“My mother’s death is the best thing that ever happened to me since, well, since my father’s death.” So says Patrick Melrose in At Last the 5th and last book in the Patrick Melrose series by Edward St Aubyn.
It took the author well into adulthood to finally confess to his mother, long after his father had died, that the man had sexually abused him as a child. He said something like ‘my father, your husband, sexually abused me.’ She looked at him and said ‘Me too’ denying him the sympathy we was looking for. St Aubyn’s creation, the father, David Melrose, a brilliant, disappointed but monstrous man also tried to teach his son to swim by throwing him into the swimming pool expecting the child’s innate sense of survival to force him to get to the edge and save his own life. He also attempted, while drunk, to circumcise the infant on the kitchen table much to the horror of the staff. If you’re a little confused as to whom I talking about: the character or the author, don’t worry as this series is robustly autobiographical which St Aubyn isn‘t shy in talking about.
At 54 Edward St Aubyn, an English novelist of meagre aristocracy is the darling of the literary world at the moment and at the Adelaide Writers Week in March 2013 he discussed his choice of fiction rather than memoir to Michael Cathcart (Books and Arts Daily, Radio National).
“I preferred the distancing effects that are available in a novel, the unity of setting something on one day in one place is very artificial; couldn’t be done in a memoir; the creation of a lot of characters who presents the reader with this arena of points of view; the margin for invention, conflation; all the powers of art and also because the books that have influenced me and that I’ve enjoyed most have been novels and not memoirs. I always wanted to write a novel; I always felt that novels were where it was at for me. Patrick is an alter-ego; the writer is an aspect of a person, the narrator is an aspect of the writer, the alter-ego is an aspect of the narration, so there’s a telescopic effect which isn’t available in memoir. The first person who is narrating is assumed to be the author. All of those gaps collapse in the case of the memoir. And I’m not making a confession. I was interested in creating something that was entertaining even if it dealt with very troubling material.”
Book 1, Never Mind, is set in Provence on one afternoon and evening when the sexual abuse by David Melrose of his 6 year old son Patrick begins. Book 2, Bad News, is a harrowing but often funny two days in New York where Patrick, now a heroin, alcohol and ‘ice’ addicted adult flies to pick up his father’s ashes while scoring on the down-and-out streets of the city. Some Hope, book 3, has Patrick now drug free at a party in the country where he tries to find his place in a world he no longer thinks is worth joining. Mother’s Milk, the Booker Prize short-listed 4th novel deals with Patrick and his loss of the family home in Provence which gave him solace from his neglectful family while dealing with his mother’s slow slip into dementia. At Last, book 5, is set around the funeral of his mother where Patrick, finally free of his parents, may find some peace and so can avoid repeating the horrid mistakes of his forebears, especially since he now has two sons of his own.
St Aubyn uses the third-person subjective voice, which James Woods, literary critic for the New Yorker, calls ‘close writing’. It’s as if the narrator is sitting on the shoulder of the protagonist, or, in fact, sitting inside the head of the protagonist and writes not only what he sees but what he feels and wishes. This gives the reader a sense of belonging to that character; a taste of compassion and understanding. St Aubyn take’s this technique further and has the narrator jumping from character to character seeing the narrow Melrose world, the people in it and what they are doing to each other from a single point of view; but in fact from many single points of view; and when this narrator, and therefore the reader, is in the head of David Melrose, this sadistic tyrant, this disappointed, angry and parsimonious father, this treacherous and violent husband the reader can’t help but feel some degree of compassion and understanding, tempered, of course, by the man’s vile and hateful actions. While at every turn a smile and a chuckle is never far away thanks to St Aubyn’s dry English wit and snobby asides.
The St Aubyn family came to England from France with William the Conqueror and, according to the Doomsday Book, has sat with wealth and privilege on a piece of English soil since 1087; “so there’s a lot of … continuity,” says St Aubyn. He has the voice you would expect: measured and slow in its lower register, with elongated vowels that just stop short of camp. He will undeniably join the likes of Wilde in that club of quotable writers;
“People never remember happiness with the care that they lavish on preserving every detail of their suffering.”
“Surely: the adverb of a man without an argument.”
“Looking after children can be a subtle way of giving up… They become the whole ones, the well ones, the postponement of happiness, the ones who won’t drink too much, give up, get divorced, become mentally ill. The part of oneself that’s fighting against decay and depression is transferred to guarding them from decay and depression. In the meantime one decays and gets depressed.”
“It seems people spend the majority of their lives believing they’re dying, with the only consolation being that at one point they get to be right.”
“…life is just the history of what we give our attention to; the rest is packaging.”
… and my favourite, “Never use the conditional when talking about money.”
St Aubyn isn’t much interested in plot but his characters and their battered senses provide the action and the twists and turns are due to how well, or not, they all deal with each other. The Patrick Melrose novels are sharp, witty, and short. Highly recommended.