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.

Eleanor, who is first seen as a scared, befuddled alcoholic, graduates over the course of the novels from being the miserable butt of David’s cruelty to becoming a horror in her own right. Where David, who dies at the beginning of the second book, commits the major crimes – rape and mutilation, for example – Eleanor covers the more subtle forms of torture, such as throwing her energy into children’s charities while failing to protect her own son. More or less ignored in the second and third novels, she becomes the main focus of filial rage in the fourth and fifth as, dying slowly in a nursing home, she comes up with ever more ingenious forms of passive aggression towards her only child. She disinherits Patrick, now a hard-up barrister, in favour of a twinkly, acquisitive Irish shaman who wants to turn the family home in France into his Transpersonal Foundation, and even asks him to do the legal work involved. She then begs him to organise her own euthanasia, and when Patrick, after wrestling with his ‘murderous longings’ towards her, finally has the air ambulance for the Swiss clinic ready and waiting, she cries off. Hence the title of the new novel, and the prevailing mood – of relief and relatively optimistic misery. As Patrick explains to his friend Johnny Hall, ‘I happen to think my mother’s death is the best thing to happen to me since … well, since my father’s death.’

This gruesome story is no doubt given much of its power by the fact that Patrick and his family are portraits from life – ‘uninvented’, as St Aubyn has said. The author was raped by his father, Roger St Aubyn, from the age of five; to an interviewer who suggested that Never Mind was closely based on his own experiences, he replied: ‘Yes. Why not say that?’ The autobiographical details have become part of the backdrop to the novels: St Aubyn becoming a heroin addict at 16 while at Westminster School; attending his Oxford Finals with a Biro filled with heroin, but no working pen; spending his American mother’s family money living in smart hotels and buying large amounts of drugs. Recent interviews suggest that a beloved family home in the Var was indeed signed away by his mother.

Though the first three Melrose novels have long been admired, they were to a large extent ignored by readers and prize committees. In the wake of Mother’s Milk, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker and sold in large numbers, St Aubyn has gone from being unfairly neglected to being perhaps slightly overpraised – at least in the sense that the peculiarities and weaknesses of his work are ignored. Reviewers tend to point out, quite rightly, that his writing is both satirical and moving, tender and heartless, without noticing that the joins between these facets are often very uneven.

One of the pitfalls of writing so well is the temptation to put your fine prose everywhere; and if you are the kind of reader put off by writing that sounds like writing, then you will find much to be put off by in St Aubyn. Most obviously, there’s the strange way that people talk. St Aubyn is of the Shakespearean or Wildean tendency when it comes to dialogue: people deliver themselves of long, elegant speeches, scathing asides and witty aphorisms. On the first page of At Last, Patrick is buttonholed in the crematorium by Nicholas Pratt, an awful friend of his father’s, who says, ‘Surprised to see me?’ and produces a page-long monologue, which begins: ‘I’ve become rather a memorial-creeper. One’s bound to at my age. It’s no use sitting at home guffawing over the ignorant mistakes of juvenile obituarists, or giving in to the rather monotonous pleasure of counting the daily quota of extinct contemporaries.’

This is a besetting feature of all the Melrose novels. Many of the characters speak in exactly the same way: fruitily, at great length, and with many intricate metaphors and similes. This is Johnny Hall on the phone to Patrick in America in Bad News – St Aubynese at its worst, witty in a laboured way without being funny:

I’ve been shooting some really disreputable speed, made by a failed chemistry graduate with a shaking hand and a bottle of hydrochloric acid. It’s the kind that smells of burnt test-tubes when you push the plunger down, and then makes you sneeze compulsively, sending your heart into wild arhythmic flurries reminiscent of the worst passages of Pound’s Cantos.

This, sounding rather similar, is Patrick at the wake in At Last, replying to a friend’s inquiry about how he feels:

I’ve felt a strange mixture of elation and free-fall. There’s something cool and objective about death compared to the savage privacy of dying which my mother’s illness forced me to imagine over the last four years. In a sense I can think about her clearly for the first time, away from the vortex of an empathy that was neither compassionate nor salutary, but a kind of understudy to her own horror.

And Patrick’s speech sounds, in turn, almost identical to the authorial voice.

But then this is really no more than a reflection of the fact that Patrick’s consciousness utterly dominates the cycle. The novels often pose for long periods as detached, amusing social comedies, complete with ghastly aunts, country house parties and an unflattering cameo for Princess Margaret. But at heart they are a fevered psychodrama, following an explicitly therapeutic curve. There is a crucial turning point in the third book, when Patrick tells Johnny Hall what his father did to him; and in the final two, the language of psychotherapy starts to play a crucial role. Though the jargon of self-help is mocked throughout, At Last is explicitly about ‘closure’. It turns on the realisation that Eleanor had not just been ‘the co-victim of David’s tempestuous malice’. The deeper truth, which Patrick can only now bear to contemplate, is that ‘he had been a toy in his parents’ sadomasochistic relationship.’

From the biographical point of view, all this is entirely understandable: the books have the total self-absorption of clinical depression. But in artistic terms the egotism – five books about a man ‘deeply enthralled by his own personality’ – has mixed results. Most of the characters are nightmarish reflections of the parental archetypes, or figures designed to ‘enable’ moments of self-knowledge on Patrick’s part. St Aubyn’s English aristocrats are almost all deeply unpleasant avatars of David Melrose’s ‘pure contempt’ for the morality of the little people. Patrick’s wife, the selfless and nurturing Mary, is more a negative reflection of Eleanor’s maternal failings than an actual character. His sounding-board Johnny Hall even transforms himself from a chaotic drug user to a calm psychologist as the story proceeds, the better to interpret his friend’s moods. St Aubyn has never written anything as good as the first book, Never Mind, not least because Patrick was a boy in the story, and so had to be left out of much of the action, giving oxygen to the other forms of life. Understatement suits St Aubyn, whereas Patrick, with endless internal ranting and his glamorised self-destruction, is brilliant but trying. As St Aubyn says of a character in one of his non-Melrose novels, ‘even his nervous breakdowns and his hysterical tears had something arrogant about them, as if they’d been written by Shakespeare and deserved the closest study.’

In Mother’s Milk, there’s a section in which Patrick describes himself as having ‘utterly chaotic foundations, a quite strongly developed intellect and almost nothing in between’. He is split into ‘the Eagle and the Jellyfish’: ‘a vigilant day mind, a bird of prey hovering over a landscape, and a helpless night mind, a jellyfish splattered on the deck of a ship’. It’s pretty clear who these parts of his mind correspond to. David is the cruel predator, who dispenses the clever sarcasm; Eleanor is the pained, floppy, New Agey one. The divisions run not just through Patrick’s character but through the novels, which are heavily divided against themselves, as they lurch between Waugh-like satire and therapeutic questing. In the new book, at one moment you find St Aubyn mercilessly flaying Gunther, a German banker who ‘collected hideous contemporary art with the haphazard credulity of a man who has friends in the art world’. At the next, you find him articulating deep psychic hurt, while giving the shamanic concept of the ‘power animal’ a surprisingly sympathetic hearing.

Good writing feeds off tensions and contrasts, and obviously Patrick’s tangled inheritance is the major theme of the cycle. But sometimes the tensions unbalance St Aubyn’s fiction. Though deeply intelligent at the level of the sentence, they can be a bit stupid at the level of character and narrative logic. Given that the whole series is a very convincing critique of privilege and snobbery, it’s odd that the books are so often animated by the great pleasure of looking down on people, usually stock characters. His nouveau riche people are irredeemably vulgar; his New Agers are ridiculous ciphers; his Americans are invariably morons. This can be quite funny: America, Patrick thinks at one point in Mother’s Milk, ‘is just people in huge cars wondering what to eat next’. Some of it, though, is awful, one-note stuff. I fear that St Aubyn seriously overrates his talents as a mimic – Americans very seldom say ‘Gee’ these days. The eagle is often given the upper hand for too long, and it sometimes seems that a great talent is wasting itself elaborating stylishly on quite basic prejudices. And the jellyfish is little better: presumably it is responsible for the frequently unrealistic and sentimental portrayal of Patrick’s sons.

Enough carping: there are few enough proper writers around, and you take them as you find them, with all their ragged edges. Suffice it to say, At Last is a fitting conclusion to the Melrose novels. In a thrilling and satisfactory fashion, it amplifies Eleanor’s hopeless narcissism and David’s heinous crimes, the very least of which involves throwing Patrick in the swimming pool before he could swim. Though tending more to wordy abstraction than its predecessors, it features some very witty exchanges, many of St Aubyn’s trademark delicate metaphors, and some excursions into grand lyric poetry. ‘Why should death, of all things, take up so much space?’ Patrick wonders as he drives past the Thames-side cemeteries of south-west London: ‘Better to burn in the hollow blue air than claim a plot on that sunless beach, packed side by side in the bony ground, relying on the clutching roots of trees and flowers for a vague resurrection.’ Most of all, it continues St Aubyn’s great work of analysing

the psychological impact of inherited wealth, the raging desire to get rid of it and the raging desire to hang on to it; the demoralising effect of already having what almost everyone else was sacrificing their precious lives to acquire; the more or less secret superiority and the more or less secret shame of being rich, generating their characteristic disguises: the philanthropy solution, the alcoholic solution, the mask of eccentricity, the search for salvation in perfect taste; the defeated, the idle and the frivolous, and their opponents, the standard-bearers, all living in a world that the dense glitter of alternatives made it hard for love and work to penetrate.