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 …