I first heard of Edward St. Aubyn when Guardian writer Mariella Frostrup interviewed him for her 'Books and Authors' podcast. If his accent hadn't convinced me of his place in the English social hierarchy, his remark about his family owning its estate in Cornwall since the Norman Conquest did the trick. As he talked about his highly autobiographical fiction, riddled with incest, psychological violence and substance abuse, though, he began to sound more like a contemporary Edward Gibbon, documenting the decline and fall of the British Empire. When he read an excerpt, it struck me that he shared Gibbon's droll sense of humour that made the psychological carnage so much more bearable.
Recording family and childhood tragedy with humour is fraught with risk -- get it wrong, and you sound bitterly sarcastic or frivolous and superficial. Edward St. Aubyn got it right: his wit never trivialises his characters' suffering -- it adds some levity to a tale that might well otherwise be relentlessly black.
In Never Mind, we experience one day in the life of five year-old Patrick. This is our first introduction to his mother, Eleanor. (Patrick had been conceived when her husband, David, raped her on a staircase.)
Eleanor Melrose stormed her way up the shallow steps from the kitchen to the drive. Had she walked more slowly, she might have tottered, stopped, and sat down in despair on the low wall that ran along the side of the steps. She felt defiantly sick in a way she dared not challenge with food and had already aggravated with a cigarette. She had brushed her teeth after vomiting but the bilious taste was still in her mouth. She had brushed her teeth before vomiting as well, never able to utterly crush the optimistic streak in her nature...
She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth.Eleanor is the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist; she tries to recall what attracted her to her dreadful husband and concludes that it was a quality that sets British aristocrats apart from the rest of the world.
When she had first met David twelve years ago, she had been fascinated by his looks. The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David’s face. It was never quite clear to Eleanor why the English thought it was so distinguished to have done nothing for a long time in the same place, but David left her in no doubt that they did... He was also descended from Charles II through a prostitute.Eleanor concedes that David was not born a sadist -- he'd been moulded into one by his father.
There had been a time when she admired the way that David became a doctor. When he had told his father of his intention, General Melrose had immediately cut off his annuity, preferring to use the money to rear pheasants. Shooting men and animals were the occupations of a gentleman, tending their wounds the business of middle-class quacks. That was the General’s view, and he was able to enjoy more shooting as a consequence of holding it. General Melrose did not find it difficult to treat his son coldly. The first time he had taken an interest in him was when David left Eton, and his father asked him what he wanted to do. David stammered, ‘I’m afraid I don’t know, sir,’ not daring to admit that he wanted to compose music. It had not escaped the General’s attention that his son fooled about on the piano, and he rightly judged that a career in the army would put a curb on this effeminate impulse. ‘Better join the army,’ he said, offering his son a cigar with awkward camaraderie.David, however, had given up his career when he married a wealthy wife, choosing to devote all his energy to making her life a living hell.
He had stopped his medical practice soon after their marriage. At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.David Melrose is an angry, cruel man, always on the lookout for victims. Unfortunately for them, Eleanor and Patrick are the most highly available ones. Just before lunch, David feels a rush of rage overcoming him, and he bellows for Patrick to report to his bedroom, to be punished for some unknown (at least to Patrick) wrong. St. Aubyn treats the sexual molestation of five year-old Patrick with tremendous skill -- the child essentially has an out-of-body experience, transporting himself into a gecko he watches on the wall as his father abuses him. As for David, he feels perhaps a small pang of guilt, but it doesn't interfere with his hearty lunch, and he justifies his actions as a routine part of his approach to child-rearing.
David’s methods of education rested on the claim that childhood was a romantic myth which he was too clear-sighted to encourage. Children were weak and ignorant miniature adults who should be given every incentive to correct their weakness and their ignorance. Like King Chaka, the great Zulu warrior, who made his troops stamp thorn bushes into the ground in order to harden their feet, a training some of them may well have resented at the time, he was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son. After all, what else did he have to offer him?In the late afternoon, guests begin to arrive at the estate for dinner, retiring to guest rooms to rest, bathe and dress. David's friend Nicholas is one of the few who can keep up with his acerbic wit, having shared the same privileged upbringing and education. Nicholas' latest squeeze is a bit of a rough girl, but Bridget is shrewd in her own way. The two of them wander in and out of the subsequent novels, but not together. After spending a few minutes on a page with David and Nicholas, Bridget feels like a breath of fresh air, just a wee bit cloudy with pot smoke.
Bridget looked critically at Nicholas’s body as he clambered to his feet. He had got a lot fatter in the past year. Maybe older men were not the answer. Twenty-three years was a big difference and at twenty, Bridget had not yet caught the marriage fever that tormented the older Watson-Scott sisters as they galloped towards the thirtieth year of their scatterbrained lives. All Nicholas’s friends were such wrinklies and some of them were a real yawn. You couldn’t exactly drop acid with Nicholas. Well, you could; in fact, she had, but it wasn’t the same as with Barry. Nicholas didn’t have the right music, the right clothes, the right attitude. She felt quite bad about Barry, but a girl had to keep her options open. The thing about Nicholas was that he really was rich and beautiful and he was a baronet, which was nice and sort of Jane Austeny.
At the beginning of the second novel, Bad News, the adult Patrick receives word of his father's death. That's the good news. The bad news becomes evident as he packs for the trip to New York to collect his father's ashes, checking to be sure he's remembered all the right stuff -- Qaaludes, cocaine, sleeping pills -- all the while thinking if or when he might score some good heroin. As often as he tells himself that he won't do it, won't touch the heroin this time, it becomes clear that it's taken ownership of him.
No, he mustn't think about it, or indeed about anything, and especially not about heroin, because heroin was the only thing that really worked, the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster's wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favourite cushion. It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm. The way other people felt about love, he felt about heroin, and he felt about love the way other people felt about heroin: that it was a dangerous and incomprehensible waste of time. What could he say to Debbie? "Although you know that my hatred for my father, and my love for drugs, are the most important relationships in my life, I want you to know that you come in third."Patrick rings up his trusted NY dealer, a French man named Pierre. No answer. He goes out and scores from his street dealer, Chilly Willy, who, alas, cannot also provide a clean syringe. Chilly's girlfriend grudgingly hands over a used one, warning that the needle is really too big, but it's all she's got. The scene in which Patrick tries to get the drug into his vein -- and misses -- is both a stomach-churning image and a testament to his incredible need. At last he reaches Pierre and sets an appointment to buy some better stuff.
"You score off the street!" barked Pierre disapprovingly."You fucking crazy!"Pierre also sells cocaine, which Patrick likes to inject before the heroin.
"But you were asleep."
"You shoot with tap water?"
"Yes," admitted Patrick guiltily.
"You crazy," glared Pierre."Come in here, I show you." He walked through to his grimy and narrow kitchen. Opening the door of the big old-fashioned fridge, he took out a large jar of water. "This is tap water," said Pierre ominously, holding up the jar. "I leave it one month and look!" He pointed to a diffuse brown sediment at the bottom of the jar."Rust," he said, "it's a fucking killer! I have one friend who shoot with tap water and the rust get in his bloodstream and his heart -- " Pierre chopped the air with his hand and said, "Tak: it stop."
"That's appalling," murmured Patrick, wondering when they were going to do business.
Unlike Pierre he preferred to take coke on its own until the tension and fear were unbearable, then he would send in the Praetorian Guard of heroin to save the day from insanity and defeat.I have never used either heroin or cocaine and have no intention of doing so, but I've long felt that "Just say NO to drugs" is a simplistic and ineffectual approach. Many people I talked to in Malaysia viewed drug abuse and addiction as a moral failure, blind to the reasons people turn to narcotics and stimulants. I would like to assign all these folks to read Bad News. I've yet to find anyone who can relate the wonders and the horrors of heroin better than Edward St. Aubyn.
Taking no risks, he stuck the spike into a thick vein in the back of his hand. The smell of cocaine assailed him and he felt his nerves stretching like piano wires. The heroin followed in a soft rain of felt hammers playing up his spine and rumbling into his skull. He groaned contentedly and scratched his nose. It was so pleasurable, so fucking pleasurable. How could he ever give up? It was love. It was coming home. It was Ithaca, the end of all his storm-tossed wanderings. He dropped the syringe into the top drawer, staggered across the room, and sprawled on the bed. Peace at last. The mingling lashes of half-closed eyes, the slow reluctant flutter of folding wings; his body pounded by felt hammers, pulses dancing like sand on a drum; love and poison evacuating his breath in a long slow exhalation, fading into a privacy he could never quite remember, nor for a moment forget. His thoughts shimmered like a hesitating stream, gathering into pools of discrete and vivid imagery. He pictured his feet walking through a damp London square, his shoes sealing wet leaves darkly to the pavement. In the square, the heat from a heap of smouldering leaves syruped the air, and billows of yellow smoke skewed the sunlight like a broken wheel, its spokes scattered among the balding plane trees. The lawn was littered with dead branches, and from the railings he watched the sad and acrid ceremony, his eyes irritated by the smoke.
In the aptly titled third novel, Some Hope, Patrick seems to have kicked his drug habit, and as he did in the first two books, St. Aubyn focuses on one episode. This time it's a lavish birthday party, which is gathering the nobility, the aristocracy, and the affluent from all over England. While en route to the country estate with his friend, Johnny, Patrick discloses for the first time the abuse his father meted out during his childhood. Johnny listens and responds sympathetically, but when he starts to mingle with the party guests, Patrick realises that he cannot demonise his father entirely. At least not in these social circles.
"Do you know, it's a funny thing," he went on in a more serious tone, "hardly a day passes without my thinking of your father."
"Same here," said Patrick,"but I've got a good excuse."
"So have I," said Bunny."He helped me at a time when I was in an extremely wobbly state."
"He helped to put me into an extremely wobbly state," said Patrick.
"I know a lot of people found him difficult," admitted Bunny, "and he may have been at his most difficult with his children -- people usually are -- but I saw another side of his personality. After Lucy died, at a time when I really couldn't cope at all, he took care of me and stopped me drinking myself to death, listened with enormous intelligence to hours of black despair, and never used what I told him against me."
"The fact that you mention his not using anything you said against you is sinister enough."
"You can say what you like," said Bunny bluntly, "but your father probably saved my life." He made an inaudible excuse and moved away abruptly...
Even when he had gone to New York to collect his ashes, Patrick had not been completely convinced by the simple solution of loathing his father. Bunny's loyalty to David made Patrick realize that his real difficulty might be in acknowledging the same feelings in himself. What had there been to admire about his father? ... All of David's virtues and talents had been double-edged, but however vile he had been he had not been deluded, most of the time, and had accepted with some stoicism his well-deserved suffering. It was not admiration that would reconcile him to his father, or even the famously stubborn love of children for their parents, able to survive far worse fates than Patrick's...
Simplification was dangerous and would later take its revenge. 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. Patrick grunted nervously. Enjoy himself?In the same reflective mood, Patrick considers his mother, Eleanor, who was completely unequipped to deal with her husband's cruelty, never mind protecting their son from his depradations.
It would probably be better if women arrested in their own childhood didn't have children with tormented misogynist homosexual paedophiles, but nothing was perfect in this sublunary world, thought Patrick, glancing up devoutly at the moon which was of course hidden, like the rest of the sky during an English winter, by a low swab of dirty cloud. His mother was really a good person, but like almost everybody she had found her compass spinning in the magnetic field of intimacy.Some Hope, however, is not consumed with Patrick's contemplation of his hellish childhood. St. Aubyn has gathered all the great and the good to this one over-the-top party so that he, like Waugh and Wilde before him, can poke fun at them. In a bold bit of lèse-majesté, he even brings Princess Margaret to the table and mocks both her hauteur and the toadying of the other guests. Patrick's friend Johnny is unruffled, which in turn irks "PM".
"And who are you?" she asked Johnny in the most gracious possible manner. "Johnny Hall," said Johnny, extending a hand. The republican omission of ma'am, and the thrusting and unacceptable invitation to a handshake, were enough to convince the Princess that Johnny was a man of no importance. "It must be funny having the same name as so many other people," she speculated. "I suppose there are hundreds of John Halls up and down the country."
"It teaches one to look for distinction elsewhere and not to rely on an accident of birth," said Johnny casually.
"That's where people go wrong," said the Princess, compressing her lips, "there is no accident in birth." She swept on before Johnny had a chance to reply...
"Jesus," sighed Anne, surveying the room, "what a grim bunch. Do you think they keep them in the deep freeze at Central Casting and thaw them out for big occasions?"
"If only," said Patrick. "Unfortunately I think they own most of the country."
As the evening wears down, however, Patrick realises that the storied stiff upper lip of the British aristocracy is not simply a testament to great inner strength but also to a developed callousness that is passed on to subsequent generations. Patrick's father, David, had suffered and survived, and so, Patrick tells a friend, he simply continued in the traditional belief that a brutal upbringing would only improve his son.
"What impresses me more than the repulsive superstition that I should turn the other cheek, is the intense unhappiness my father lived with. I ran across a diary his mother wrote during the First World War. After pages of gossip and a long passage about how marvellously they'd managed to keep up the standards at some large country house, defying the Kaiser with the perfection of their cucumber sandwiches, there are two short sentences: 'Geoffrey wounded again', about her husband in the trenches, and 'David has rickets', about her son at his prep school. Presumably he was not just suffering from malnutrition, but being assaulted by paedophiliac schoolmasters and beaten by older boys. This very traditional combination of maternal coldness and official perversion helped to make him the splendid man he turned into, but to forgive someone, one would have to be convinced that they'd made some effort to change the disastrous course that genetics, class, or upbringing proposed for them."
The fourth novel in the series, Mother's Milk, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2006. In it, we return to the child's point of view, but this time it's Patrick's first son, Robert. Patrick's wife, Mary, has devoted herself entirely to motherhood, giving all her attention to their sons, Robert and the younger Thomas, leaving Patrick feeling neglected. Patrick, however, has his own maternal concerns: His own mother has decided to will the lovely French house in which Patrick grew up to a new-age foundation that will be run by a shifty Irish conman named Seamus. While Patrick rages, Robert finds the whole affair bewildering.
He loved it down here at his grandmother's house. His family only came once a year, but they had been every year since he was born. Her house was a Transpersonal Foundation. He didn't really know what that was, and nobody else seemed to know either, even Seamus Dourke, who ran it. "Your grandmother is a wonderful woman," he had told Robert, looking at him with his dim twinkly eyes. "She's helped a lot of people to connect."Eleanor, Patrick's mother, is increasingly susceptible to Seamus' schemes as her mind slips away and her speech fails her (as it always had). Patrick, Mary and the boys come to visit her in the nursing home, and as they drive home, Robert is the silent witness in the back seat to his father's tumultuous feelings.
"With what?" asked Robert.
"With the other reality."
Sometimes he didn't ask grown-ups what they meant because he thought it would make him seem stupid; sometimes it was because he knew they were being stupid. This time it was both.
"I thought Eleanor did very well," said his mother. "I was very moved when she said that she was brave."On a family trip to visit Eleanor's wealthy relatives in the United States, Patrick's anger at his mother bubbles through at every turn. Unlike his own father, Patrick doesn't take out his rage directly on his sons, but his bitterness still splatters them.
"What can drive a man mad is being forced to have the emotion which he is forbidden to have at the same time," said his father. "My mother's treachery forced me to be angry, but then her illness forced me to feel pity instead. Now her recklessness makes me angry again but her bravery is supposed to smother my anger with admiration. Well, I'm a simple sort of a fellow, and the fact is that I remain fucking angry," he shouted, banging the steering wheel.
"I liked the Park," said Robert.As he sees the wealth enjoyed and stewarded by his mother's family in America while Eleanor is passing her own inheritance to a dodgy charity is more than Patrick can bear.
"The Park's nice," his father conceded,"but the rest of the country is just people in huge cars wondering what to eat next. When we hire a car you'll see that it's really a mobile dining room, with little tables all over the place and cup holders. It's a nation of hungry children with real guns. If you're not blown up by a bomb, you're blown up by a Vesuvio pizza. It's absolutely terrifying."
"Please stop," said Robert.
Beyond the wood they passed a hangar where huge fans, consuming enough electricity to run a small village, kept agapanthus warm in the winter. Next to the hangar was a hen house somewhat larger than Patrick's London flat, and so strangely undefiled that he couldn't help wondering if these were genetically modified hens which had been crossed with cucumbers to stop them from defecating. Beth walked over the fresh sawdust, under the red heat lamps, and discovered three speckled brown eggs in the laying boxes. Every plate of scrambled eggs must cost her several thousand dollars. The truth was that he hated the very rich, especially since he was never going to be one of them.Of course the wealthy in the United States have their own woes -- perhaps slightly different than those stinging their British counterparts. Patrick's wife, Mary, tries to locate his cousin Sally at one of her many residences.
When she rang Sally there was no answer in Long Island. Eventually she found her in New York. "We had to come back to the city because our water tank burst and flooded the apartment downstairs. Our neighbours are suing us, so we're suing the plumbers who only put the tank in last year. The plumbers are suing the tank company for defective design. And the residents are suing the building, even though they're all on vacation, because the water was cut off for two days instead of two hours, which caused them a lot of mental stress in Tuscany and Nantucket."
"Gosh," said Mary. "What's wrong with mopping up and getting a new water tank?"
"That is so English," said Sally, delighted by Mary's quaint stoicism.
And then, At Last -- the fifth and final novel, in which Eleanor has died, and the usual suspects gather for her funeral. Nicholas, the snide family friend whom we first met in Bad News, turns up. He reminisces with Nancy, Eleanor's sister, as she recalls her own mother's property acquisition skills.
"But you can't pretend that your mother was a fan of the common man. Didn't she buy the entire village street that ran along the boundary wall of the Pavillon Colombe, in order to demolish it and expand the garden? How many houses was that?"
"Twenty-seven," said Nancy, cheering up. "They weren't all demolished. Some of them were turned into exactly the right kind of ruin to go with the house. There were follies and grottos, and Mummy had a replica made of the main house, only fifty times smaller. We used to have tea there, it was like something out of Alice in Wonderland." Nancy's face clouded over. "There was a horrible old man who refused to sell, although Mummy offered him far too much for his poky little house, and so there was an inward bulge following the line of the old wall, if you see what I'm saying."
"Every paradise demands a serpent," said Nicholas.
Nancy herself married well and carried on in the lifestyle to which she'd become accustomed. To which, in fact, she couldn't seem to do without.
When the Crash came, lawyers flew in from America to ask the Craigs to rack their brains for something they could do without. They thought and thought. They obviously couldn't sell Sunninghill Park. They had to go on entertaining their friends. It would be too cruel and too inconvenient to sack any of the servants. They couldn't do without the house in Bruton Street for overnight stays in London. They needed two Rolls-Royces and two chauffeurs because Daddy was incorrigibly punctual and Mummy was incorrigibly late. In the end they sacrificed one of the six newspapers that each guest received with their breakfast. The lawyers relented. The pools of Jonson money were too deep to pretend there was a crisis; they were not stock-market speculators, they were industrialists and owners of great blocks of urban America. People would always need hardened fats and dry-cleaning fluids and somewhere to live.Because Patrick seems too muddled and conflicted to manage it, Mary arranges Eleanor's funeral, doing her keep it in line with what Eleanor might have wished. Alas, the result is not what most of the mourners would have liked. Nancy, for one, is abjectly unimpressed with the whole affair.
All these readings from the Bible were getting on Nancy's nerves. She didn't want to think about death -- it was depressing. At a proper funeral there were amazing choirs that didn't usually sing at private events, and tenors who were practically impossible to get hold of, and readings by famous actors or distinguished public figures. It made the whole thing fun and meant that one hardly ever thought about death, even when the readings were exactly the same, because one was struggling to remember when some tired-looking person had been chancellor of the exchequer, or what the name of their last movie was. That was the miracle of glamour. The more she thought about it, the more furious she felt about Eleanor's dreary funeral. Why, for instance, had she decided to be cremated? Fire was something one dreaded. Fire was something one insured against. The Egyptians had got it right with the pyramids. What could be cosier than something huge and permanent with all one's things tucked away inside (and other people's things as well! Lots and lots of things!) built by thousands of slaves who took the secret of the construction with them to unmarked graves. Nowadays one would have to make prohibitive social-security payments to teams of unionized construction workers. That was modern life for you. Nevertheless, some sort of big monument was infinitely preferable to an urn and a handful of dust.Read as fiction, the Patrick Melrose novels are a marvel. Reading them as slightly fictionalised autobiography, I marvel that Edward St. Aubyn survived the effects of his childhood, and what's more, seems to have broken out of the family mould. I suppose writing these books was both catharsis and revenge, and I hold him in equal parts brilliant and heroic.