Slightly feverish, coughing like Mimi in La Boheme, I am so exhausted I just want to close my eyes and drift off to sleep – instead, I keep on turning the pages, promising myself it will be only one more chapter before I switch the light off – in less than three days, I have devoured the first of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Where has this man been all my life and why, only now, after a media blitz in the States for his latest “At Last”, have I come to know him? Here are some of the quotations on the Picador re-issue of Mr. St. Aubyn’s first four Patrick Melrose novels:
“Tantalizing…..a memorable tour de force” The NY Times Book Review
“The most brilliant English novelist of his generation” Alan Hollinghurst
“Our purest living prose stylist” The Guardian
“Perversely funny” People
I could go on but I won’t. None of it is an exaggeration. From the first page of the first book, Never Mind, the reader can’t help being drawn into the precise and caustic prose, littered with some of the best metaphors since Nabokov. Part Evelyn Waugh, part Kingsley Amis, Mr. St. Aubyn is a breed unto himself.
It would be too easy to read the adventures of Patrick Melrose, from childhood to middle age, as purely autobiographical. Mr. St. Aubyn, like his character, was born into that stratum of elitist society that can’t be replicated in any other culture – that British stiff upper class still abiding by anachronistic rules, holding on to riches or the appearance of them and closing ranks to any outsiders trying to bulge in. Like Patrick, Mr. St. Aubyn was raped by his father in childhood (not a spoiler as this piece of information is fed early in the first book) and, subsequently, falls prey to addiction. It would be easy to identify the Melrose parents as stand-ins for Mr. St. Aubuyn’s parents and, by his own admission, he did start writing to extricate himself from his personal demons.
Even if some of the material is drawn from the author’s personal closet, what comes across from these spectacular books, is the acute power of observation of a society and of the individuals who populate it. The not so veiled criticism the books convey, the wit, the mordant dialogue somehow pale in comparison with the flawless sentences, some of them so good I had to go back over and over and re-read them multiple times. Despite the difficulty of some of the material, the pleasure of the writing flawlessly transforms itself in the pleasure of the reading.
Nothing much happens in the books. One or two seminal events and the rest is character study much richer in information than it is at first apparent. But do not be put off by the lack of intricate plots. The subject matter itself is a guilty pleasure, a sort of Downton Abbey for our days, observed with eyes wide open. Halfway through book three, I am still wondering how I let twenty years pass without brushing against these gems which I am trying to savour slowly. It would be too easy to fall prey to gluttony, the only deterrent being that, like all the best books, I don’t want them to end.