Can you always count on a bastard for a fancy prose style? It is hard to imagine the fiction of Edward St Aubyn stripped of the cool silver of its style. I am not accusing St Aubyn of being a bastard; I mean that he writes very well about bastards, and that both their contempt for the world and St Aubyn’s contempt for them find their best expression in a certain kind of intelligent, frozen stylishness. His upper-class snobs, perverts, tyrants, addicts and solipsists speak aphoristically, amusingly, cleverly, disdainfully; and the high polish of St Aubyn’s own prose is almost indistinguishable from theirs. Evelyn Waugh is often invoked by reviewers of St Aubyn, but Jane Austen and Henry James might be equal influences, the Austen and James whose drawing-room performers are in some ways inseparable, stylistically at least, from the authors’ own performances.
In St Aubyn’s world, the upper classes are both as unpleasant and as clever as can be, features which entertainingly strain credulity in different ways; and they tend to talk to each other by playing punning variations on one another’s words. In his new novel, Mother’s Milk, the central character, Patrick Melrose, tries to explain to his old friend Johnny Hall, a psychoanalyst, about his rage and depression, and about their ancient familial sources. ‘I think you can afford to lose control,’ Johnny counsels Patrick, ‘to go into free fall. If the past was going to destroy you it already would have.’ Patrick replies, rather wonderfully: ‘Not necessarily. It might have been waiting for just the right moment. The past has all the time in the world. It’s only the future which is running out.’ Over the course of the next few pages, Patrick, who is unhappily married to Mary, tells Johnny that he is having an affair with his old girlfriend Julia, and wonders what this can mean. ‘Sometimes a woman is just a woman,’ Johnny says. ‘Before you light her up?’ Patrick asks. ‘No, no, that’s a cigar,’ says Johnny. The two men are then joined by Julia:
‘We’ve all been wondering what you’re up to,’ said Julia. ‘Are you baying at the moon, or working out the meaning of life?’
‘Neither,’ said Patrick, ‘there’s too much baying in this valley already, and we worked out the meaning of life years ago: “Walk tall and spit on the graves of your enemies.” Wasn’t that it?’
‘No, no,’ said Johnny. ‘It was “love thy neighbour as thyself.”’
‘Oh, well, given how much I love myself, it amounts to pretty much the same thing.’
‘Oh, darling,’ said Julia, resting her hands on Patrick’s shoulders, ‘are you your own worst enemy?’
‘I certainly hope so,’ said Patrick. ‘I dread to think what would happen if somebody else turned out to be better at it than me.’
There is a fortifying, rather old-fashioned pleasure to be had, as in Henry James, from such consciously worked dialogue, though the hazard of archness is never far away. The effect is sculptural, a solid but always shapely block of exquisite prose, in which the author’s savage, clean-limbed sentences are usually indistinguishable from his characters’. In particular, in St Aubyn’s trilogy of short novels, published under the title Some Hope, and in Mother’s Milk, which now makes a quartet, there is a clear alignment of the author’s way of writing about the world and the way Patrick Melrose explains it. Patrick is almost an authorial stand-in, and the writing, both as compressed thought and as sheer style, is especially powerful when Patrick is taking the burden of his creator’s observations: ‘The truth was that he hated the very rich, especially since he was never going to be one of them. They were all too often only the shrill pea in the whistle of their possessions. Without the editorial influence of the word “afford”, their desires rambled on like unstoppable bores, relentless and whimsical at the same time.’
Patrick is the damaged, scornful victim of his father, David Melrose, ‘descended from Charles II through a prostitute’. Centuries of damp arrest have created the monstrous David: ‘The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing-room onto their land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David’s face.’ Never Mind, the first of St Aubyn’s Melrose quartet, is dominated by David’s sadistic bullying: he forces his wife to eat her food like a dog, on all fours, and sexually abuses his five-year-old son (a suffering excruciatingly well told, as seen from Patrick’s crushed and bewildered viewpoint). Patrick can get no comfort, either, from his mother, Eleanor, a cold, self-conscious, self-absorbed heiress. By the time we join Patrick in the second novel, Bad News, he is in his mid-twenties, is in New York to collect his father’s ashes, and has become a fizzing pill of rage and grief and shame, obsessed with the weight of his twisted past and how to escape it. He is also a drug addict, the fancy kind; he sometimes passes out at the Pierre and sometimes trawls the Lower East Side for smack: ‘His veins were becoming quite shy, but a lucky stab in the bicep, just below his rolled-up sleeve, yielded the gratifying spectacle of a red mushroom cloud uncurling in the barrel of the syringe.’
Each book is different in rhythm and tone. Never Mind, bloody with family suffering, has a claustral intensity (which Mother’s Milk returns to), while St Aubyn’s New York writing, in Bad News, is looser, jauntier, and registers the influence of Martin Amis’s Money. Neither St Aubyn nor his obvious colleague-in-style Alan Hollinghurst is interested in Amis’s jaggy riffs, but here and there the sardonic placement of a perfect, electric adjective or noun, or the ironically self-conscious stoicism of a delicately weighted verb, suggest something of Amis, as in the verb ‘braced’ or the phrase ‘long gauntlet’ in this passage about checking in to the Pierre:
After he had registered, Patrick braced himself to clear as quickly as possible the long gauntlet of welcomes and tips that still lay between him and having a drink in his room. Someone took him to the lift, someone took him up in the lift (that long stale suspense, watching the numbers flicker up to 39), someone showed him how to turn on the television, someone put his suitcase down on the rack, someone pointed out the bathroom light, someone gave him his room key, and, at last, someone brought him a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a black bucket of frail ice cubes, and four glasses.
Some Hope, the last of the trilogy, is different again in tone. As in Henry Green’s Party Going, a group of well-heeled revellers are gathering. It is a largish canvas for a short novel, and St Aubyn nimbly trots between his characters, using free indirect style to drop into their points of view for a paragraph or section. Here are Nicholas Pratt, Kitty Harrow, David Windfall, Johnny Hall (Patrick’s old friend and fellow druggie) and, crowningly, Princess Margaret, who makes a cameo appearance at the party. It is a very funny book, and part of the comedy is cumulative: over the course of the trilogy we have moved from the 1960s to the 1980s, and seen a social class change not a bit. St Aubyn enjoys the repulsive spectacle of so many mediocre reactionaries in one place, but his writing suffers for the enjoyment, and coarsens sometimes into bouncy satire. David Windfall is ‘squeezed into dinner jacket trousers that seemed to strain like sausage skins from the pressure of his thighs’ and looks ‘like a hippopotamus with hypertension’; Aurora Donne’s sniggering laughter is ‘reminiscent of a hyena’, and so on.
What is best in Some Hope is what is always best in St Aubyn: the agony of the Melroses. Patrick, now in his early thirties, has been clean for two years, and is struggling to confess his dark past, and to construct an identity that will not merely replicate his father’s anger: ‘It might not have been obvious to anyone else, but he longed to stop thinking about himself, to stop strip-mining his memories, to stop the introspective and retrospective drift of his thoughts . . . Above all, he wanted to stop being a child without using the cheap disguise of becoming a parent.’ The novel ends in frail optimism, as Patrick throws a symbolic ‘dead branch’ far into the ‘dull grey eye’ of a wintry lake.
But that optimism was indeed frail. In Mother’s Milk, Patrick has become a parent but has not stopped being an angry child. He is now in his early forties, has become a barrister, is married to the selfless Mary, and has two children, Robert and Thomas. Eleanor, Patrick’s mother, has had a stroke, and is immobilised and nearly speechless in a nursing home. But before her decline she was able to stiff her son one last time, by bequeathing the family home in the South of France to a devious New Age Irish shaman, called Seamus Dourke, who will turn the house into something called the Transpersonal Foundation.
Patrick is murderously angry at his mother’s betrayal. But he has plenty else to be angry about, too. He misses drugs: heavy drinking, which he sumptuously does in this novel, is a poor, cloudy substitute for the mystical transparencies of heroin. He and Mary have become mere ‘parental bureaucrats’; they have no sex life, and their emotional life crumbles in the course of the book; by its end, their marriage is in ruins. Mary appears to have transferred her erotic life from her husband to her new son, who is always in the bed with her, a sleeping sword placed between husband and wife. Patrick dreads getting older, and is consumed by nostalgia for his youth: ‘all he could remember was the abundance of sex and the sense of potential greatness, replaced, as his view closed in on the present, by the disappearance of sex and the sense of wasted potential.’ Most of all, he fears ‘the poison dripping from generation to generation’. He is right to be fearful. In early middle age, he has become his father, without the physical sadism. His intelligence sharpens the blade of his awful sarcasm, which expresses itself in long, articulate, prosecutorial rants. The reader never quite tires of him, but does wonder how anyone in his family would stick around with him, the paternal and spousal benefits being decidedly slender.
Mother’s Milk is better than anything St Aubyn has yet done. It wisely forgoes the larger social satire of the earlier books, and the Waugh-like bee-stings that accompany that aristocratic honeycomb, and focuses clingingly on the new Melrose family. The book is told across four summers, from 2000 to 2003, the first three in the South of France, and the last in America. The occasional note of over-fluidity in the earlier writing has been arrested: here everything is compressed and coiled. There are many beautiful phrases and noticings. Eleanor’s nursing home is perfectly conjured in a few phrases about the food – ‘the sweaty grey fish and leaky ratatouille’ – and in this devastating summation: ‘the waiting-room atmosphere in which death was the delayed train’. Mary’s motherly exhaustion is swiftly evoked: ‘She got into bed and was covered by a thin layer of broken rest.’ In New York, the Melroses eat tasteless pizzas ‘as thick as nappies’. Every page carries spry, marvellously sprung sentences, and often the prose rises to a real power of ironic inversion and paradox: ‘There was no better antidote to his enormous sense of futility than the enormous sense of purpose which his children brought to the most obviously futile tasks, such as pouring buckets of seawater into holes in the sand.’
The novel is not without flaws. A note of male self-pity creeps in here and there, as in Michel Houellebecq’s fiction: it is tiresome to be told yet again about the dreadful ache men feel in their forties because hot young girls are no longer interested in them. (But at least St Aubyn, unlike Houellebecq, does not found his entire fictional economy on such sexual chagrin.) The book has two large wobbles in it, and it is a measure of how good the rest is that it twice rights itself. It begins with a section told largely from the viewpoint of Robert, who is five. Robert is a very clever, loathsome little tyke, who runs around doing devastating imitations of the clumsy and crassly vulgar nanny, Margaret, who used to work for a Saudi princess:
‘Oh, money was no object to them,’ Robert went on, with a proud little toss of his head. ‘One day I remarked, you know, quite casually, on how nice the princess’s slippers were, and the next thing I knew there was a pair waiting for me in my bedroom. The same thing happened with the prince’s camera. It was quite embarrassing, actually. Every time I did it, I’d say to myself: “Margaret, you must learn to keep your mouth shut.”’
Robert may be a genius, and is egged on by his admiring parents, but no five-year-old can actually do this kind of thing. And I was never sure that St Aubyn could see how repellent this awful little MacArthur Fellow is. Of course, part of the point is that Robert has faithfully absorbed his father’s rage and sarcasm and sounds exactly like him, so that the poison has indeed dripped from one generation to the next. But because Patrick seems an authorial stand-in, so the ventriloquising Robert seems a second authorial stand-in, and again the novel seems complicit with a vile disdain that St Aubyn surely means to document rather than to enact. Or does he? The first seventy pages of the novel pour scorn, via Robert’s point of view, on the ‘plaintive bulk’ of one nanny, and the foolish vulgarity of another. Seamus Dourke, the Irish New Ager, appears every so often to make a fool of himself, and to get a tongue-lashing from the furious Patrick. (Seamus seems a rather cheap target. Even his name is used against him: Shaman Dork, in effect.) A horridly materialistic and stupid family in Saint-Tropez, whose flabby son, Josh, goes to Robert’s school, is mocked and satirically dismembered. In a rather unconvincing misuse of free indirect style, Robert is forced to watch an idiotic video with the saturnine Josh, and mentally rebels: ‘If he ran away now, they would send out a search party, round him up and entertain him to death. Maybe he could just lie there and think while Josh’s borrowed imagination flickered on the wall.’ This is Robert supposedly thinking, but that nice, fancy adjective ‘borrowed’ can’t possibly be Robert’s: it’s St Aubyn’s. Suddenly, the book feels coercive, and the direction in which we are being coerced is impatiently inhumane, and without the vivifying stringency of St Aubyn’s customary satire.
The fourth section, in which the Melroses go to America, is similarly coercive, and again the problematic conduit is Robert, now eight. St Aubyn can’t help seeing America as a land full of fatties and guns, ‘just people in huge cars wondering what to eat next’, as Patrick memorably puts it. Of course, it is novelistically appropriate that Patrick should be a nightmare in America – snobbish, drunken, rude, and out of his element. Patrick would see there only an ocean of obesity. But, again, when he is so ably backed up by young Robert, the novel itself seems to agree with their perspective. On the plane to New York, Robert sees an obese American family, veritable airbags of flesh. But the fatness is everywhere, it seems: ‘After meeting the Airbags, Robert’s sense of softness spread everywhere. Even the hardness of some of the faces he saw on that warm and waxy arrival afternoon, in the flag-strewn mineral crevasses of midtown Manhattan, looked to him like the embittered softness of betrayed children who had been told to expect everything.’ How convenient, that this super-insightful eight-year-old sees America in this unnaturally mature way.
Fortunately, the funny but crude writing about America subsides, and the real subject, the Melrose despair, once again takes over. It is finally a metaphysical despair, which is why this book is so moving, despite its flaws. Dreading getting older, Patrick also desires and dreads the death of his mother, and the most moving and yet mordant dilemma in the book occurs at its close, when Eleanor seems to ask her son to euthanise her. Genuine compassion for her suffering is mixed in Patrick with a cool joy at finally getting rid of her, which in turn produces a guilty recoil and then a furious reaction: this crushing, unfulfillable request is surely just his mother’s final revenge on her son, he thinks. But does he want her to die? The death of his mother will surely mean that he must once more face his determination to ‘stop being a child without using the cheap disguise of becoming a parent’. Parentless, he will finally be no one’s child, not even a damaged and rejecting one; parentless, he will have to become a true parent, cheap disguise or no. Appropriately, then, the book ends irresolutely: Eleanor changes her mind, and asks her son to ‘do nothing’. Patrick is not released yet.