Illicit Pleasures: On Edward St Aubyn’s At Last

February 2, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 3 6 min read

coverThe pleasures of reading Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose novels can feel strangely illicit. From the Some Hope trilogy of novellas — comprising Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope — through 2006’s Mother’s Milk, St Aubyn has used the trials of Patrick Melrose and his family to explore psychological damage and the intangible terrors of childhood trauma. But he is at his most remarkable when dealing with the experience of the senses, the means we use to escape ourselves.

Bad News, the most gripping book of the early trilogy, chronicles a 24-hour drug binge in New York, where Patrick Melrose almost self-destructs against the backdrop of his father’s death. It is a thrilling novella, and yet its thrills feel slightly dubious because we are invited to revel in what amounts to drug pornography — a specialist genre which, from Hunter S. Thompson to William Burroughs, is notable for its talent-crushing ODs. But St Aubyn’s nimble mind allows him to avoid the usual forms of self-indulgence. “The trouble was that he always wanted smack, like wanting to get out of a wheelchair when the room was on fire,” is surely one of the best one-sentence summations of drug addiction ever written. And no one I have read has managed to make the anticipation of a cocaine injection sound as cosy but also as infinitely depressing as when St Aubyn writes, “His stomach made a rumbling sound and he felt as nervous and excited as a twelve-year-old in the back of a darkened cinema stretching his arm around a girl’s shoulder for the first time.”

coverOne of the problems with the Some Hope trilogy is that the great sentences, which are usually similes, stand too tall among the underbrush. Instead of being combed through with greatness, the writing is only great at intervals. I can imagine St Aubyn, like Raymond Chandler, keeping a notebook of devastating descriptions to be deployed when an otherwise bland paragraph is in need of horsepower. This problem was partly overcome in Mother’s Milk, where the prose is not as uneven, and a complexity of feeling shines through. That novel was a departure from the trilogy in many ways, not least in its focus on Patrick’s relationship with his mother instead of his father. It also has some very good passages from the perspective of Robert, one of Patrick’s sons, a supremely intelligent five-year-old who has the preternatural clarity of a less sombre Little Father Time. Unlike the trilogy, Mother’s Milk works as a standalone novel, and it is for this reason, as well as for its depth and range, that it might be remembered as the best Melrose book.

covercoverBut those who have not read all of the Melrose sequence may feel at a disadvantage when they come to At Last (the books are now also out in a set The Patrick Melrose Novels). The most cathartic novel that St Aubyn has written, it achieves a subtle but satisfying conclusion to the saga, comparable in its best moments to John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. Its power relies on the accumulation of details, so when Patrick reminisces about “the gecko that had taken custody of his soul in a moment of crisis”, readers of Never Mind will remember the rape of Patrick at the age of five by his father, and how by seeing the gecko on the window sill the child was able momentarily to see beyond the terror. In a characteristic dualism, it also brings to mind the unforgettable description of his father’s eyes: “They moved from object to object and person to person, pausing for a moment on each and seeming to steal something vital from them, with a quick adhesive glance, like the flickering of a gecko’s tongue.”

coverAt Last begins with Patrick in a much longed-for state: a parentless existence. “Now that he was an orphan everything was perfect. He seemed to have been waiting all his life for this sense of completeness.” His mother, Eleanor, is finally dead after a long deterioration, and the novel takes place entirely on the day of her funeral. After a month-long stint at the Priory rehabilitation clinic, the alcoholism that haunted Mother’s Milk is behind him. He is separated from his wife, Mary, though still dependent on her. With his inherited money gone, he is living in a bedsit (though, in a nod to his erstwhile privilege, the bedsit is in Kensington). The only person he can really open up to is his friend Johnny Hall, who is, perhaps appropriately, a child psychologist.

The funeral setting allows for a raft of characters to be in the same place, many of whom Patrick despises: the snobbish friends, the greedy relatives, the over-earnest New Age gurus. Most of them are members of the decaying upper class. Eleanor’s sister, Nancy, lives on the prestige of her illustrious family tree (“One day she was going to write a book about her mother and her aunts, the legendary Jonson sisters”), and Nicholas, a family friend, is the perfect symbol of unrepentant snobbery in the face of a future that has no plans for him or his kind.

Everyone at the funeral is troubled in their own way. Eleanor, like a Mrs. Jellyby recast by Evelyn Waugh, has left a legacy of pain to Patrick and a legacy of bewilderment to everyone else. She spent much of her life desperate to help others through charity, while her own son was being abused by her husband, David, one of the most relentlessly despicable characters in recent English fiction. Eleanor tells Mary of a particularly upsetting incident, when a drunken David circumcised his infant son as Eleanor and others looked on, too scared to do anything. “They knew this was no operation, it was an attack by a furious old man on his son’s genitals; but like the chorus in a play, they could only comment and wail, without being able to stop him.” A scandalised Mary wonders how a mother could let this happen, but concludes that her mother-in-law “could never have protected anyone else when she was so entranced by her own vulnerability, so desperate to be saved.”

These gestures towards forgiveness are scattered throughout the novel and are what give it a sense of simultaneous ending and renewal. Yet St Aubyn can stumble when he tries to push conflicted thoughts onto paper. His simile-laden style has no purchase in the tangle of feelings that Patrick experiences towards the end of the novel. We get a hint of its manic source when Patrick tells Gordon, the moderator of the Priory’s Depression Group, that metaphor is “the whole problem, the solvent of nightmares. At the molten heart of things everything resembles everything else: that’s the horror.”

St Aubyn is clearly aware of the malign effect a stylistic flourish can have, and it is perhaps the struggle with this impulse that can cause confusion for the reader. There are moments when, caught in the cobwebs of Patrick’s mind, we are perhaps supposed to be confused; but then we arrive at a sentence like this: “The absolute banishment of irony from Eleanor’s earnest persona created a black market for the blind sarcasm of her actions.” Some readers may be clever enough to digest this on first reading, but many of us will be scratching our heads on the 10th time round. St Aubyn is also capable of dropping the ball entirely. The following sentence is the literary equivalent of a blooper reel: “Her social secretary would call twice a day to say that she had been delayed but was really on her way now.” The siren repetition of the “ay” sound would be shoddy work if the writer was not considered a superior stylist, but in the context of so much careful prose it feels like a minor tragedy.

Mentioning tragedy in such a trivial context might seem insensitive considering the novel’s autobiographical source. From what can be gathered from interviews, St Aubyn lived through many of the most traumatic episodes of his novels. This autobiographical strand is repeated to the point of numbness in most reviews and features, but it is worth remembering that the Melrose books are presented by the author as fiction. In a lot of cases, joining the dots between life and art is a futile practice, and not very interesting either. It is tempting because it is easy, which is why it is not appropriate for these addictive but complicated novels; and it can also lead to the reader doing the author too many favors, investing emotion when it is not there in the words. Or, more unfairly, it can downplay the real strengths of St Aubyn’s abilities. Once we know we can’t unknow, and many readers will be carrying some extra nonfiction baggage when they read At Last. But even without the autobiographical anchor — or, better, if we were unaware of the autobiographical anchor — the Melrose novels would still be a brilliant if awkward display of St Aubyn’s gifts as a writer.

is a freelance writer and book critic. He reviews books for The Spectator and has also written for the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and the Los Angeles Review of Books.