimble homage to the Fool’s original sequence on power mismanaged (“Give me an egg, nuncle, and I’ll give thee two crowns…”) and on Edgar’s sublime shivers before the prospect of a life hurled away (“Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,/So many fathoms down precipitating,/Thou’dst shiver’d like an egg…”). Here and elsewhere, St. Aubyn’s cabaret improvisations tease out the bitter tomfooling of the play, its threading of high-born horror with the farces of human self-aggrandizement and misperception. Shimmying — not ‘crawling’ — towards death with Fred Astaire in mind, Dunbar goes, as if for the first time, to encounter his frailty and the pathos of life on a snowy heath. Through his years he has been a corporate colossus with a harebrained mantra (“Just make it happen!”) and a grossly anesthetized heart, with holdings to burn but no trace of complex self-consciousness. A last-gasp education in sorrow, embarrassment, remorse, and powerlessness delivers “a kind of knowledge that he was unable to make sense of.” It is a mortal lesson. His only lingering resolve is to find his way back to his wronged Cordelia (Florence, who skews bohemian, and has a sanctuary in Wyoming, with none of the berserk eroticism, hard drug usage, and Bain Capital scruples of her evil sisters). The novel recovers the tragedy’s wrenching premise, with a rather thin plot to confect its Wheel of Fortune-abruptness: One day you are dining in L’Espalier; the next you are halfway up Mount Monadnock, foaming at the mouth, ruing your ouster, cursing the beams in your own eyes, pining for a second act while struggling against odds to keep the death-drive at bay. It reads like half Great Escape, half Ecclesiastes. Along the way, Dunbar reaches for climaxes of an expiratory passion: “He had been recast in some furnace that he had neither sought nor devised and now he seemed to have no fury or ambition left, only love,” Reparation, however fanciful, might still be attainable. The intensity of Dunbar’s longing to reconcile with Florence and to start afresh nearly overruns whatever fragile composure he musters; perhaps for the first time in his drawn-out life he suffers for his self-consciousness. Struggling through the frosts and the winds, there are stretches where Dunbar settles in a misanthropic rancor; others where he indicts his lost, meretricious preeminence, discovering his eyes “wet with ordinary tears.” Shakespeare’s Lear boasted an age (80 years) so advanced as to risk seeming mythical to his audiences, a tottering Chinese dragon before the groundlings. Today, every Tom Dick and Harry, with a bit of luck, can plan or dread a Methuselahn longevity. If Lear’s outlasting is closer to us, so too may seem his terminal confusions.

He opened his eyes. He was definitely not dead, unless death was a perfect replica of life. Perhaps the dead were removed, like sculptures that are buried in museums to protect them from curious crowds and acid rain, and then replaced by the copies that preside over public squares and excavated cities. Anything seemed possible on these contested borders, but what were they the borders between: life and death, or sanity and madness?

St. Aubyn’s novel can make you wonder whether the greatest wisdom available to age is a contrition so lacerating that it almost delivers the coup de grâce, even as it opens the way towards a salvaged sense of awe. His Lear turns towards a life of conscientious self-effacement and quotidian wonder — rescued and reconciled, fleetingly with Florence. She finds him in the snowy wastes not ‘crowned with fumiter and furrow-weeds’ but stabbing the air with a Swiss Army knife, goading on a bastard-God, like the hero of a mucked-up Western (“‘Come on,’ whispered Dunbar hoarsely, ‘Come on, you bastard.’”). Shakespeare’s Cordelia prays to the gods to ‘cure this great breach’ in Lear’s ‘abused nature’; St. Aubyn’s Florence similarly beholds her shattered patriarch as though across an innavigable gulf. “She had flown into the Cumbrian wilderness to fetch him, but she had no idea how to retrieve him from the wilderness of his psyche.” One of St. Aubyn’s doctors will later offer the clinical admonishment: “Unfortunately, people do lose themselves entirely.” Some to dementia, others to viciousness, and some to boundless remorse. Against its arraignments of humankind’s crooked timber, the play may locate filial piety and its close cousins — the true devotion, charity, and love of willing subjects — at the heart of the moral life. In St. Aubyn’s retelling, two daughters may play viperish corporate raiders, but one is every bit Aeneas bearing Anchises.

“I’m here to look after you.” “After all I’ve done,” said Dunbar. “After all you’ve been through,” she said.

The good daughter’s parry there is a gift of forbearance. All-forgiving and all-enduring, she flies Dunbar to New York, whose tones become paradisal. Having passed through anguish’s refining fire, Dunbar feels his whole life touched with radiance: “An apparently circular pattern had opened up at the last moment into a new realm in which everything seemed to be perfect just as it was.” St. Aubyn’s challenge is to show his riven mogul reawakening, with exhausted but avid eyes, into the lush world of mundane pleasures and simple observances. Dunbar admires his bellhop as though the figure stood for all of simple, ungainsayable dignity and good. St. Aubyn’s answer to ‘Thy life’s a miracle,’ you feel, might be a Sunday walk in Central Park. This theodicy is not to last; even as an interlude, it risks, as St. Aubyn’s novel not infrequently does, coasting into the mawkishly redemptive — an easy anodyne for the specters of agony with which his novel conjures. As it is, St. Aubyn merely puts his Lear through the paces of self-recovery and rehabilitated innocence to lose himself and his daughter all the more fully. St. Aubyn has read his Northrop Frye, and it shows not only where his novel lobs up interpretive glosses that can read like Frye on an off, or pat, day. He stages a novel of the restoration of identity, only to let it then fracture in identity’s more bitter evisceration; Christian and comedic hopes, for a new dispensation and a life of recovered yet transfigured identity, shadow the tragedy’s arc only to then be more violently burlesqued. Along the way, St. Aubyn’s novel offers plenty of vernacular pleasures, and it is bracing to find Shakespeare’s idiom and insight rehashed in today’s patois (Percocet for an ounce of civet, carbon-footprint for superflux). But St. Aubyn only really finds his form in his dizzyingly dark last pages. With each word knived, with no more time for time-killing deadpan or mystico-transcendent feints, St. Aubyn ushers Dunbar and Florence to their promised end, forced to reenact a twisted Pietà: Florence poisoned by the usurping devils, Dunbar frantically and fruitlessly volunteering his organs. More than the undone button, he would bare and sacrifice his heart. But no munificence would be sufficient. All changes to a scene of extinction: Dunbar’s heart cracking on the verge of death, Florence passing out of life with a wistful line on the “waste of love,” which Dunbar has no more power to contest. (“‘The waste of love,’ repeated Dunbar, shattered by his daughter’s verdict and by the landscape it forced him to imagine.”). Suffering risks devouring the sense with the life.

With a mixture of relief and dread, he realized that he could not feel the anesthetic numbness that had spread over him when he was told that Catherine [his predeceased wife] was not going to “make it.” There were no battlements left around his heart to postpone his surrender to sorrow and desolation. Was this the triumph of self-knowledge: to suffer more lucidly?

St. Aubyn’s infantile narcissist has become a coldhearted realist by curtain-fall. When, in his final destitution, he moans “more life” to his doctors or to no one at all, he hollows out what may be our last secular creed, our lowest-common-denominator version of the highest good. There is no tincture of relish in the phrase as he speaks it, only grim acquiescence. Lateness may be Dunbar’s ultimate lesson in worldliness, in the governance of a world sparingly congruent with human wishes.

“Oh, Daddy,” said Florence, speaking in an emphatic whisper, “I’m so glad we reconciled before it was too late.” “But it is too late,” said Dunbar, unable to stop himself… “No mercy,” said Dunbar, pressing his hands to his head, “in this world, or any other.”

St. Aubyn stays gruesome, which is to say true, to Lear’s spirit and perhaps, one may think, to the world’s. Almost to the last, where one final weird recalibration brings things back from the debilitated side of pathos to an Orwellian bravura — St. Aubyn’s last line is more than a modernizing, at any rate, of Albany’s stoic and piteous command, “Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain.” Dunbar and his sidekick Wilson play one last disquieted volley:

“Why has everything been destroyed, just as I’ve started to understand it for the first time?” “All of us will be blown to dust,” said Wilson, “but the understanding won’t be destroyed and it can’t be, as long as someone is left standing who still prefers to tell the truth.”

Whatever Dunbar has learned through his “crash course in self-knowledge” (for which, Wilson quips, “no one was more ill suited”) may issue more in a sense of hazard and disintegration than in any allegiance to truth-telling or diamond absolutes. Worldly life hazards all; and the truth is only another plaything thrown up in the tempest. “You’re safe now,” Florence had assured Dunbar upon retrieving him, cueing a bristling negation:

“Safe?” said Dunbar bitterly. “If you think that, you’re a fool. Being alive is falling, once you know that, it never stops. Do you understand what I’m telling you? There is no ground, nothing to catch you…”

Must such catastrophic imaginings come with our wrinkles? “The atrocity of old age,” Joseph Brodsky called it. Schopenhauer, deeming life a “desengaño,” a bitter disillusion after so many false promises of happiness, proclaimed that as a rule men enter their final harbor “shipwrecked and dismasted.” Goya had a more poignant and fastidious phrase. Scrawled across his arresting image, composed at the end of his life, of a hunched and propped-up old man — his eyes to the ground but not yet turned out, his long crutches perhaps standing in for the artist’s brushes — Goya set the words, ayun aprendo: Still learning.