Assisted by Peter, an alcoholic comedian as irritating as any Shakespearean fool, Dunbar escapes and goes crashing around the Cumbrian wilds, lamenting his past of pitiless takeovers, arbitrary firings and life-wrecking newspaper campaigns. A hunt begins, and it is Florence (his third daughter, shunned for being too nice) who must rescue him.
That’s pretty much it, plus a couple of serviceable side-plots and some tricky stuff about finance. The problem is not that Lear can’t survive this historical transposition. It’s that St Aubyn turns out to be the wrong kind of writer for the job. The Melrose books deal with terrible suffering (the main character is raped by his father as a child, as St Aubyn was) but they are short and carefully choreographed works, with the action often happening over a day or two. Their cool elegance is what makes them so potent.
Lear, though based on a scrappy old story, is cosmic, apocalyptic, bristling with verbal energy that borders on inarticulacy. St Aubyn’s attempt to combine these styles produces strange results. When Dunbar echoes Lear (“I’ll have my revenge – I don’t know what I’ll do yet – but I’ll…”) it both dilutes Shakespeare and sticks out, because St Aubyn’s characters tend to speak in fluent epigrams, however crazy (or drunk) they are.
The sense of a mismatch grows. Sometimes the drama seems forced (or comically overblown, as with the helicopter chase across the fells); sometimes it pales in comparison to the real thing (instead of Gloucester’s blinding we have Peter being doused with whisky and briefly set alight).
Seeking poetry, the language becomes strained. Similes multiply at a demoralising rate. At one point Dunbar feels “like a man being slowly drowned” – and, in the next sentence, “like someone who has forgotten how to tie his shoelaces”; elsewhere he talks “like a man holding a gem to the light”. There are marathon alliterations (“after a couple of stumbling steps, [he] straightened up, squinting at the strong light that slanted…”) and clumsy rhymes (“cold gold light”). And, as if Lear weren’t enough to be going on with, St Aubyn plucks lines from Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry V and Richard II.