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 twenty-two, continually depressed because of his early experience, and as deep into drugs as you can get. Addiction is a theme even more central to the story than class. One long episode could be read as an instruction sheet on shooting up: how many grams of coke, how many of smack, how to find a usable vein, how to wash out the syringe so it won’t clog, how not to overdose. The teacher is a French dealer, whom Patrick has visited before; his English is delectably French, but articulate, and his attitude rational and dry. For Patrick, though,
This needle fever had a psychological life of its own. What better way to be at once the fucker and the fucked, the subject and the object, the scientist and the experiment, trying to set the spirit free by enslaving the body? What other form of self-division was more expressive than the androgynous embrace of an injection, one arm locking the needle into the other, enlisting pain into the service of pleasure and forcing pleasure back into the service of pain?
Patrick is in New York because his father has unexpectedly died on a visit there, and he has come to collect the ashes. He carries them around in a box concealed in a brown paper bag which he dumps on the floor wherever he happens to be; so it gets an occasional kick in an expensive restaurant or night club while Patrick makes unsuccessful attempts to seduce beautiful girls. Rejected by a particularly attractive one, he heads back for his hotel:
By the time he reached Sixty-first Street, Patrick realised that it was the first time he had been alone with his father for more than ten minutes without being buggered, hit, or insulted. The poor man had had to confine himself to blows and insults for the last fourteen years, and insults alone for the last six.
The tragedy of old age, when a man is too weak to hit his own child. No wonder he had died. Even his rudeness had been flagging toward the end, and he had been forced to introduce a note of repulsive self-pity to ward off any counterattack.
By the time Patrick is back in his hotel room, he has worked himself into such a drunken hatred of his father that he decides to smash up the metal box of ashes and throw the contents down the toilet. But the box won’t smash, even when he jumps on it. So he gives himself another fix instead. Two days later, as he steps into the cab to take him back to the airport, he realizes he has left the ashes behind in his hotel room. A girl he finally persuaded to accompany him is still asleep there (and hasn’t even allowed him to have sex with her). So he sends a bellboy to fetch the box.
But before that an entire chapter is devoted to Patrick’s drug-fueled nightmare after a visit to a dealer. This episode is a playlet with a weird cast of characters, funny, threatening, and creepy. They make stage entrances and say their lines: there’s a greedy fat man, Patrick’s old nanny, Greta Garbo, Attila the Hun, a mystic feel-good guru, Cleopatra, the von Trapp family warbling “climb every mountain,” an Irish bore, and—funniest of all—a thoroughly modern vicar. Attila cuts off the vicar’s head, but that doesn’t interrupt his colloquial, comforting, “caring” funeral oration:
“Some of us remember David Melrose as a pedophile, an alcoholic, a liar, a rapist, a sadist, and a ‘thoroughly nasty piece of work.’ But, you know, in a situation like that, what Christ asks us to say, and what he would have said himself in his own words is” (pausing) “But that’s not the whole story, is it?…And that ‘whole story’ idea is one of the most exciting things about Christianity. When we read a book by one of our favorite authors, be he Richard Bach or Peter Mayle, we don’t just want to know that it’s about a very special seagull, or that it’s set in the lovely campagne, to use a French word, of Provence; we want the satisfaction of reading all the way to the end.”
The reference to middlebrow best sellers (in England) is a wickedly defining touch of satire, and the entire chapter a tour de force.
Eight years pass before the next installment, Some Hope. Patrick is now thirty years old. He has been to several addiction clinics and is off drugs but not off depression. “He had started to realize what it must be like to be lucid all the time, an unpunctuated stretch of consciousness, a white tunnel, hollow and dim, like a bone with the marrow sucked out.”
Some Hope is set at a country-house ball in Gloucestershire, with Princess Margaret among the guests. At the dinner before the ball, the (ghastly and pretentious) French ambassador accidentally spills some sauce on the princess’s dress. She hands him her napkin. “‘Wipe!’ she said with terrifying simplicity.” When the ambassador’s equally pretentious wife rushes to his assistance, “‘I’m quite happy to have your husband do it,’ said the princess. ‘He spilled it, he should wipe it up! In fact, one feels he might have had a great career in dry cleaning if he hadn’t been blown off course.'” Later on the hosts’ seven-year-old daughter wanders disconsolately into the dining room in her nightdress because she can’t get to sleep. Her mother offers to present her to the princess if she’ll then go back to bed. But when she brings the little girl forward, the royal lady squashes her: “‘No, not now, I don’t think it’s right…. She ought to be in bed, and she’ll just get overexcited.'” The princess’s smug, withering put-downs may seem exaggerated, but not if you’ve read James Lasdun’s memoir in Modern Painters of his father, the distinguished architect. Toward the very end of Denys Lasdun’s life
Princess Margaret set the royal seal on his plummeting self-esteem at some gathering where she beckoned him over to her sofa and said to him: “You poor man, what are we going to do about your flagging reputation?”
In the novel, the princess is not even the most self-satisfied and insensitive of the classy guests: they are all appalling. One of them tells Patrick about his father’s death from cancer: “When a man of my father’s wealth dies of cancer, you know they haven’t found a cure.” Sans-culottes could have a ball at this ball.
The party’s purpose is to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the owner of the house. His name is Sonny Gravesend. He is crude, stupid, snobbish, a peer, and the son of a dead friend of the dead David Melrose (a net of more or less compulsory inherited relationships entangles Patrick and he makes no effort to escape). Most of the guests—and indeed most of the characters in the novel—are Rowlandsonesque monsters. Only two are positively likable. One of them is Patrick’s loyal and helpful journalist friend, Johnny Hall (“It must be funny having the same name as so many other people,” Princess Margaret says when he is presented to her. “I suppose there are hundreds of John Halls up and down the country.”)
Johnny is a reformed drug addict who attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings. St. Aubyn takes the reader along to one of them, in a passage that is both funny and deadly serious. The first person to speak from the floor “said that he’d had to nurture him-self by ‘parenting the child within.'” Another
had heard someone in a meeting saying that she had a fear of success and he thought that maybe this was his problem too….He felt unlovable and consequently he was unloving, he concluded, and his neighbor, who recognized that he was in the presence of feelings, rubbed his back consolingly.
Johnny is Patrick’s confidant, and they have conversations about ethics and psychology that fit unobtrusively into the narrative, because of their laid-back, colloquial tone. The pivotal talk takes place as they dine in the country hotel where they are staying for Sonny Gravesend’s ball (only family and intimate friends stay and dine at the big house). Their conversation is constantly and comically interrupted by an overzealous waiter. Patrick intends to tell Johnny what happened to him as a child. It is a momentous decision. He has never spoken of it to anyone before. “I can’t decide between the onion soup and the traditional English goat’s cheese salad,” he begins. “An analyst once told me I was suffering from a ‘depression on top of a depression.'” When he eventually reveals what his father did to him, Johnny says:
“What a bastard….”
“That’s what I’ve been saying for years,” said Patrick. “But now I’m exhausted by hating him. I can’t go on. The hatred binds me to those events and I don’t want to be a child anymore.” Patrick was back in the vein again, released from silence by the habits of analy- sis and speculation.
“It must have split the world in half for you,” said Johnny.
Patrick was taken aback by the precision of this comment….
“I always thought the truth would set me free,” he said, “but the truth just drives you mad.”
“Telling the truth might set you free.”
“Maybe. But self-knowledge on its own is useless.”
“Well, it enables you to suffer more lucidly,” argued Johnny.
“Oh, ya, I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”
“In the end perhaps the only way to alleviate misery is to become more detached about yourself and more attached to something else,” said Johnny.
“Are you suggesting I take up a hobby?” laughed Patrick. “Weaving baskets or sewing mailbags?”
“Well, actually, I was trying to think of a way to avoid those two particular occupations,” said Johnny.
The trouble with Johnny is that though he has a function—acting as an amateur psychiatrist to Patrick—he hasn’t much presence. Still, their talk leads eventually to the word “mercy,” which has stuck in Patrick’s mind since they both went to a performance of Measure for Measure. So he is encouraged to apply it to his memory of David, whose last years were miserable with sickness and loneliness.
The other sympathetic character (apart from Johnny) is Anne Eisen, a clever American with humane instincts and reactions. She observes the milieu she finds herself in with irony. She probably didn’t realize what awaited her in the way of snobbery when she married Sir Victor Eisen, a well-known Jewish philosopher seemingly popular with the upper classes (as they are with him). “Almost nothing is as entertaining as the contortions of a clever Jewish snob,” David observes of Eisen. David’s friend Lord Pratt isn’t so sure: “Whether the openness and the generosity of what the press chooses to call ‘the establishment’ has been abused on this occasion, by welcoming into its midst a dangerous intellectual of murky Semitic origins is for you, and for you alone, to judge,” he replies.
Nicholas Pratt strikes Anne as “pathetic…just one of those Englishmen who was always saying silly things to sound less pompous, and pompous things to sound less silly.” But he gets on well with the French ambassadress on the subject of people without titles: “What would we do without them?” he admits. And “they laughed the innocent laughter of two snobs taking a holiday from that need to appear tolerant and open-minded which marred what Nicholas still called ‘modern life,’ although he had never known any other kind.”
The Eisens meet Nicholas in the first novel, when he brings his much younger girlfriend Bridget to stay with the Melroses in France. He has no intention of making her the fifth Lady Pratt; so on her way up the social ladder during the twenty-five years between the first and third novels, she has married Sonny Gravesend instead and acquired a different and grander title. Sonny is eighteen years her senior. During the ball, she overhears him tell a friend that he is thinking of divorcing her to marry—if he can—a much-sought-after American model. He needs a male heir to the title and the property, and feels that after a string of premarital abortions and postmarital miscarriages, Bridget won’t produce one. Their only child is Belinda (the seven-year-old little girl snubbed by Princess Margaret).
Toward the end of the ball Belinda sits on the stairs in her nightdress, waiting for her mother. The image is telling: it lends pathos to one of the novel’s implicit messages (don’t neglect your children) by skillfully recalling five-year-old Patrick in Never Mind as he sits disconsolately on the stairs in his pajamas; he is waiting for his mother who is entertaining her guests below and doesn’t turn up. Now Patrick comes across the disconsolate Belinda and offers to read her a story; but Bridget—not a very good mother, by her own confession—does turn up, together with her own mother, a nice, unassuming woman. They whisk Belinda into a car and the three of them set off for the grandmother’s house in despised suburban Surrey. Bridget has decided to leave Sonny, at least for a while, to think things over.
Patrick, meanwhile, is buttonholed by an old man whose “creased face, like an animated sultana, raced through half a dozen expressions of surprise and delight” when he identifies David Melrose’s son. He tells him that when his wife died many years ago, David was kind to him, listened to him, comforted him. Patrick rethinks his feelings about his father:
Only when he could hold in balance his hatred and his stunted love, looking on his father with neither pity nor terror, but as another human being who had not handled his personality especially well; only when he could live with the ambivalence of never forgiving his father for his crimes but allowing himself to be touched by the unhappiness that had produced them as well as the unhappiness they had produced, could he be released, perhaps, into a new life that would enable him to live instead of merely surviving. He might even enjoy himself.
After the ball, at the end of the book, he walks to his car through the snow:
Despite his tiredness and the absolute stillness of the air, he felt his soul, which he could only characterize as the part of his mind that was not dominated by the need to talk, surging and writhing like a kite longing to be let go…. Patrick flicked his cigarette into the snow, and not quite knowing what had happened, headed back to his car with a strange feeling of elation.
Some sort of spiritual moment has seemed impending; when it comes, it turns out to be the most modest of epiphanies.
March 25, 2004