Splendor and Wreckage

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BOOKS MARCH 20, 2012

Splendor and Wreckage

At Last
by Edward St. Aubyn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 266 pp., $25

EDWARD ST. AUBYN’S characters are a gallery of maladjusted freaks, each one held up as further proof of the impossibility of being an adequate, let alone worthwhile, person. St. Aubyn has based five of his seven novels around Patrick Melrose, a semi-autobiographical protagonist, and the sociopaths, depressives, addicts, and grotesques he encounters in upper-class English society from infancy to his fifties. “Worthiness” in St Aubyn is measured in two senses. One is the perceived social value of a character, as judged by their equally insecure peers; how long their family has been landed gentry, whether they have ever “married down,” how many successive generations have managed not to work for a living. “You know it’s not fair to ask me about work,” Patrick reprimands a friend in the third Melrose novel, Some Hope, as he nears his thirtieth birthday, only just beginning to consider a career as a barrister. St Aubyn continues: “His decision to study the law had got him as far as hiring Twelve Angry Men from a video shop.”

The other sense of worthwhile, judged in biting prose by the omniscient narrator, and by Patrick, whose thoughts are most often channeled, is how far you manage to avoid doing harm to others. Patrick is well placed to comment on deliberately inflicted injury; his father David raped his mother Eleanor to conceive him, and then proceeds to do the same to his son from the age of five onward. In St. Aubyn’s first book, the dryly titled Never Mind, David’s indifference to his son’s suffering is unflinchingly described. During a leisurely lunch after the first time he abuses Patrick at their summer home in Provence, David muses that “‘the experience itself had been short and brutish, but not altogether nasty. He smiled at Yvette, said how ravenous he was, and helped himself to the brochette of lamb and flageolets.’” This is an extreme example of how St. Aubyn juxtaposes luxury and pain, highlighting the absurdity of refinement in the context of suffering, as well as the dark comedy that he ekes from such scenes.

In subsequent books the central harm inflicted is most often that which Patrick does to himself, spending his twenties as a trust-fund drug addict. The period of decline that the reader witnesses directly is Patrick’s trip to New York to pick up his father’s ashes, as well as some Quaaludes, speed, and heroin. While most of St. Aubyn is comparable to Waugh at his snarkiest, the New York episode is reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis in its descriptions of a compulsive over-eater and socialite wearing silk tourniquets as fashion statements. At Last echoes Bad News in that it also takes place immediately after a parent’s death, in this case, Patrick’s mother’s: “I think my mother’s death is the best thing to happen to me since … well, since my father’s death.” But At Last has little of the fury of Bad News. It is very much an epilogue, as a resigned but not quite defeated Patrick considers the burdensome legacy, both financial and emotional, of his family, and whether he has escaped its very worst effects.

Eleanor Melrose is overshadowed in Patrick’s consciousness by his father, but later comes under scrutiny for the harm she allowed inflicted on her son, how her passivity and masochism colluded with David’s cruelty. Her particular type of denial becomes a principal theme of the last two Melrose books, Mother’s Milk and At Last, which takes place at Eleanor’s funeral. The narrative switches between the inner monologues of the guests at the funeral service. Nancy, Eleanor’s sister, inwardly despairs at the funeral’s lack of pomp, mourning the wealth and true privilege from which she and Eleanor were disinherited, the kind of background where her mother could “buy the entire village street that ran along the boundary wall of the Pavillon Colombe, in order to demolish it and expand the garden.” Nancy’s fond memories of her family’s “splendour and wreckage” explain some of the roots of Eleanor’s frantic philanthropy, a drive to give away money and affection which excludes her child and grandchildren.

Nancy’s greed and Eleanor’s unthinking, indiscriminate generosity become part of a larger question about determinacy: how much do a parent’s priorities and flaws set the tone for the next generation? One of the most skilfully realized aspects of the Melrose saga is how each installment believably ages its central and even peripheral characters, weaving in their verbal tics and long-running obsessions, showing how time draws out and amplifies their worst traits. Nicholas Pratt, a friend of Patrick’s father, makes cameos in every Melrose novel, and comes to stand for upper class complacency and intransigence. In At Last, Patrick remembers Nicholas from his traumatizing childhood summers “making venomous conversation under the plane trees in Saint-Nazaire.” Nicholas was so thankful that Patrick’s father is free of “middle-class prudery” that he fails to acknowledge his sickness, becoming progressively more obtuse and pompous with each decade. By the end of his life, and his appearance in At Last, Nicholas is a self-parody, interested in little more than recycling old bon mots, informing Patrick briskly that his dementia suffering mother’s death was a “merciful release.”

St Aubyn’s skill with characterization, his dissection of how a personality warps, settles, or improves over time, is nowhere more evident than in his aging of Patrick, whose mood and mental state are a gauge for the tone of each novel. In the two novels that began the Melrose saga, there is a constant underlying sense of dread and threat, as Patrick is at his most disturbed and destructive. The works are excellent satires of a certain social strata, and of human manners generally, with a memorable one-liner every paragraph or so; but there is no redemption to be found, and they are almost entirely devoid of warmth, or any kind of comforting (or even ambivalent) conclusions about humanity. Every character encountered seems grasping, lost, or deluded, all “subtly perverted by slick and lazy English manners, the craving of the prophylactic of irony, the terrible fear of being ‘a bore,’ and the boredom of the ways they relentlessly and narrowly avoided this fate.”

The point at which St. Aubyn’s work rises above the limits of cleverly phrased nihilism is at the beginning of Mother’s Milk, the penultimate book of the saga, when Patrick becomes a father. Patrick’s sons are mirrors of their father as a child; sensitive, precocious, keenly aware of injustice. But they are also happy and excitable, charming conversationalists even as infants; models of what Patrick could have been. Patrick’s love for his children, while hardly healing a psyche which will never be entirely at rest or free from self-disgust, gives Mother’s Milk and particularly At Last depth and substance. There is an especially moving passage in At Last when Patrick resolves to tell Robert, his eldest son, a limited amount about David’s cruelty, describing an incident where the latter threw three year old Patrick into the swimming pool. “‘That’s so horrible,’” [Robert] said. “‘I mean, a three-year-old would think he was dying. In fact, you could have died,’ he added, giving Patrick a reassuring hug, as if he sensed that the threat was not completely over. Robert’s empathy overwhelmed Patrick with the reality of what he had taken to be a relatively innocuous anecdote.”

David’s abuse, as well as Eleanor’s collusion, are thrown into relief by Patrick’s parenthood. They also allow his response to yet another realization of the horror of his upbringing to be something other than “want[ing] to leave, to drink, to dive out of the window into a pool made of his own blood” as it would have been twenty years earlier. While certain aspects of Patrick’s character continue on—his womanising, his trauma, his addictive tendencies—they are in At Last not all defining.

“I’m deluded to think that I can come to some magisterial conclusion about it,” Patrick says of his parents’ deaths. But he can construct a meaning for his own existence which eluded them; loving a child unconditionally, and becoming better for it. At Last is far less dramatic than any previous Melrose book, although the humor and perfectly observed dialogue remain. Its calm is entirely suited to the wisdom Patrick Melrose has painfully, finally earned.

Victoria Beale has written for The New York Times, The Economist, and The Guardian.

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