Edward St. Aubyn’s novels are so intoxicatingly witty that their high seriousness may not be immediately apparent. This seriousness is not tacked on as a solemn “message”; it is intrinsic to his ferociously comic vision. Yet they cannot be described as social satires: there is no facile exaggeration, no smug misanthropy or studied indignation involved in the uncomfortable truths he tells. His first three books (Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope) were published separately between 1992 and 1994 and later together as a trilogy; his most recent work, Mother’s Milk, can be fully understood and enjoyed on its own but is in fact a sequel featuring the same protagonist, Patrick Melrose.
St. Aubyn’s prose style corresponds to the classical ideal of elegant precision and so does his sense of form: the first and third sections of the trilogy each take place within the space of a day and the central section unfolds over two, while the action of Mother’s Milk is concentrated on four successive Augusts. Patrick’s father belongs to the decadent British aristocracy and his mother to the American super-rich, so we are in the defiantly hedonistic world that attracted both Evelyn Waugh and Scott Fitzgerald but which is here seen in all its brutal vulgarity from the viewpoint of a disaffected insider. A visual equivalent to the trilogy might be some beautiful, brightly enameled triptych, each panel of which illustrates a different circle of Hell.
Never Mind is set in Provence in the mid-1950s, when Patrick is five. Its theme is cruelty, centered on the boy’s sadistic persecution, culminating in rape, by his “brilliant,” exquisitely civilized, but monstrously embittered father, David Melrose. Child abuse is so shocking a subject that one might prefer, in literature as in life, to dismiss its occurrence as imagined or exaggerated, but St. Aubyn’s scrupulously unsentimental account of the bewildered child’s distress and his vivid characterization of the abuser compel reluctant belief. David Melrose is a dedicated snob whose opinion of his own superiority is so precious that he disdains competition (the people he admires are always those who “could have” been prime minister, or whatever, if they had bothered to try). Angry and secretly disappointed, he married for money; his wife has become a drunk to shield herself from his wounding contempt but this has also blinded her to what he is doing to their son.
In Bad News Patrick is twenty-two and, not surprisingly, a heroin addict. He travels to New York to collect his unmourned father’s ashes; once there his search for drugs propels him in a nightmarish spiral to the brink of delirium, reaching a climax when, alone at the Pierre Hotel, he experiences a terrifying fragmentation, almost a total dissolution, of his personal identity. Here St. Aubyn shows an astonishing ability to explore complex states of consciousness without compromising the clarity and harmony of his prose. The nightmare in Some Hope is that of upper-class inanity, enjoyably anatomized …