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With a pen dipped in acid
9 Oct, 2006 l 1540 hrs IST l Nandini Lal
Raped from age 6 to 8 by father. Heroin addict from 16 through Oxford. Briefly turned suicidal. Went into therapy. Wrote to save himself. Born with a whole cutlery drawer of silver spoons in mouth. Related to an earl and a lord. Family tree goes back to 1066. Wears tweeds. Chummy with Will Self. Throws book launches attended by people who matter. All done, Teddy-boy.
Edward St Aubyn is the sort of author you read about long before you read him. And even then, you have one ear guiltily tuned for the autobiographical bits. In Betty Trask winning Never Mind, Pat(rick) gets buggered by his dad. In Bad News, Pat gets stoned and stays that way. In Some Hope, Pat bitches violently about some very tony people.
Booker shortlisted Mother's Milk‰ÛÓa condescending, contemporary take on the pressures of parenthood‰ÛÓis a sardonic semi-sequel to the Patrick Melrose trilogy. Its story is thinly spread over three points of view and three summers of discontent in upscale locales in the UK, Europe and the US. Pat is too knowing, Mary too pallid, Robert too precocious, and Thomas way too tiny to be endearing. Yet we keep reading because the tape of outraged soliloquy running forever in Pat's mind is dipped in acid. And acid, especially British acid, always reads well.
Mother's Milk spurts out in a terrifying sensory overload with newborn Robert describing his own birth, then swells to a flood of different perspectives. Only Pat's old mother is left to fend for herself through pencilled pleas for philanthropy and euthanasia. Pat's hate towards her turns to pity as she spouts gibberish from her hospital bed, then back to rage as she wills away the last of their whittled inheritance in Provence to a fraudulent foundation run by Seamus, a hypocritical cash-hungry guru. This reminds us of St Aubyn's New Age-bashing books, On The Edge and A Clue to the Exit.
Mother‰Ûªs Milk pours over the two poles of existence, childhood and second childhood. Pat's oversuckled underf***** wife Mary goes into serial post-partum Madonna mode over Robert, then Thomas. The new nanny Margaret, who drops the baby but keeps nattering idiotically, is sacked‰ÛÓbut not before Robert the standup comic does his Margaret imitation. Pat, cheated out of chateau and sex, turns promptly and petulantly to alcoholism and an affair with Julia, leavened by high doses of Tamazepam and sarcasm. As the world turns pettier, Pat gets nastier, his drunken fulminations funnier. But his hostility over the property and his mother's lack of maternal skills lead to deeper thoughts about the true nature of heritage, and concern over his children.
The book is best at mocking the spoiled, bigoted, self-absorbed, snobbish company Pat is forced to keep. We recognise them‰ÛÓthe upstart parents of Robert's pampered play date ('Les Mimosas', says their rustic tile) who suggest whizzing off to Lapland for a daytrip to meet Santa, or smug Americans who sling bad pizzas, bombs and lawsuits at everyone.
St Aubyn has been compared to Updike for his midlife crisis analyses and to Waugh for the way he vividly vivisects the upper classes. Mother's Milk is a cynical comedy of manners within the limited compass of a single family's panic over losing a chateau.
But there are other brilliant books on the landed gentry. Does it have a Great Gatsby-like sighting of universal truths? Does it deserve a Booker win like Hollinghurst's Line of Beauty on the posh set? As a derisive Patrick would reply "with mayoral unction" ... "Arriving in Holland isn't in itself fatal."