He’s so familiar with Lear — he studied the text intensely as a young man — that in conversation, he effortlessly recites from the play verbatim.
“Shakespeare just gets into your blood after a while,” he said. “He’s inevitably a gigantic influence on anyone writing in English.” Mr. St. Aubyn spoke with Alexandra Alter about reimagining Lear, and why the play resonates more than 400 years after it was written.
How did you come to the Hogarth Shakespeare project, and what made you choose ‘King Lear’?
I heard about it and I discussed it with my agent, who talked to the head of Hogarth Shakespeare, and they were very enthusiastic about me participating. I was between novels. And then I was given a choice of plays that hadn’t already been reimagined. Looking at the list, I thought I was better suited to King Lear rather than Romeo and Juliet. Love is not my specialty, relative to unhappy families and failing fathers and the misuse of power.
I like Lear for being very familial and political, as well as metaphysical. Lear’s got everything, which is why it was the greatest challenge. In fact, I thought it was too big a challenge at one point.
Why was that?
I thought, I won’t reread the play straight away, I’ll get a film. I got Peter Brook’s film. It was so bleak that I staggered to the phone and called my agent and said, ‘Let me write a chapter before I sign.’ Then when I reread the play, I got another wave of anxiety, a sort of, don’t mess with the Bard anxiety. The towering rhetoric of the play. So I felt I needed to hurry away from the original like someone leaving a burning building, and sort of make it my own and not go back to the language again, so I never looked again at Lear. I didn’t want to get into too many verbal reverberations, unless they arose naturally, or too many pedantic parallels.
It must have been nerve-racking, taking on one of Shakespeare’s most widely known and beloved works.
That was just anxiety, and the anxiety took that form, why wouldn’t it? Once I started writing, I was writing a novel by me. There wasn’t any competition, it’s just a cascade of influence, which is there throughout literature. Balzac wrote a Lear novel. Turgenev wrote a Lear novel. No one complains about “Paradise Lost” being based on the Bible.
And Shakespeare stole from everyone.
Shakespeare was the ultimate adapter. He really lost the plot when he wasn’t taking it from someone else. Originality, pure originality, is overrated.
Some of the enduring themes of Lear — power and violence, and particularly how those are deployed in parent-child relationships, and the subversion of the natural order when it comes to parent-child bonds — also come up in your Patrick Melrose novels. Do you think writing about your traumatic family history prepared you in some ways to recast Lear?
I think it was rather the other way around, in that it was a great relief to be writing about someone else’s unhappiness. “Dunbar” was more of a holiday — oh, someone else’s unhappy family, what a relief not to be so burningly personal. But of course, in another sense, preparation is the right word, in that I knew about what drew me to Lear. I’ve already written about the misuse of power and unhappy families and tyrannical fathers. So yes, I do think that’s completely legitimate. And oddly enough, I never reread my books, but I had to reread “Mother’s Milk” the other day for BBC Radio 4 Bookclub. The format is that a lot of people read the book and they ask you questions. They’re immersed in the book, and I had only a hazy recollection of it, so I reread it, and it’s riddled with references to Lear.
Your version of Lear is a ruthless Canadian media mogul. Why did a media titan seem like a fitting parallel for a monarch?
I wanted to keep the political dimension of it, so I needed to have someone who was powerful, and a king obviously doesn’t make the grade in the 21st century. I felt elected politicians were these brief summers of electoral democracy, and I wanted to deal with the permafrost of power, the people who are always there. Administrations come and go and prime ministers come and go. I think that [a media titan] is the modern analog to a king.
The themes of the play — power, hubris, blindness — certainly resonate now, and perhaps they resonate in every era. In what ways do you think Lear speaks to this moment in history?
It was important to me to keep the political dimension or public dimension, because right at the heart of Lear is that wonderful moment where he goes into the shelter during the storm and he sees all the poor wretches and says, “I’ve taken too little care of this. Take physic, pomp. Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, that thou mayst shake the superflux to them, and show the heavens more just.” Not that I put that in directly, but you couldn’t have that sort of dimension unless Lear was a powerful man in my version. And I do think that little manifesto about wealth distribution is an interesting thing to put in the middle of a tragedy. Especially now.
Based on the description of the novel, there’s been early speculation that Dunbar is a Rupert Murdoch-like figure. Were you aiming to evoke him?
No, absolutely not. I was just thinking of King Lear and bringing him into the 21st century. I was trying to write about this universal and famous figure, but I clothed him as a media mogul. But I wasn’t naïvely unaware that when the communication landed, that some people might think of a real figure. Someone in California said, this is obviously Sumner Redstone, but I had never heard of Sumner Redstone, so in a sense they can’t be right. Someone thought it was Trump, but I finished it before Trump became president. Someone thinks it’s Murdoch. This is the miracle of reading, it’s a collaborative enterprise. The text merges with the imagination and experience of the reader and becomes something slightly different in every mind. So just choose your favorite media mogul.
The final scene of Lear is almost hopelessly grim. In your version, the ending is bleak but also allows for some ambiguity. Did you always have that ending in mind, or did it emerge as you were writing, and how faithful did you feel you had to be to the original?
I had nothing in mind. I really am one of those writers who makes it up as I go along. I was so upset by the last scene I actually cried. I kept hoping that nothing would go wrong, but I knew that something ought to go wrong. I wasn’t going to be Nahum Tate. Do you know about Nahum Tate?
In 1681, he wrote a new version of Lear. He was like the Hollywood executive who was like, we need a happy ending! Cordelia and Lear go off happily, and the baddies get punished, and they all live happily ever after. And that was the only version of Lear that was performed between 1681 and 1838, so for 150 years, there was no real Lear except as a text. People could read it, but it was never performed, because it was considered too morally harrowing. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I set out writing this novel, but I knew that I didn’t want to be Nahum Tate Two. I knew that it had to be a tragedy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.