Eagle v. Jellyfish

Theo Tait

  • At Last by Edward St Aubyn
    Picador, 266 pp, £16.99, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 330 43590 1

Edward St Aubyn began writing his Patrick Melrose novels in 1988. He finished At Last, the fifth and supposedly final book in the series, late in 2010. St Aubyn is a terrific prose stylist and, end to end, these 800 or so pages, covering more than 40 years, add up to something incontestably grand, the nearest we have today to the great cycles of upper-class English life published in the decades after the war – Dance to the Music of Time or Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour. They combine a distinctive and exotic subject – appalling posh people – with a universal theme: families, and whether people can transcend their origins (answer: no). But where you might expect such a series to be panoramic and full of digressions, the Melrose novels are claustrophobic and obsessively centred on a few deeply felt concerns: cruelty, snobbery, neglect, addiction, inheritance. They feature a large cast of sharply drawn gargoyles but are entirely dominated by three characters: Patrick and his mother and father, Eleanor and David Melrose, two of the great monsters of recent fiction.

The first three books each provided a snapshot of a particular point in Patrick’s life: his miserable, abused childhood in Provence in Never Mind (1992); his miserable, heroin-addicted twenties in Bad News (1992); his miserable, cold-turkey, high-society period in Some Hope (1994). Mother’s Milk (2006), which is longer and richer than the first three, is set over four successive summer holidays and follows his miserable, alcoholic married life – though his misery is now tempered with love for his two young boys and a grudging respect for his wife. At Last, the latest instalment of Patrick’s ‘perpetual crisis’, resembles the first three novels rather than its predecessor, in both its studiedly glib two-word title and its short time-span. It covers one set-piece event: Eleanor’s funeral, and the wake afterwards.

Patrick’s father, David Melrose, is first seen in Never Mind drowning ants with a garden hose in his beautiful French garden. (‘The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David’s face,’ we’re told.) When he tires of killing ants, he fondly reminisces about the early stages of his courtship of his wife, an American heiress, during which he convinced her to eat a dish of stuffed pigeon off the floor without using cutlery or her hands:

‘Like a dog, you mean?’ she asked.

‘Like a girl pretending to be a dog.’

‘But why?’

‘Because I want you to.’

Next, he lifts his five-year-old son Patrick up and tricks him into letting go so that he finds himself dangling in midair by his ears in excruciating pain. This, David explains, has taught him an important lesson: ‘Always think for yourself. Never let other people make important decisions for you.’ Later that day, he rapes Patrick for the first time, and then has some friends round to dinner in order to humiliate them with his clever put-downs.

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