CHILD ABUSE, HEROIN ADDICTION AND A FAILED MARRIAGE, EDWARD ST AUBYN
OF all the monsters in modern fiction, few are as monstrous as David Melrose. We first meet him in Never Mind, the overture to Edward St Aubyn’s trilogy about the Melrose family, which has been republished under the title of the third novel in the sequence, Some Hope. David Melrose belongs to that section of society which may be described as the “idle rich” As Sir Kenneth Clark said of his own clan, there may have been families richer than the Melroses but there were surely few who were idler.
After marrying into wealth, David has abandoned a medical career and opted for a routine of studied indolence. He treats his alcoholic wife, Eleanor, as if she were something he’d just coughed up. His sense of his own superiority is spectacular and made manifest in the sort of Pavlovian snobbery patented by the English upper classes. More malevolently, David is a child abuser, repeatedly raping his own five-yearold son, Patrick. “Don’t ever tell your mother or anyone else what happened today, “ he tells him, “or you’ll be very severely punished.” Not surprisingly, Patrick elects to stay shtoom.
“The core of the subject matter, acknowledges St Aubyn, “is cruelty and the consequences of cruelty and the possibilities of freedom from the consequences of cruelty. Snobbery is related to that as being the kind of frivolous and comic aspect of pretending you can discount other people.
“It’s the most frivolous enactment of cruelty, of treating people as if they didn’t matter, which is the essence of snobbery.”
St Aubyn knows what he is talking about because Patrick is modelled on himself. We meet in a cafe in Holland Park, a swanky part of London where you can’t buy a bedsit for less then pounds-1 million. En route to our rendezvous I bought a copy of the Evening Standard, in which St Aubyn was pictured wearing a penguin suit at the 1999 Whitbread Book Awards accompanying Jerry Hall, Mick Jagger’s former wife. Today, though, he is dressed casually, in black suede shoes, tweedy trousers and open-necked shirt. He has a high forehead and hair the colour of a fugitive fox. He is 43 and, given what he has experienced, laughs more than one might expect. In common with his fictional alter ego, he has a sly Wildean wit.
Though born in London, he hails from Cornwall, the stomping ground of generations of St Aubyns, who can be traced back to the Norman Conquest. His father, Roger St Aubyn, died in 1985. He was, St Aubyn has said, “unbearable, very violent.”
“We couldn’t be in the same room together for more than a few minutes without insulting each other, “ he says. St Aubyn attended Westminster public school and was hooked on heroin by the time he left. Nevertheless he was accepted by Oxford, where he read English.
“I got the worst degree in my year, “ he says, as if it were the Nobel Prize for Physics. It is amazing he got any degree at all. He arrived for the exams with a stash of heroin and an empty ballpoint through which to snort it. He did not, however, have the foresight to bring a pen to write with.
The extent of his addiction may be gauged from Bad News, the second novel in the trilogy. Set in New York, it is Dantean in its depiction of drug hell. It is also hilariously, scabrously funny. Think of Bret Easton Ellis in cahoots with Evelyn Waugh and you may have some idea of its tenor. By now David Melrose has died and Patrick has gone to collect his ashes. The novel is saturated in fear and loathing towards his father. Carrying what’s left of him in a brown paper bag along Madison Avenue, he realises “it was the first time he had been alone with his father for more than 10 minutes without being buggered, hit or insulted.” When one of his father’s friends tells him what an exceptional man he was, Patrick ambiguously replies: “I’m pleased to say that he was exceptional. I’ve never met anyone quite like him.” You get the feeling he’d rather snort his father’s ashes than scatter them.
“I certainly did lots of research for that particular book, “ says St Aubyn. “If you’re familiar with the over-researched book, well, that’s one of them. That’s one of the enjoyable things about writing a novel about something that’s been praying on your mind: when you’ve finished it, it does achieve closure, if you like.”
Tothat extent, St Aubyn’s novels are cathartic, each one throwing off an albatross clinging to his back. In Some Hope - whose title can read be read as an expression of optimism or the opposite - Patrick is able to unburden himself of the abuse that had haunted him and driven him to addiction. No longer does he puncture his arms with needles or drink himself into oblivion. Eight years have passed since he retrieved his father’s remains. Yet he is still “hypnotised” by his father’s memory and terrified that he may turn into him.
“The claim that every man kills the thing he loves seemed to him a wild guess compared with the near certainty of a man turning into the thing he hates, “ he writes, adding: “Sarcasm, snobbery, cruelty and betrayal seemed less nauseating than the terrors that brought them into existence.”