James Wood

  • Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn
    Picador, 279 pp, £12.99, January 2006, ISBN 0 330 43589 2

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.’

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