Discovering — and falling in love with — a new writer is like going to a high school reunion and locking eyes with a handsome stranger across the room as you wonder, was he there all along? Edward St. Aubyn published the first of his Patrick Melrose Novels, Never Mind, in 1992 (I was in my last year of high school then), but I didn’t read him until the winter of this year, when I bought the newly released paperback from Picador in which the first four Patrick Melrose novels are collected in one volume. (The fifth and final book, At Last, was published by FSG this year.) The autobiographical quartet follows Patrick Melrose from his abusive childhood in Never Mind, through his heroin addiction in Bad News and recovery in Some Hope, and in the gorgeous fourth novel, Mother’s Milk, into marriage and fatherhood. Patrick Melrose is the progeny of an aristocratic English family and the novels present a savage portrait of privilege. As James Wood put it in The New Yorker, “Perhaps because he is much more of an aristocratic insider than Wilde or Waugh (the first St. Aubyn baronetcy was created in 1671), he retains no arriviste enamoredness of the upper classes he is supposedly satirizing. On the contrary, his fiction reads like a shriek of filial hatred.”
Aubyn’s prose immediately took my breath away. It’s hilarious and insightful, with a sinister tint and pitch-perfect dialogue. How could I resist razor-sharp passages like this one, from Never Mind, which describes Patrick’s abusive father, David, as he entertains an old friend at the family’s chateau in France:
David held the burning tip of his cigar close to the ants and ran it along both directions as far as he could conveniently reach. The ants twisted, excruciated by the heat, and dropped down onto the terrace. Some, before they fell, reared up, their stitching legs trying helplessly to repair their ruined bodies.
‘What a civilized life you have here,’ Bridget sang out as she sank back into a dark-blue deck chair. Nicholas rolled his eyeballs and wondered why the hell he had told her to make light conversation. To cover the silence, he remarked to David that he had been to Jonathan Croydon’s memorial service the day before.
‘Do you find that you go to more memorial services, or more weddings these days?’ David asked.
‘I still get more wedding invitations, but I find I enjoy the memorials more.’
‘Because you don’t have to bring a present?’
‘Well, that helps a great deal, but mainly because one gets a better crowd when someone really distinguished dies.’
‘Unless all his friends have died before him.’
‘That, of course, is intolerable,’ said Nicholas categorically.
Death hovers over all the novels — Melrose spends much of his life like those ants, trying helplessly to repair his ruined body. St. Aubyn finds the violence in every moment of life. Here’s his stunning description of Patrick’s birth in the opening paragraph of Mother’s Milk:
Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born? Keeping him awake for days, banging his head again and again against a closed cervix; twisting the cord around his throat and throttling him; chomping through his mother’s abdomen with cold shears; clamping his head and wrenching his neck from side to side; dragging him out of his home and hitting him; shining lights in his eyes and doing experiments; taking him away from his mother while she lay on the table, half-dead.
Witness the dark lyricism in “banging his head again and again against a closed cervix.” The repetition of sound as “against” follows “again and again” perfectly captures the futility of the action. In Melrose’s life, unhealthy patterns are repeated again and again, without escape. And “against a closed cervix” offers the tantalizing repetition of “S” sound — so seductive, even though it won’t open to him.
St. Aubyn’s sentences were the best I read this year. And his novels’ psychological tension and profound insight into human nature — he does interiority so well — makes the experience of reading them exquisitely painful. I read the first four novels straight through and then, two months later, read them again. I still haven’t read At Last because I’ve been saving it for the holidays. But I know that I will reread the first four Patrick Melrose novels again and again. I’m addicted to St. Aubyn.
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