Vile Bodies

Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn; drawing by David Levine

Edward St. Aubyn’s three short novels are hilarious and harrowing by turns, sophisticated, reflective, and brooding. They were first published separately in the UK—the first and second in 1992, the third in 1994. Each is not much over one hundred pages long, and perhaps that was the reason for uniting them now in a single volume. They share one hero, many subsidiary characters, and have an autobiographical feel, describing three stages in one man’s life: early childhood, youth, and early adulthood. Each section is completely different in setting, tone, and mood. The missing years remain blank, and the sharp breaks between the sections are disconcerting. This may be the writer’s intention, but more probably it was the publisher’s decision to publish the books as a trilogy; each section is neither quite a novel nor a novella.

When the books first appeared, critics in England compared them to the works of Evelyn Waugh. To me they seem in some parts both funnier and sadder, which is saying a lot. Like Waugh’s novels, they are set among the English upper classes, but whereas Waugh loved toffs (even if he sometimes made fun of them) St. Aubyn loathes them, and mocks them relentlessly and with venomous wit. His sociological and psychological insight is penetrating, especially where the two categories overlap. The dialogue is brilliant too, with every character speaking and thinking in his or her own idiom. Metaphors explode like rockets to illuminate meaning, and only very rarely detonate just a little over the top.

The hero’s name is Patrick Melrose, and, to his chronic annoyance, he belongs to an upper-class English family. His father David is very proud of the fact that their ancestors arrived with William the Conqueror. The story begins when Patrick is five years old and David rapes him. He continues to do this for several years, so the title of the first volume, Never Mind, is a nice example of St. Aubyn’s slow-release jokes—just one of the many varieties of joke he has at his command.

The first rape takes place at the Melroses’ villa in the South of France, which was bought by Patrick’s do-gooding American mother, Eleanor. She is rich, while her husband has class but no money. “Eleanor’s mother and aunt,” David explains to a friend, “thought that they could buy human antiques. The moth-eaten bearers of ancient titles were reupholstered with thick wads of dollars.” David had wanted to be a pianist, but rheumatism in his hands made that impossible. So he studied medicine, but soon gave up practicing it. He is gifted, clever, witty, frustrated, a snob, and a sadist, and Patrick “could never lose his indignation at the way his father had cheated him of any peace of mind.” He had, in fact, ruined his life.

The second novel, Bad News, is set in New York. By this time Patrick is…

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