'Mother's Milk': The Last Marxists
By CHARLES McGRATH
Published: November 13, 2005
THE first of the British novelist Edward St. Aubyn’s books to be published here was called “Some Hope,” and for many readers it kindled a good deal more than that. St. Aubyn looked as if he might be the next Evelyn Waugh - a stylish, acerbic satirist of the English upper crust, now in its dwindling, twilight days. Clinging to their stately homes while frantically selling off the Poussins (which as often as not prove to be fakes), they turn out to be the last Marxists, as one character remarks - the last people to believe that class explains everything.
“Some Hope” - a trilogy, actually, repackaging three slender novellas that originally appeared separately - examined from three vantage points the fortunes of one Patrick Melrose, who, like the author, is so well born that his ancestors watched the Norman invasion from the winning side. We see him as a muddled 5-year-old wandering around his parents’ estate in Provence while their marriage crumbles, as a 22-year-old snob and smackhead on a drug binge in New York while collecting his dead father’s ashes, and as a rueful, recovering 30-year-old trying to make sense of himself and the hundreds of flickering ghosts who constitute his family. The scene of these reflections is the book’s great set piece, a country-house party right out of “Vile Bodies,” featuring various aristos, twits and poseurs and the guest of honor, an imperious and sublimely out-of-it Princess Margaret.
Patrick Melrose turns up again, roughly 10 years older, in St. Aubyn’s new book, “Mother’s Milk,” which is less a sequel than a kind of alternate, stereoscopic view, and suggests that St. Aubyn may not be the next Evelyn Waugh so much as the next Anthony Powell, a chronicler of familial and generational change - or lack of it - in the loftier reaches of British society.
In many respects, the Patrick of this volume is barely recognizable. He’s married, with two children and, having apparently burned through his inheritance (at one point in “Some Hope” he goes through $10,000 in two days), he’s now reduced to working for a living as a barrister. His druggie past is never acknowledged in “Mother’s Milk,” but for a former heroin addict he’s also perilously close to tumbling off the wagon, popping larger and larger doses of Tamazepan and frequently getting soused before lunch.
Churlish and irritable, suffering through what he calls “this rather awkward mezzo del camin thing,” Patrick is in fact just a notch or two from falling into ordinary middle-classness, and fastens on the one vestige of his family’s more distinguished past - the house in Provence. Even that proves to be a fragile bulwark, however, as over the course of the novel it’s slowly wrenched from his grasp.
The story takes place during four consecutive Augusts, from 2000 to 2003, the first three in Provence, the last in the United States, where the Melrose family has gone for a holiday on the cheap. And America, the reader is reminded more than once, is not the South of France; it’s a place where people are so fat it’s as if they “had decided to become their own air-bag systems,” and where the food is “more like a police report on what they found in someone’s dustbin than a dish.” (It’s also a place, the author seems to believe, where the World Series takes place in August.)
The person responsible for this sad decline in Melrose family vacationing is Patrick’s mother, Eleanor, who in “Some Hope” was a sodden, pill-popping American heiress, married for her money by Patrick’s father, David, and then treated so badly that she spent much of her time alone in her car nursing a bottle of Cognac. In the intervening years she has apparently turned into a Mrs. Jellyby, devoting herself to all sorts of charitable causes, and at the opening of “Mother’s Milk” she has fallen under the sway of a twinkly-eyed fraud named Seamus Dourke, a would-be shaman who wants to turn the house in Provence into a center for new-age retreats, healing rituals and “holotropic breathwork.”
There is a pattern here, we discover. Now in the process of sundering Patrick from his birthright, Eleanor was herself stiffed of a far greater inheritance by a mother who also married a creep for the sake of a pedigree. She may look rich to some people, but by the standards of her family Eleanor is “surviving on loose change.” This is the underlying and more or less serious message of the novel - that the sins of the parents are cyclically revisited on the offspring. Mother’s milk turns out to be a bitter potion that dooms a child either to become an imitation of the previous generation or - it amounts to the same thing, almost - the exact opposite.
Patrick helplessly watches himself becoming more and more like his father (though at least he doesn’t molest his son, as his own father used to), and his son, meanwhile, 5-year-old Robert, more and more resembles Patrick at the same age. He’s already a loner and a caustic mimic who does a lethal impression of his middle-class nanny. Patrick’s wife, on the other hand, has so repudiated the parental model of her distant and withholding mother that she has banished her husband from the marital bed so she can devote all her emotional energy to the cosseting of their younger son, Thomas, who is rapidly becoming a creature some readers may find insufferably precious and precocious.
The one flaw in St. Aubyn’s picture of generational decline, in fact, is that he doesn’t always have a firm grasp of what real children are really like. The book comes encumbered with a sort of Wordsworthian scheme whereby we float into this world trailing clouds of glory and are then corrupted and reduced. The main witness to this process is Robert, who begins the novel, not entirely convincingly, by recalling his own birth (“awake for days, banging his head again and again against a closed cervix”) and the subsequent traumas - the sense of loss and exile, his early memories “breaking off, like slabs.” Not the least of the insults he endures is the onset of that most common and vulgar of faculties, language - “the greasy pack of a few thousand words that millions of people had used before.”
And yet language also proves to be Robert’s consolation, just as it is for his father. They’re both snobs, as Thomas doubtless will be too, but they’re knowing, clever snobs, whose ability to make fun of their own predicament and verbally skewer fools like Seamus Dourke are the novel’s main source of pleasure. You can’t help liking these people, even as you realize that if they met you in real life they’d cut you dead. And among American readers the novel may give rise to a kind of reverse snobbery: no matter how badly we behave, you realize, we can always sweep it away and start over. Our histories are not forever frozen in the crippling columns of Debrett’s.