Feb/Mar 2012

Hope Stings Eternal

Five novels about toxic family dynamics and England's decadent upper crust

Eric Banks


In his debut novel, Never Mind, published in 1992, the English writer Edward St. Aubyn pokes fun at one of his creations, a distinguished philosopher modeled loosely on A. J. Ayer: "Just as a novelist may sometimes wonder why he invents characters who do not exist and makes them do things which do not matter, so a philosopher may wonder why he invents cases that cannot occur in order to determine what must be the case." The slight tone of meta-ness struck here is misleading; there is virtually nothing in Never Mind—or in the four other highly entertaining and often devastatingly dark, devastatingly funny works that make up St. Aubyn's marvelous Patrick Melrose series—that so much as flirts with anything other than the traditional novel. Yet there is an unusual intimacy of author to character in the Melrose saga, and the sense of St. Aubyn's proximity to the nasty toffs encountered in each installment is indeed what gives these books their particular punch. A brew of romans ŕ clef set amid a sparklingly decadent upper-crust English background, the five novels are a mordant portrait of a class that St. Aubyn loathes but is undeniably his own. He is so deft a self-informant of that tribe of titled snobs and landed sadists that one imagines at times he might just as well have dispensed with the names of these novels and issued them under the inspired pair of titles Ayer used for his memoirs: Part of My Life and More of My Life.

While St. Aubyn may lack Ayer's knack for truth in advertising, the titles of his first four Melrose books mirror in an understated economy of words the double-edged tone of their contents—Never Mind, Bad News (1992), Some Hope (1994), and the 2006 Booker-nominated Mother's Milk. The four novels are now being reissued as a single volume in the US to coincide with the American appearance of St. Aubyn's At Last, the series' most recent title, published in 2011 in the UK. The backstory of their creation is not incidental. St. Aubyn confirmed years ago what many had expected. He wasn't dragging his characters around willy-nilly. Like Patrick, he was raped by his father at age five and endured a nearly ten-year stretch of heroin addiction beginning in his late teens. Out of these unspeakable traumas emerged the caustic and exacting series of novels, which amounts to nothing less than one of the great extended treatments in recent memory of the interrelations between family and privilege. In these novels, it is not just mum and dad who fuck you up, but the whole exotic kit and caboodle of deeded life.

Never Mind is set in the mid-1960s on the Melrose estate in Provence, and introduces Patrick at the moment his abuse is about to take a staggeringly awful turn at the hands of his blueblood father, David, a monster whose overcultivated "disdain for vulgarity included the vulgarity of wanting to avoid the appearance of being vulgar"; At Last, written nearly twenty years later, takes place in contemporary London at the funeral services for Patrick's heiress mother, Eleanor, who traded booze for New Age philanthropy and gave the family home away in Mother's Milk to the dubious healing-drum-beating Transpersonal Foundation, dispossessing Patrick. Skipping across four decades and three settings (the South of France, New York, and London), encompassing a vastly shifting range of characters, the novels remain nevertheless single-minded in their target and takeaway. A retrospective passage in At Last provides the longish précis:

The psychological impact of inherited wealth, the raging desire to get rid of it and the raging desire to hang on to it; the demoralizing 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. If these values were in themselves sterile, they looked all the more ridiculous after two generations of disinheritance.

Ridiculous indeed as it may appear from the outside, the view from the inside can seem monolithic. "They're the last Marxists," one character remarks of these 1 percenters in Some Hope. "The last people who believe that class is a total explanation. Long after that doctrine has been abandoned in Moscow and Peking it will continue to flourish under the marquees of England." St. Aubyn is like an ex-Trotskyite naming names. Part of what makes his gleeful act of class treason so remarkable is that it can't but betray the spell his cadre continues to cast over him.

We see just how difficult it is to break that spell across the span of the novels. Reading the first four bundled together and following them with At Last is a bit like gorging on an entire multiseason HBO series in a single DVD sitting, but the effect allows for a rapid and intense introduction to Patrick, the extended dysfunctional Melrose clan, and their various friends and foes. Each of the novels depends on two interrelated concerns. The first centers on Patrick himself, with each book sticking a pin, as it were, into a different moment in his gullied road to recovery. He is an inductee into the terror of parental abuse in the first novel; in the second, a smack-addled twenty-two-year-old who has traveled to New York to retrieve his father's ashes; in the third, a recovering thirty-year-old junkie intent on unburdening his family secret on a trusted friend; and in the fourth, a married fortyish with two young children who is teetering on the edge of alcoholic relapse. In each novel we read a kind of status report on Patrick's progress, one in which his growing desire to come to grips with his legacy and the shadow of maturity does battle with a pathological case of self-loathing, an appetite for sex and self-medication, and an awareness that he too might be a human conduit for what he calls, in Larkin-like tones, "the poison dripping from generation to generation."

The second concern—the icy comedy of manners that St. Aubyn chisels with surgical precision—is obliquely related to the first but seems governed by its own logic, like a semiautonomous state. Bleak as the material may sound, the Melrose novels are modern masterworks of social comedy, and they draw their considerable power from a set of tightly constructed parameters. Each novel leading to Mother's Milk is compressed in a few days' time and comprises a modicum of set pieces that allow St. Aubyn to demonstrate his comic ear and gift for pacing, caustically revealed in waspish dialogue and nuanced detail. In Never Mind, the action winds around a weekend visit to Provence by David's wingman, Nicholas Pratt, and Pratt's younger pothead girlfriend, Bridget, their arrival the run-up to a dinner party in which David and Nicholas will maliciously carve up the guests. Bad News runs similarly through Patrick's long drug-fueled weekend in New York, an orgy of consumption that shoots him like a pinball all over the city, from the Pierre to Alphabet City to the South Bronx to the Mudd Club, scoring, shooting up, rationing his supplies, scoring again, shooting up again, while somehow finding the time amid it all to visit the acquaintances of the father that he despises. Some Hope, too, replicates the structure. It organizes its energies around a country party thrown by the now-middle-aged Bridget, an affair that draws in a gaggle of recurring characters and a new slew of gargoyles, including a wickedly imperious Princess Margaret. The weekend fete is a battlefield of bitchy talk pitched at close range, where there is no weapon more lethal than to pronounce an opponent a bore (short, that is, of ignoring their existence). "There are so many varieties of snobbism," observes the wife of the French ambassador. "One cannot admire all of them." Nicholas quickly concurs: "Snobbery is one of the things one should be most discriminating about."

It was with the fourth novel, Mother's Milk, that St. Aubyn began to envision an expanded view apart from the claustrophobic manors and studied manners of his previous Melrose novels. Set in three consecutive Augusts in the first years of the last decade, the focus pivots from the aftermath of the vicious David to the detritus of the vacuous Eleanor, a stroke sufferer who grows more speechless as the novel progresses. Like Patrick, she too is a victim of David's cruelty; we get a first taste of this in Never Mind, when on an early date with David she acquiesces to his demand that she eat the dinner he has prepared for her off the floor, doggy-style. Yet while David's legacy has left Patrick in a state of neurotic self-absorption, it has turned Eleanor into a permanent absentee, her life devoted to various do-gooder schemes. Having exhausted her inheritance and whatever affection she possessed on establishing a shamanist retreat, she now expects Patrick to take care of her, and toys with the idea of assisted suicide.

But to this persistent sins-of-the-father dynamic, St. Aubyn introduces the fresh presence of children in Mother's Milk, a generational spurt of energy that broadens the reach of his novel, humanizes it in an essential way, and—perhaps ironically—makes the reader less patient with the character of Patrick and his petulant anger. Patrick's wife, Mary, herself suffers from a shitty upbringing, and has avenged herself with "maternal overdrive." Her devotion to their two children—who seem flawless and remarkably fluent, a bit of sentimentality that St. Aubyn doesn't generally succumb to elsewhere—becomes a new irritant for Patrick's own tangled investment in family. As he prepares to lose the mother he already lost as a child, he loses his wife to his adorable kids. (A lesson of Mother's Milk is that, in the fucking-you-up sweepstakes, Larkin got it partially backward.) And the gradual realization of those losses carries its own new threats:

He sometimes had to remind himself that he wasn't an infant any more, to argue that there were real children in the house, not yet horror-trained; he sometimes had to give himself a good talking-to. Nevertheless, he waited in vain for the maturing effects of parenthood. Being surrounded by children only brought him closer to his own childishness. He felt like a man who dreads leaving harbour, knowing that under the deck of his impressive yacht there is only a dirty little twin-stroke engine: fearing and wanting, fearing and wanting.

Mother's Milk closes with the sense that St. Aubyn was growing a bit tired of Patrick's waiting game, and imbued him with the hope, or at least some hope, that maturity might be on the horizon. Whatever the ambivalent and unresolved feeling left at the conclusion of the novel, as Patrick, part altruistically, part homicidally, plans to help his mother end her suffering, it certainly wasn't a question of making characters do things that do not matter.

• • •

Mother's Milk doesn't abandon what made the previous three books so successful; what it does is give the comic-novel edge that coexisted with Patrick's dark autobiography a greater berth and corresponding depth. The conclusive inconclusiveness of Mother's Milk made it appear a fitting end to the Melrose saga. But Eleanor backs out of the suicide solution in Mother's Milk, and St. Aubyn returns to kill her off for good in At Last, a novel that circles back to the more intensive little worlds of the first three Melrose books, reverting to their set-piece focus structured around a pair of events: the funeral and wake of Eleanor. "Surprised to see me?" asks Nicholas Pratt, the ancient snob who is the sole survivor of the cast of Never Mind, in the opening line of At Last. Is the question directed at Patrick, who greets him shuffling across the carpeted floor of the crematorium, or at the reader, who had imagined Patrick at least provisionally liberated from the ghastly accomplices of his past life?

If the rest of the earliest cast is by now departed, At Last invents avatars for several of them, decked out in new clothing. The donnish Ayer figure, who was the mouthpiece for many of the philosophical themes of identity that peppered the earlier titles and whose magnum opus, Being, Knowing, and Judging—"so easily (and yet so wrongly!) confused with its predecessor, Thinking, Knowing, and Judging"—provided a sort of in-joke, finds a counterpart in the woolly-headed "realist philosopher" Erasmus Price. Eleanor herself finds echoes in the presiding figure of Nancy, her American sister, who was a bit player in Mother's Milk. Seamus Dourke, the Irish nurse turned neo-pagan who separated Eleanor from her inheritance in that same novel, is absent, but a blathering acolyte is on hand to quote Maya Angelou on the meaning of life and eulogize the deceased with a passage from the Rig-Veda. As far as the cast is concerned, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Patrick himself is stuck too on the interchangeability of sameness and change. His facetious tone—and the tone of the novel—is too difficult to shake ("the hardest addiction of all . . . forget heroin. Just try giving up irony"). We learn through flashbacks that Patrick has relapsed into another addiction (drink rather than the needle) and passed through another, and more menacing, routine of recovery, again with an uncertain outcome: "Patient endurance of potentially lethal influences had made Patrick the man he was today, living alone in a bedsit, only a year away from his latest visit to the Suicide Observation Room in the Depression Wing of the Priory Hospital." Further flashbacks reveal more harrowing details about David's depravity, but others largely repeat material rehearsed in the previous novels. And while Nicholas attempts his best chin-up-old-boy routine in the face of Patrick's mental, monetary, and marital dissolution ("that side of your family has had a good run. What is it now? Six generations with every single descendant, not just the eldest son, essentially idle"), an unexpected windfall (are there any other kinds?) holds out the deflating promise that Patrick will begin the cycle yet again. There is a lingering sense that we've heard this story before.

"In the end the obligation to talk proved stronger than the desire to die" is how Patrick summarizes his brush with suicide. More than in the previous novels, St. Aubyn pushes his character through the chatty paces, with similar epiphanies, similar bouts of self-loathing, similar swings of letting it all go and resisting the impulse to let it all go. At Last is still a terrific comedy of manners, and St. Aubyn's writing is as elegant and bright as always, but his leading man has become a bit tiresome. Perhaps that was part of St. Aubyn's view all along, and it took this last coda for him finally to hammer home that point to himself and his readers? Maybe in the end the only real way to stanch that generational drip of poison is to become a bore? (Was this what Larkin meant by "get out as early as you can"?) "Were Eleanor and Nancy individuals at all," St. Aubyn asks at one point in At Last, "or were they just part of the characteristic debris of their class and family?" After two decades of probing both sides of the argument, St. Aubyn has left the question lingering marvelously in the air.

Eric Banks is the former editor in chief of Bookforum.

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