Book Review: Edward St Aubyn, At Last
Edward St Aubyn’s At Last is the culmination of the acclaimed Patrick Melrose saga. The aristocratic Melrose first appeared in 1992’s Never Mind as a five-year-old boy sexually abused by his tyrannical father. Later novels have featured him as a 22-year-old, a 30-year-old, and most recently, in Mother’s Milk, a middle-aged man forced to watch his mother abandon her house to a hippy swindler. Melrose’s story, in terms of events, has been slight – he has been a heroin addict, suffered a disastrous marriage and started to come to terms with the abuse he suffered as a child. The real progression has been internal, not surprising because we know that the novels contain large elements of autobiography. The author has admitted that writing them is a form of therapy.
Since Melrose’s emergence, the book market has been flooded with misery memoirs. St Aubyn didn’t even admit that the abuse was based on personal experience until years after the first novel was published. In those pre-James Freydays, publishers felt less need to place vacuous emphasis on literary “authenticity”. St Aubyn once told an interviewer that fiction goes beyond the mere shrill advancement of a complaint or a confession. I’m more interested in the dramatic truth of how something like cruelty occurs.”
And anyway, St Aubyn’s books stood for themselves as works of art. The Patrick Melrose of the earlier novels is a savagely amusing voice, as witty as he is out of control. Despite being a series about child abuse and drug addiction, it is made strangely uplifting by vicious humour. In At Last, we find him at his mother Eleanor’s funeral. Melrose – perhaps St Aubyn, too – has mellowed. The snark is still there, but it’s a good deal more restrained: “Patrick saw that Nancy and Nicholas were planning to approach him again, their instinct for social hierarchy turning a bereaved son into the temporary top dog at his mother’s funeral. He rested a hand on [his mother’s] coffin, forming a secret alliance against misunderstanding.”
It’s cutting little asides like these that, along with the upper-class settings, have led to comparisons with Evelyn Waugh. There are plenty of similarities, but the two writers make use of quite different methods from the modernist catalogue. Where Waugh’s early novels are characterised by his coldly detached, cinematic narrator and regular use of collage, St Aubyn bases his style around a more renowned modernist method – the interior monologue.
It’s an obvious choice: the contrast between public and private is the central source for St Aubyn’s humour, and his major theme is the nature of consciousness. It forms one of the major plot strands, as Patrick comes to a gradual understanding of his mother’s point of view, and what now constitutes his own as a result. The various forms of her guilt are teased out with beautiful subtlety. He envisages her signing away his family’s house (“What a relief. Now I have nothing”). His ex-wife contemplates the abuse Patrick suffered at the hands of his father: “It was common enough to ignore what was seemingly impossible to ignore, but Eleanor stuck to her blindness with an uncommon tenacity.”
It all culminates in a shocking moment of anagnorisis for Patrick: “The deeper truth that he had been a toy in the sadomasochistic relationship between his parents was not, until now, something that he could bear to contemplate.” Patrick’s lack of willingness to acknowledge this realisation in his dialogue adds an extra layer of irony: “Thank you for what you said at the funeral … It’s very helpful to see her from other points of view than the one I’ve been trapped in,” he tells a mourner, with bitter gratitude. And how savage a point of view it is: “Suffocated, dropped, born of rape as well as born to be raped – what did it matter as long as Patrick realised how difficult it had been for her and how far she was from having collaborated with their persecutor”.
As finely realised as Patrick’s examination of his mother’s sensibility is, the skill of the writing involved does serve to highlight some of the novel’s deficiencies. Melrose’s monstrous father loomed over the earlier novels, but with the narrator having come to terms with the abuse, his character and motivations barely receive a mention. However, his presence at the funeral is felt in the attendance of his snobbish friend, Nicholas Best.
Best is a monstrous character, a dissolute old soak whose witty dialogue goes some way toward obscuring the arrogant sense of entitlement that, for Melrose, explained the ease with which his father could abuse his family. His attitudes are paralleled by those of Eleanor’s sister, Nancy. The dialogue involving these characters wouldn’t be out of place in Vile Bodies: “If it’s true, reincarnation is like Alzheimer’s on a huge scale… I know my sister believed in it, but by the time I wanted to ask her why, we forget she really did have Alzheimer’s, and so it would have been tactless, if you know what I’m saying.”
Although these grotesques enliven the novel, their characters have little of the depth that St Aubyn affords his central character. There’s nothing to differentiate between what they say and what they think. Melrose admits that the revelations about his mother are clouded by the subjectivity of perception: “I’m not in charge of the meaning of my mother’s life, and… I’m deluded to think that I can come to some sort of magisterial conclusion about it.”
But little of that empathy is extended to the support cast. Nancy’s thoughts on Eleanor’s cremation, for example, are amusing but unsophisticated: “Why… had she decided to be cremated? Fire was something one insured against. The Egyptians had got it right with the pyramids. What could be cosier than something huge and permanent with all one’s things tucked away inside? (And other people’s things too. Lots and lots of things!)”
The slight disparity between the two styles is never more noticeable than when St Aubyn is stuck in his consciousness theme. He is at his strongest when he approaches it through Melrose’s attempts to surmount the experiences that have affected his sense of being: “His body was a graveyard of buried emotion… the nervous bladder, the spastic colon… all pointed to an anxiety deep enough to disrupt his instincts… Behaviours could be changed… but it was hard to have a dialogue with the somatic habits of infancy.” He finds he is not just dealing with the past, but with the lens through which he perceives the present: “What was the unconscious anyway, as against any other form of memory, and why was it given the sovereignty of a definite article, turning it into a thing and a place when the rest of memory was a faculty and a process?”
It’s strong writing, but St Aubyn offers another view through Erasmus Price, a philosophy lecturer and the man with whom Melrose’s wife has an affair. A recollected scene where, in the face of her denials, he taunts her with a copy of her lover’s book on brain science echoes the bitter humour of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust:
“Seriously though, where do you stand on micro-tubules? Are you For or Against?”
“Oh for God’s sake shut up.”
“Who will rid us of the Explanatory Gap?” he shouted, like Henry II requesting an assassin for his troublesome priest.
It takes skill to pull off little exchanges like this, and like Waugh’s writing, it’s probably based on personal experience. But the character of Erasmus himself is drawn with a clumsiness with which Waugh never was associated. For the most part Erasmus’s internal dialogues serve as little more than a primer in the philosophy of consciousness, a theoretical counterpoint to add weight to Melrose’s musings.
It’s hard to escape such comparisons, so we should take them to their ultimate conclusion. There’s a subtle difference between Waugh and St Aubyn. With some presumption we can say the Melrose series is one of the great interrogations of self. Waugh could never emulate the poetic intensity of St Aubyn’s prose, but if anything it’s his lack of self-awareness and insistent preoccupation with the foibles of others that makes him a better novelist. Assuming St Aubyn has the inclination, it will be fascinating to see what he comes up with now that, demons exorcised, his focus must be other people.
For The National, 2011