January 11, 2006
Edward St Aubyn’s first three novels, Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992) and Some Hope (1994), tell the story of a young man trying to overcome his father’s destructive emotional legacy while seeing all too clearly that his readiest weapons – detachment, wit, psychological insight – are inherited from the tainted paternal hoard. To complicate matters further, the young man, Patrick Melrose, grows up in a world of extreme poshness and wealth, which gives him all kinds of opportunities for high-end self-destruction while making questions of inheritance and the family legacy even more intractable. Never Mind details a few days of Patrick’s childhood and centres on a scene in which he is raped by his father, a vicious snob “descended from Charles II through a prostitute”. Bad News catches up with Patrick in his early twenties, during the early 1980s, as he arrives in New York to collect his father’s ashes and embarks on a life-threatening drug binge. In Some Hope, he negotiates a truce with his past, having managed to give up cocaine and heroin, while observing with world-weary distaste the behaviour of the ultra-grand and super-rich at a birthday party thrown for a feckless aristocrat.
St Aubyn’s trilogy – which is being reissued in Britain under the collective title Some Hope after its well-received publication in the United States – is a difficult work to categorize, combining as it does an incest narrative with upper-class social satire and philosophical musings. In broad outline, Patrick’s development follows the arc sketched out by many accounts of child abuse and its psychological consequences. Aged five, he tries to protect himself from his father’s first assault by dissociating: he imagines himself sitting on the curtain pole “looking down on the whole scene, just as his father was looking down on him”. As the trilogy progresses, the idea of “sitting on the curtain pole” becomes a kind of shorthand for the dissolution of self that Patrick seeks in drugs. After a few too many speedballs in Manhattan, he experiences a “bout of compulsive mimicry” in which his jabbering personae are clearly related to the “alters” said by the multiple personality movement to be elicited by sexual abuse during childhood. And while there is no therapeutic Hollywood ending, Patrick feels better when he tells a friend the truth about his upbringing and begins to resolve his feelings about his father.
Unlike most stories of abuse and recovery, however, Patrick’s is told with more of an emphasis on black comedy than on psychic regeneration. Shuttling between different characters’ points of view in free indirect style, St Aubyn portrays David Melrose’s cruelty as an unusually florid example of the corruption associated throughout the novels with unearned wealth and status:
“During lunch David felt that he had perhaps pushed his disdain for middle-class prudery a little too far. Even at the bar of the Cavalry and Guards Club one couldn’t boast about homosexual, paedophiliac incest with any confidence of a favourable reception. Who could he tell that he had raped his five-year-old son? He could not think of a single person who would not prefer to change the subject – and some would behave far worse than that. The experience itself had been short and brutish, but not altogether nasty. He smiled at Yvette, said how ravenous he was, and helped himself to the brochette of lamb and flageolets.”
But David – who feels strongly that “effort is vulgar” and that “things were better in the eighteenth century” – is at least more intelligent and self-aware than the anti-Semitic toadies and upper-crust shits who make up the Melrose family’s social circle. “Sometimes”, the narrator says, summarizing the thoughts of one particularly objectionable character, “it was great festivals of privilege, and at other times it was the cringing and envy of others that confirmed one’s sense of being at the top. Sometimes it was the seduction of a pretty girl that accomplished this important task and at other times it was down to one’s swanky cufflinks.” At Some Hope’s climactic party, Patrick’s friend Johnny describes the assembled landowners as “the last Marxists . . . . The last people who believe that class is a total explanation”. David being dead, the role of chief gargoyle is filled by Princess Margaret, who is depicted as an ignorant, self-important reactionary.
St Aubyn sometimes goes at his dislikeable toffs in a none-too-subtle fashion. His overdressed ninnies and billionaire dullards are given reams of dialogue exposing their tedious witlessness and even more tedious wit. Cheap one-liners (“She probably thought that Algeria was an Italian dress designer”) make up the most loathsome specimens’ inner lives, while the verbs used to carry dialogue (“simpered”, “giggled”, “pleaded”, “squealed”, “whined”, “groaned”, and so on) occasionally make the narrator sound like Private Eye’s Sylvie Krin. On the other hand, the more sympathetic characters are given some sharp observations, usually expressed in an epigrammatic or neatly figurative style. After enduring too many of David’s dinner parties, Anne Moore, a kindly American, finds herself asking:
“Was she . . . giving in to that English need to be facetious? She felt tainted and exhausted by a summer of burning up her moral resources for the sake of small conversational effects. She felt she had been subtly perverted by the slick and lazy English manners, the craving for the prophylactic of irony, the terrible fear of being “a bore”, and the boredom of the ways they relentlessly and narrowly avoided this fate.”
As an adult, Patrick often falls prey to this self-protective jokiness – a condition the novels teeter between describing and enacting. The humour’s studied heartlessness aims at amplifying the underlying pathos by warding off any suggestion of authorial self-pity. (Born, like Patrick, in 1960, St Aubyn makes no secret of being an altitudinously posh ex-junkie.) But the writing tends to reach for the prophylactic of irony – not to mention the biological warfare suit of bathos – whenever St Aubyn’s pleasure in his own high style begins to run away with him.
Patrick, meanwhile, can’t stop being witty, even in the grip of a terrible speedball rush, and his hyper-articulate ranting can be annoying. He finds it annoying too, knowing that, apart from stifling his sincerity, it shows he is still under the influence of his hated but impressively eloquent dad. Well versed in Proust and Joyce, he longs for an epiphany or jolt of involuntary memory that might put an end to his arguments with himself. But what is the self anyway? And what about all the stuff outside the self? These kind of questions preoccupy both Patrick and his creator, who has addressed them at some length in his novel A Clue to the Exit (2000).
Mother’s Milk takes up Patrick’s story as he enters middle age in 2000, now husband to Mary and father of two small boys, Robert and Thomas. He has become a London barrister, a cash-strapped – as he sees it – member of the grumbling professional upper middle classes. Eleanor, his mother, briefly driven to pill-popping and alcoholism by David’s insightful sadism during the 1960s, is now on her last legs. Having spent Patrick’s adolescence lavishing cash and attention on charity work while ignoring her son’s spectacular distress, she has since become a New Age flake, and is now trying to hand over the house in Provence where Patrick grew up to a transparently fraudulent “healer” called Seamus Dourke. Entrusted with the legal side of his own disinheritance, Patrick hopes to persuade her not to do it.
The novel describes four consecutive summer holidays, each of the first three seen from one point of view – Robert’s, Patrick’s, Mary’s – and the last from that of each family member, including Thomas, by turn. Robert, a perceptive, imaginative child, envies his younger sibling and is disturbed by the realization that his parents do not wholeheartedly love his grandmother. Patrick, understandably obsessed with not passing on the “poison” of his miserable childhood, worries that his obsession is making his children as fretful and neurotic as he is; he also drinks too much, struggles with his sexless marriage and has a half-hearted affair. Mary, more thinly characterized than the rest of the cast, is mostly a vehicle for insights into the burdens of motherhood and the other characters’ problems. Their family drama is chiefly played out in France, where their right to use Eleanor’s villa is slowly whittled away by the manipulative Dourke, and on a visit to America. Johnny, now a child psychologist, pays a visit, and there are comic walk-ons for various monstrous types – notably a City wide boy’s spoiled brood and a plutocratic American cousin who considers the Rumsfeld-Cheney approach to foreign policy too cautious.
Mother’s Milk is more than a progress report or coda to Some Hope, being both longer than the earlier novels – which are practically novellas – and peopled by a more fully realized set of characters. There are some attention-grabbing changes of register. But St Aubyn’s inclination towards defensively self-parodic overwriting is held more firmly in check than it was in the cartoonishly satirical sections of the previous Melrose books. “Said” is almost the only verb used for dialogue, and the similes, though sometimes showy, all make sense. Now and again, however, the narrator and all the characters seem not only to have done time in psychoanalysis but to have studied it behind the reader’s back. “He hasn’t read Lacan’s essay on the mirror stage yet”, Patrick says of his infant son, but from the way the children’s thoughts are represented you get the feeling that he probably has. Adult misbehaviour is also shown to derive from childhood experience in an over-neat way.
As for Patrick, he waits in vain for the Proustian moment he thinks might heal him: “Where were the uneven cobblestones and silver spoons and silver doorbells of his own life?”. In the meantime, having laid to rest his father, he tackles his only slightly less pressing mother-problem, understanding if not forgiving the cruel selfishness behind Eleanor’s lifelong preoccupation with self-sacrifice. Even his children can see that his witty talk is a little too polished, though: “Robert knew that he wasn’t being communicated with, but allowed to listen to his father practising speeches. All this time while he had been asleep, his father had been pacing up and down a mental courtroom, prosecuting”. Throwing all that rhetorical energy into writing fiction might be more therapeutic than drawing up indictments, and although Edward St Aubyn sometimes seems to have found a way to combine the two activities, at his best he has enough novelistic sense to show that they’re not the same thing.