A year or so ago, having encountered descriptions of it as a prose masterpiece and potential modern classic, I raced through the five largely autobiographical Patrick Melrose Novels, now collected in a single edition, and found myself responding with tremendous excitement and pleasure. The novels concern the title character’s harrowing struggles with drug addiction, mental illness and pervasive, life-destroying cynicism, all the result of a shattering sexual trauma that both the fictional Melrose and its author Edward St. Aubyn himself experienced as a child, and while the subject matter hardly seems conducive to pleasure, this bitter comedy of manners takes the reader on a sordid, stylish, disturbing, funny and profound moral journey.
At one point in this pentalogy, there’s a relatively mundane moment when a heavily drugged-up Melrose is descending in a “sluggish, airless” elevator and emerges onto the pavement, where he makes note of “the shock of standing again under the wide pale sky, completely exposed. This must be what the oyster feels when the lemon juice falls.”
A clever and slightly surreal if quotidian observation, and yet indicative of St. Aubyn’s methods, in which every moment counts and in which every one of Melrose’s thoughts and actions are saturated, as they must be for him and as they are for everyone, by the unconsciously absorbed experiences of early childhood. For Melrose, like St. Aubyn, had an aristocratic sociopath of a father who picked him up by his ears when he was five years old and, shortly thereafter, raped him. The oyster — naked, tender, vulnerable and violated — thus is a “symbol”, though only in the sense that everything Melrose sees is doused in acid.
Melrose’s mother did nothing to protect him from this childhood abuse, which continued until he was eight, and instead childishly retreats into a world of New Age-y nonsense; as St. Aubyn said in an interview with The Telegraph, referring to his own mother and quoting T.S. Eliot, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Not incidentally, Melrose’s mother was herself raped by her husband, and Patrick, accordingly, is not only a victim of rape, but the product of it.
Eliot’s statement, from his Four Quartets, is one of the most salient observations about human nature imaginable; who among us can stare the fundamental awfulness of reality in its face, even if it may be less frightening and ugly than the version experienced by Melrose and evaded by his mother? That is why most contemporary novels resort to fantasy, gimmickry, political correctness, identity politics, therapeutic mumbo jumbo or wishful thinking.
St. Aubyn takes a different approach, and a more honorable one, unblinkingly following Melrose through his adult life as he staggers from one humiliating disaster to another. True, Melrose employs irony and wit to keep reality (and his truly egregious upper-class friends and relatives) at bay, but that irony is not only all too transparent but actually serves to magnify his misery by disengaging him from his feelings. There are no easy resolutions or pat homilies here, even when the boogeyman ceases to exist; at one point, St. Aubyn notes that “in the eight years since his father’s death, Patrick’s youth had slipped away without being replaced by any signs of maturity, unless the tendency for sadness and exhaustion to eclipse hatred and insanity could be called ‘mature.’ The sense of multiplying alternatives and bifurcating paths had been replaced by a quayside desolation, contemplating the long list of missed boats.”
So we follow Melrose through the deaths of his parents, loathsome dinner parties and charity events, severe drug addiction, marriage, adultery (also “severe”), the loss of his family inheritance, and child rearing, but we’re always, as readers, going somewhere, even if that somewhere is sometimes the toilet (where Melrose does the majority of his drug-taking). But gradually, over time, as Melrose raises his own children, both he and we begin to realize that he has “transcended his ancestral muddle and offered his children unhaunted love.” This is, put simply, a beautiful moment.
That’s not giving away too much about the plot, for Melrose’s story is St. Aubyn’s own, and in his own public accounts, he attempted suicide once and had planned a second, successful attempt if he were unable to complete and publish the first novel in the series, Never Mind. The existence of Never Mind and the other four volumes (St. Aubyn has also published several other novels) is some sort of proof that while there are no pat answers, there are, sometimes, answers; that reality can at times in the direst of circumstances be squarely faced; and that things, before they eventually get entirely worse as they must for everyone, sometimes do get better.
A final note: As you might imagine, five novels in one volume make for a pretty hefty slab, but St. Aubyn is compulsively readable, even when the subject matter is a funeral or, even worse, a dinner party. In one of the volumes, Melrose is given a big, heavy book as a gift, and he reflects, “he liked slim books which he could slip into his overcoat pocket and leave there unread for months. What was the point of a book if you couldn’t carry it around with you as a theoretical defence against boredom?” This book, though certainly a very real defense against boredom, will not fit in any overcoat and will not, once started, go unread.