Monday, September 30, 2019

Never Mind / Bad News / Some Hope - Edward St. Aubyn

The three novels Edward St. Aubyn wrote about "Patrick Melrose" between 1992-94, though they've since been expanded to a quintology, are really three long chapters of the same book. In "Brideshead Revisited" Sebastian Flyte warns Charles Ryder about his family, not wanting them to first charm him, and then destroy him; but any such warning for Patrick Melrose - or for St. Aubyn, whose life they mirror (more of which later) - was impossible, for he was born into this dysfunctional family at the very centre of British aristocratic life. Whereas previous novelists such as Waugh and Anthony Powell, may have written about toff life partly to chronicle a dying breed, St. Aubyn's books are both less obviously explanatory of the millieu in which they are set, and at the same time - taking place throughout the late sixties to the late eighties - accepting of the stubborn survival of a class that Waugh, writing between the wars, might have thought on its way out.

"Never Mind" joins that long line of French chateau novels - from "The Ebony Tower", to "Black Dogs", to "The Pregnant Widow" to "Swimming Home" to "Conversations with Friends" - where the rich go on holiday and "entertain" various friends and acquaintances. Told from a suitable authorial distance, its rich with detail, almost sonorous in its descriptions, but also, wryly funny. But from the off the humour is tinged with darkness. We are with David Melrose, a vituperative upper class man, who, in the absence of money has married into it with his submissive wife. The holiday home is where he made her get on her knees and eat the fallen figs from the floor on one of their first dates. He wanted to abuse her before he married her. Their son is five years old, and has been playing happily with a friend; for Patrick Melrose this is Eden before the fall, and though he doesn't know it this is the end of his too short innocence. The various visitors are there for a variety of reasons - boredom, proximity, or simply because David enjoys the opportunity to be cruel to them in many different ways. They are almost without exception, horrible, and horribly damaged people. It is the late sixties and things are changing - for the rich and the aristocratic it means that sex is more available and less discreet than it was before for instance. An old "friend" of David's, Nicholas, is arriving with his new girlfriend, Bridget, an upward mobile hippy girl, who he is already regretting bringing, but who David will lasciviously paw under the table regardless. The heart of this short novel when it comes is a real shock, for we are back with Patrick, this time with his father, who turns brutish on him for no reason, and suddenly - and for the first time - sexually abuses him. Against the flow of comedy it comes as a shock, but David Melrose is a dreadful man, a mix of failed ambitions and over-entitlement who has married - and it seems had a child - mainly to have some people closer that he can be cruel to.

Taking place around a single dinner party, you see the whole horror of Patrick's family and friends in a single night. It stays in the mind as no ordinary night, because of what his father did.

The second novel sees a twenty something Patrick Melrose on Concorde (echoes of the start of Amis's "Money") heading to America because his father has just died. The intervening years saw the abuse continue; his parents divorce; and David reduce to a bitter shadow; but for Patrick worse was to come, for he inherited millions from his mother's side of the family, and quickly becomes every sort of addict. It is the early eighties (the cultural references throughout the novels are sparse, and sometimes awkward - Talking Heads being referred to as The Talking Heads for instance), and Patrick is spending five thousand dollars a week on drugs. He has a girlfriend - in fact, several - and is Sebastian Flyte made flesh. "Bad News" is to my mind, easily the best of the three books - or the key section of the trilogy-as-novel. Rarely has there been such an unexpurgated tale of heroin addiction and the addict's life; it makes the Motley Crue biography seem almost sedate. Another Patrick, Brett Easton Ellis's Patrick Bateman, comes to mind; for the character here is excessive in everything he does. Senses his heightened by the late flight, and by the emotional charge of knowing his hated father is actually dead, the comedy here is another level than the debut - it's got a mania to it; the New York setting; the movement of Patrick into adulthood; and the gimlet-eyed obsessions of the addict combining. There are scenes where he only just about makes it, or where his own addiction seems less horrifying than the addictions and obsessions of the terrible and terribly rich men who knew his father. The women in the novel are treated terribly; he tries to get off with a friend of his girlfriend, who in a nice twist, can't wait to get away from this monster; but at the end, with his father's ashes in his hotel room prior to his next morning flight out, he goes to the Mudd Club, and picks up a girl who he is disgusted by even as his own focus is purely on his addictions.

In contrast, the third novel, coming two years after the second, is a more sedate affair. Patrick is now clean - though it is his friend who goes to Narcotics Anonymous, not himself. This time its more of a chamber piece: there is a big party in the country, or rather two parties side by side. One at the house of Sonny and Bridget (yes, the Bridget from the first novel, now in her forties and married to a horrible aristocrat whom she has failed to give a male heir), and another just down the road, which Patrick has been invited to. The weekend is taking place, as far as we can tell, for a key birthday party, and the guest of honour is Princess Margaret. Here, St. Aubyn is at his nastiest, rarely can a portrait of a famous person - still alive at the time of the novel - be so beautifully described in all her awfulness. It seems oddly insular though, in some ways. Like Alan Hollinghurst in "The Line of Beauty" there's a frisson about the arrival of the famous in the pages of a fictional work - but whereas the young gay man dancing with Mrs. Thatcher at a party is vignette - here this seems vindictive.

And this is where we are left at the end of the third book - with having to consider what we already know - that these books, though fiction, are based squarely on St. Aubyn's own life, including the abuse, the heroin addiction, and one presumes, what an awful snob Princess Margaret is. But the nastiness is there throughout, particularly against women, and poor people (which seems to mean anyone who is less than titled). What to make of this? Is it satire? Yes, and brilliantly so at times - yet there's something unforgiving about his prose, which whilst sometimes breathtaking, is as likely to be as clunky as the personalities of some of these friends of his fathers. Patrick is part of this "scene" - and its a hermetically sealed one. In the third book, we see a couple of walk on parts from the previous books, and they seem frivolous, unnecessary, but then again, nobody in this world ever entirely walks away from it, or wants to.

I've not seen the recent TV dramatisation of the books, but ironically, what seems a little stodgy at times, can, I imagine also provide a certain timelessness. After all we've lapped up Downton Abbey where the comedy is always of the more sugared variety, and the rich are there to be admired. In St. Aubyn there is literally nothing to be admired about them. Hemingway's reply to Fitzgerald saying, "the rich are different..." with "yes they have more money" comes to mind. The rich in St. Aubyn are titled, landed, and that is what they care about - whereas in Fitzgerald it is the coarseness of new money, here it is the decadence of the old. Being of and from this group, St. Aubyn's hatred is both self preservation from his real traumas, but also at times awkward to swallow; his comedy, highly readable, occasionally slapstick (the French ambassador spilling gravy on Princess Margaret's dress and being made at length to wipe it off), and always acerbic is the tone which keeps the pages turning; but the world is a narrow one, and the concentrated nature of each of the three books, makes it more hermetic still. I look forward to finishing the series; but with a little trepidation.