Saul Bellow once said that he could make his enemies very unhappy simply by describing them. Quite a boast; and yet, who among us would have been eager to find himself on the receiving end of a Bellow character sketch? The author of Herzog was probably not the first great comic novelist to have recognized the damage that can be inflicted simply by writing down what people are like. When we read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis, it can seem as though human beings are so foolish, so self-absorbed, so willfully blind and interminably verbose that the novelist need only record what they say and do in order to furnish a whole book’s worth of exuberantly loathsome gargoyles.
The English novelist Edward St. Aubyn, one of the great comic writers of our time, must have some very unhappy enemies indeed. His sprightly, caustic, and harrowing novel sequence about the blue-blooded Melrose family—a family that, “although it had done nothing since, had seen the Norman invasion from the winning side”—is stuffed with vile and vivid high-born personages, most of whom, St. Aubyn has let it be known, are “uninvented.” One of the incidental pleasures his work affords is that of imagining these real-life prigs and snobs and bores opening one of his novels to find themselves mercilessly embalmed on the page. Thus we have Emily Price, who “as a guest…had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions.” Elsewhere we encounter a shameless, fawning social climber whose
grinning mouth was at once crude and cruel. When he tried to smile, his purplish lips could only curl and twist like a rotting leaf thrown onto a fire. Obsequious and giggly with older and more powerful people, he turned savage at the smell of weakness, and would attack only easy prey…. Like many flatterers, he was not aware that he irritated the people he flattered. When he had met the Wooden Duke he had poured himself out in a rich gurgling rush of compliments, like an overturned bottle of syrup.
In Some Hope (1998), the third Melrose novel, there is a cameo featuring none other than Princess Margaret, the Queen’s late sister, and St. Aubyn clearly has great fun trampling the carefully tended flower bed of her royal pomp and self-conceit. At one moment, during a glitzy dinner party at an old country house, Monsieur d’Alantour, the former French ambassador, accidentally flicks “glistening brown globules” of gravy “over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” Any hope that she might see the funny side of this mishap is soon laid to rest:
The Princess compressed her lips and turned down the corners of her mouth, but said nothing. Putting down the cigarette holder into which she had been screwing a cigarette, she pinched her napkin between her fingers and handed it over to Monsieur d’Alantour.
“Wipe!” she said with terrifying simplicity.
We often hear that fictional characters, to be memorable, must surprise us; but it is equally important that they be predictable, that they be seen to live up to the expectations of those in their fictional world. This is something St. Aubyn understands perfectly. From the moment they open their mouths, we grasp that his moneyed narcissists are the kind of people who like nothing more than to hear themselves speak; who have polished their plush phrases at home before coming out to try them in society; who feel that their own existence is far more real, and far more distinguished, than that of anyone else. In other words, we grasp that his characters are always like this, and that they probably couldn’t behave otherwise, even if they wanted to. Brushing aside the suggestion that people often undergo profound personal transformations during the course of their lives, one of St. Aubyn’s most incorrigible characters defiantly proclaims: “Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve been in the high summer of being me, and I intend to go on chasing butterflies through the tall grass until the abrupt and painless end.”
Of course, a fictional universe swarming with such beasts of unreflective self-assurance would be uninhabitable without the presence of at least one more or less sane, clear-sighted character. (Try imagining Pride and Prejudice without Lizzie Bennett.) In St. Aubyn’s work this role falls to Patrick Melrose, from whom a new edition of the Melrose novels takes its name. Although he is the child of extraordinary wealth and privilege—he comes from a world of people who are “rich as God”—Patrick is an altogether less complacent, more self-divided figure than St. Aubyn’s other characters.
We first meet him in Never Mind (1992), a brisk, horrifying novel that takes place during a single summer day in balmy, pine-scented Provence, where Patrick is on holiday with his parents. He is five years old, intelligent, imaginative, and—like Henry James’s Maisie—painfully at the mercy of the vicious adult world that surrounds him. His parents’ marriage is a travesty. During a dinner party, his beleaguered, alcoholic mother, Eleanor, excuses herself to go check on Patrick, but her husband, David, a charismatic sadist who believes that “what redeemed life from complete horror was the almost unlimited number of things to be nasty about,” cannot let the moment pass without humiliating her in front of their guests:
“Not leaving us I hope, darling,” said David.
“I have to…I’ll be back in a moment,” Eleanor mumbled.
“I didn’t quite catch that: you have to be back in a moment?”
“There’s something I have to do.”
“Well, hurry, hurry, hurry,” said David gallantly, “we’ll be lost without your conversation.”
Without Patrick, the book would still be a scabrous social satire on a world where “people spend the evening dining with people they’ve spent the day insulting”; but it is his innocent and defenseless presence (“Everybody used his name but they did not know who he was,” he heartbreakingly reflects at one point) that throws into relief the moral rot of some of the other characters and elevates Never Mind to the level of tragedy.
In the book’s most shocking scene, Patrick is raped by his father. The incident is described, from Patrick’s perspective, with a cold-eyed meticulousness (“He could hear his father wheezing, and the bedhead bumping against the wall”) that makes the child’s abjection all the more unbearable. By the end of the book, we realize we have witnessed a day from which, though he has survived, Patrick will never fully recover. “One day,” he thinks, as he lies sleepless and unconsoled in bed, “he would play football with the heads of his enemies.”
Bad News (1994), the next book in the series, takes place some twenty years later. Patrick is by now an accomplished heroin addict (“he always wanted smack, like wanting to get out of a wheelchair when the room was on fire”) whose yearning for drugs is matched only by his yearning for suicide. He is visiting Manhattan, where his father has died unexpectedly, thereby cheating Patrick of “the chance to transform his ancient terror and his unwilling admiration into contemptuous pity for the boring and toothless old man he had become.” Thus thwarted, Patrick has himself become an angry and far from toothless young man, whose hectic and compulsive inner life (“How could he think his way out of the problem when the problem was the way he thought”) all but prevents him from recognizing the existence of other people. When he is asked how his girlfriend, Debbie, is getting on, he almost falls to pieces:
The question filled Patrick with the horror which assailed him when he was asked to consider another person’s feelings. How was Debbie? How the fuck should he know? It was hard enough to rescue himself from the avalanche of his own feelings, without allowing the gloomy St Bernard of his attention to wander into other fields.
That cheeky extended metaphor, which in another writer might have seemed ostentatious, here feels entirely appropriate, capturing as it does the glazed detachment with which Patrick regards his own difficulties. However gruesome the subject—and it usually is gruesome—St. Aubyn’s prose always moves with a light touch. It is this that saves (and more than saves) the Melrose books from the dangers of melodramatic excess and maudlin self-pity.
Unlike the hero of many a multigenerational novel cycle before him, Patrick does not end up becoming a novelist: he becomes a barrister. Nevertheless, in Some Hope and Mother’s Milk (2006), which chart, respectively, Patrick’s efforts to stay clean of drugs in his early thirties and, ten years later, to raise a family, he does begin to acquire a kind of writerly detachment, the capacity to see other people—and in particular his mother and father—as other people, with complex and autonomous inner lives.
This, to be sure, does not mean he comes to hate his parents any less. Eleanor, who in Never Mind seemed to suffer from her husband’s cruelty almost as much as Patrick, is revealed to be a rather unpleasant figure in her own right. In Mother’s Milk, motivated by a delusive grandiosity, she disinherits Patrick and bequeaths the family’s house in southern France to a group of New Age hucksters, who set about turning it into a Transpersonal Foundation. Later on, ravaged by a series of strokes, Eleanor asks Patrick to have her euthanized, and while it seems possible that her “demands for help were not an offer to clear herself out of the way, but the only way she had left to keep herself at the centre of her family’s attention,” he takes a deep breath and makes the necessary arrangements. Among these arrangements is a letter of consent, in which Patrick movingly ventriloquizes his mother’s suffering:
I have had several strokes over the last few years, each one leaving me more shattered than the last. I can hardly move and I can hardly speak. I am bedridden and incontinent. I feel uninterrupted anguish and terror and frustration at my own immobility and uselessness. There is no prospect of improvement, only of drifting into dementia, the thing I dread most. I can already feel my faculties betraying me. I do not look on death with fear but with longing. There is no other liberation from the daily torture of my existence. Please help me if you can.
One thing that makes the Melrose novels such shrewd studies of social life is the way in which they always keep an eye firmly fixed on those horrific realities—aging, isolation, death—that social life exists to conceal and distract us from. At the last minute, perhaps not surprisingly, Eleanor changes her mind and asks that Patrick “do nothing.” He isn’t going to get rid of her that easily.