The Picador single-volume edition of the first four Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn — Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk — is quite the extraordinary bargain at a price of $12.98 on Amazon (although hey, you can afford to buy this one from your neighborhood store). It had been sitting in a stack in my bedroom for quite a while because I began the first book, Never Mind, and was genuinely concerned that getting to the scene in which the five-year old Patrick Melrose is raped by his father (a scene narrated from Patrick’s own perspective) would give me such disturbing nightmares as not to be worth it. But now I’m about halfway into the remarkable series and will certainly keep reading to the end.
James Wood describes these novels as seeming to be “not only books about trauma but traumatized books, condemned to return again and again to primal wounds.” (The novels are apparently highly autobiographical, based on St Aubyn’s own experience of childhood sexual abuse and his years of drug addiction from age 16 to 28.) Wood adds that “St. Aubyn’s novels have an aristocratic atmosphere of tart horror, the hideousness of the material contained by a powerfully aphoristic, lucid prose style. In good and bad ways, his fiction offers a kind of deadly gossip, and feeds the reader’s curiosity like one of the mortal morsels offered up by Tacitus or Plutarch in their chatty histories.”
I’d agree that Never Mind in particular (first published in 1992 – I’d be curious to see reviews/ response to it at that point) reads like Evelyn Waugh meets Tacitus. Or, that Patrick’s father David Melrose is kind of like Wilde’s cruelly witty Lord Henry meets Caligula. The Roman references are woven into the text: David loans a “friend” a copy of Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, of which we’re led to assume that the chapters on Nero and Caligula must be his favorites.
Never Mind is quite amazing — I can’t think of anything quite like it. There’s witty, there’s savagely witty, and then there’s this, something beyond that. I remember a critic’s observation that Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) reads like a jaundiced, deeply disillusioned return to the Jane Austen world of wealthy, aristocratic European leisure a century later, from within the knowledge of that world and that class’s self-destruction. St. Aubyn extends this logic further in the most corrosively savage, and yet very funny, depiction of dead-end English country-house elites ever.
Here’s one dinner guest, for example, Vijay Shaw, an old Eton acquaintance of Victor, the social-climbing philosopher whose wife Anne’s perspective is articulated here (the only vaguely sympathetic characters, aside from the five year-old Patrick, are women; are the men are repellent, although Victor the least so):
[S]pending just a few days with him convinced Anne that each hideous feature had been molded by internal malevolence. His wife, grinning mouth was at once crude and cruel. When he tried to smile, his purplish lips could only curl and twist like a rotting lead 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. His voice seemed to be designed exclusively for simpering… Like many flatterers, he was not aware that he irritated the people he flattered…. A little Indian guy being sneered at by monsters of English privilege would normally have unleashed the full weight of Anne’s loyalty to underdogs, but this time it was wiped out by Vijay’s enormous desire to be a monster of English privilege himself.
The Roman/ Caligula references crystallize the novel’s emphasis on social life as a species of mutual torturing, and St Aubyn also suggests that the English aristocratic fox-hunting ethos has been literally miniatured and trivialized in David Melrose’s ongoing torture of ants:
David Melrose, tired of drowning ants, abandoned watering the garden. As soon as the sport lost a narrow focus, it filled him with despair. There was always another nest, and terrace of nests. He pronounced ants ‘aunts’, and it added zest to his murderous pursuits if he bore in mind his mother’s seven haughty sisters, high-minded and selfish women to whom he had displayed his talent on the piano as a child…
David held the burning tip of his cigar close to the ants and ran it along in both directions as far as he could conveniently reach. The ants twisted, excruciated by the heat, and dropped down onto the terrace. Some, before they fell, reared up, their stitching legs trying helplessly to repair their ruined bodies… With his cigar he caught a stray ant which was escaping with signed antennae from his last incendiary raid…. The ant ran away with astonishing speed, was about to reach the far side of the wall when David, stretching a little, touched it lightly with a surgeon’s precision. Its skin blistered and it squirmed violently as it died.
The ants/ aunts discussion also made me think of Roald Dahl, of all people. There may be a tiny touch of James and the Giant Peach in St Aubyn’s gleeful anatomizing of the selfish cruelty of an English family.
And yes, the rape scene is hard to take, and audacious– I’d imagine many readers in 1992 of this first novel by an unknown author must have thrown it across the room.
Bad News resembles the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Philip Roth’s Paternity in focusing on a son’s experience of his father’s death, and specifically of his father’s corpse: here, David Melrose’s incinerated ashes in a can that the 22-year old Patrick carries up and down New York City with him on a celebratory heroin, alcohol, and cocaine bender. (His appetite for drugs is bottomless enough, and his trust fund still for the time being sufficiently ample, to demand almost continual negotiation with various dealers to keep the supply coming.) Of the two novels, I found Bad News less original; what ant-torturing scenes were in Never Mind (actually way more so), excruciatingly detailed descriptions of the injection of heroin and cocaine speedballs into often recalcitrant veins are in this novel, and at times it becomes a little too Bret Easton Ellis, although it’s never less than brilliantly witty.
I’ve just started Some Hope, in which Patrick is 30 years old and struggling to stay sober after a few bouts in rehab, and — having squandered much of his inheritance — is studying to become a barrister. St Aubyn suggests a link between aesthetic & personal style and addiction in that Patrick, off drugs, is forced to explore new attitudes, ways of behaving, forms of speech and verbal habits. He is
trying to stop observing by becoming unconscious, and then forced to observe the fringes of unconsciousness and make darkness visible; canceling every effort, but spoiling apathy with restlessness; drawn to puns but repelled by the virus of ambiguity; … desperate to escape the self-subversion of irony and say what he really meant, but really meaning only what irony could convey.
That says a lot about the novels themselves, which seem to be, much like Knausgaard’s books, an attempt at once to tell the truth about the author’s own experience but to fictionalize, ironize, and transform it.