Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose quintet begins with Never Mind, a novel with a child at its centre. It is not until the fourth book in the series, however, that a child speaks with eloquence against the demands of adults. “The theory that it was good for him to spend time with children of his own age, even if he didn’t like them, ground on,” muses Patrick’s son, Robert, early on in Mother’s Milk. “Would his father ask a woman to tea just because she was forty-two?” [MM, pg. 35]
Robert, “the insomniac observation-freak” [pg. 87], isn’t always convincing as a child – in the series’ closing volume, At Last, he is very much in the background, as if St Aubyn has accepted that his character disrupts this one otherwise impeccably believable psychologies of the others. But he is key to the conception the sequence has of the damaging English inheritance of irony and inauthentic verbosity. “What I really loathe,” rants Patrick in Mother’s Milk between bouts of viciously lambasting his own mother for leaving the family’s French villa to a New Age charity, “is the poison dripping from generation to generation.” [MM, pg. 69] In the Melrose series, that poison is as much about language and how it is used to express oneself as it is about unforgivable trespasses or impossible prejudice.
Never Mind, despite the defeated inarticulacy of its infant Patrick, is a remarkably supple novel – the child abuse at its dark heart (Patrick is raped by his father from the age of three until around eight) is dealt with unfalteringly but also almost gently, and yet, though it acts as the novel’s centre of gravity, it never overcomes the novel’s other events. Indeed, it’s hypocritical dinner parties, its guest list of the droll but decadent Nicholas Pratt and the self-regarding ‘public intellectual’ Victor Eisen, are depicted – are skewered – in pared-down prose of the barest poetry. It is almost as if Never Mind is an attempt to be eloquent without committing the English aristocratic sin of grandiloquence:
Eleanor [Patrick’s mother] had watched her mother’s persecution with the same vivid silence as she experienced in the face of her own gradual disintegration tonight. Although she was not a cruel person, she remembered being helpless with laughter watching her stepfather, by then suffering from Parkinson’s disease, lift a forkful of peas, only to find the fork empty by the time it reached his mouth.Yet she had never told him how much she hated him. [NM, pp. 171]
Eleanor will be haunted by this cruelty towards the end of her life – in the final two novels, she is trapped, by stroke and Alzheimer’s, in an entirely mute cocoon, stowed by her family in nursing homes. Only Patrick’s passively saintly wife, Mary, has any time for her, but even then, “Eleanor’s betrayal of the maternal instinct that ruled Mary’s own life formed an absolute barrier to the liking she could feel for her” [At Last, pg. 85]. These barriers are everywhere – not least in the ignorance of everyone but Eleanor and Patrick’s father, who has died by the opening of the second book, Bad News, that their son was “rape-born”. That is, all power of human sympathy, all achievements of eloquence or insight, are powerless against the secrets of the past.
Secrets, of course, are the consequence of the inability to tell the truth. In Bad News, Patrick flies to America to collect the ashes of his hated father – but is in the very depths of addiction to almost every substance, and most especially heroin. The public schooling in rhetoric he and his fellow members of England’s highest echelons have enjoyed (in the third book, Some Hope, Patrick attends a Cotswolds party with Princess Margaret) has left Patrick so wittily loquacious that he literally composes multi-participant conversations out loud and by himself. When he visits the only character from Never Mind who was in any way motivated by his best interests, however, he tells her nothing of his trouble: “It’s sweet of you,” he placates her when she offers him a safe place to rest, “but I really can’t take too many strangers at the moment.” [BN, pg. 43]
The crimes of David’s father – a frustrated man who channels his own sense of failure into sadistic power plays aimed at those who seem to love him most – colour Patrick’s life indelibly. They leave him just as uncertain as his sociopathic father had been in honest dealings with other human beings: at one point in Bad News, he reflects on “the horror which assailed him when he was asked to consider another person’s feelings” [pg. 46]; he spends the entire novel hiding from people and from emotions – including his own – and descending further into a drugged-up stupour. “How could he ever hope to give up drugs?” he despairs at one point. “They filled him with such intense emotion.” [pg. 21] Genuine emotion is precisely, of course, what Patrick is otherwise without – or at least, what he cannot allow himself to feel.
Instead, he cultivates the same dandyish language as Nicholas Pratt, the dinner guest from Never Mind who enables Patrick’s father by being so clearly in awe of him. Pratt reappears, perhaps a tad too neatly, in At Last, arriving at the funeral of Patrick’s mother in a startling burst of wordplay:
“Surprised to see me?” said Nicholas Pratt, planting his walking stick on the crematorium carpet and fixing Patrick with a look of slightly aimless defiance, a habit no longer useful but too late to change. “I’ve become rather a memorial-creeper. One’s bound to at my age. It’s no use sitting at home guffawing over the ignorant mistakes of juvenile obituartists, or giving in to the rather monotonous pleasure of counting the daily quota of extinct contemporaries. No! One has to “celebrate the life”: there goes the school tart. They say he had a good war, but I know better! – that sort of thing, put the whole achievement in perspective. Mind you, I’m not saying it isn’t all very moving.” [AL, pg. 1]
This goes on for some pages, and is talk devoid, of course, of all sincerity. It is in this context that Robert’s keen eye and way with words becomes so concerning – he is ingesting his father’s coping strategies, mellowed by age (Patrick greets fatherhood by adopting alcohol rather than smack), but still destructive. He is aware, when in the presence of his father, that “he wasn’t being communicated with, but allowed to listen to his father practising speeches” [MM, pg. 212] – and has begun to adopt this false means of communication. St Aubyn’s series is in dread of this English habit.
The hilarious satire of Some Hope, in which the pretensions of the upper class are exploded from within – “‘The Queen was saying only the other day that London property prices are so high that she doesn’t know how she’d cope without Buckingham Palace,’ Princess Margaret explained” [pg. 145] – is held in perfect balance with Patrick’s emerging sense of his own failure to face up to the literal sins of his father. When, in a fusty Cotswolds hotel, he tries to share his trauma with his best friend, a fellow Narcotics Anonymous graduate (and future psychoanalyst), he is struck, at last, dumb: “After having watched Patrick drawl his way fluently through every crisis, Johnny was shocked at seeing him unable to speak.” [SH, pg. 143] Patrick’s eloquence, of course, is mere glibness – called upon to speak of substance, it evaporates.
St Aubyn at first imagined Some Hope as a closure to the Melrose sequence, but the understanding Patrick achieves in that novel is so partial as to make the eventual emergence of Mother’s Milk unsurprising in retrospect. Nevertheless, with that mix of broadest comedy and profoundest sadness, it stands for the series as a whole: St Aubyn’s achievement is to make simply beautiful prose – readable but pregnant, unadorned by allusive – out of the ugliest of human behaviour. The awful gentleness of Never Mind – “He could not understand what form of punishment was now taking, but he knew that his father must be very angry with him to be hurting him so much” [pg. 101] – is of a precise piece with the tragicomic balance of Some Hope: St Aubyn has crafted a piece of extended literature quite brilliantly alive to the effect of language, to the way in which it is used to obscure meaning, the manner in which it can be used even when describing the most egregious horror to entertain and enliven.
Unlike St Aubyn, however, Patrick is not in control of how he chooses to use language. St Aubyn has deliberately deployed his eloquence to reflect and explore difficult subject matter. Melrose, who is St Aubyn’s alter ego, uses it by reflex as an avoidance technique. He is trapped by his own wit, which is itself a means of circling rather than piercing. “What instrument could he use to set himself free? Disdain? Aggression? Hatred? They were all contaminated by his father, the very thing he needed to free himself from.” [BN, pg. 68] Melrose becomes convinced that “detachment not appeasement” will set him free [SH, pg. 195], that “you have to invent yourself again to become an individual” [BN, pg. 100]. In fact, the key seems to lie in accommodation, in conversation – At Last ends with a less partial resolution, with Patrick resolving that, “He was going to change his mind.” [pg. 264] He does so simply by going to dinner with his family.
Despite this deceptively easy solution, the Melrose sequence concludes with a unique sense of having earned its own significance. These are five novels consciously embedded in the tradition of the English literary novel – all country homes and upper class concerns, somehow quaint even when bumming a bag in Brooklyn – and it is undoubtedly a limited project, narrowly focused on the narrowest of social classes. But it is aware of its prison, and it depicts not just the effects of this narrowness, but the way in which it encodes itself. By doing so, it opens out the form it presumes to inhabit – its prose style is emphatically aware of the limitations of the mode, and uses them to empower and embody the novels’ themes. St Aubyn is, ultimately, endorsing communion and community – which can at times be achieved best not by talking, but by listening. Though his progress towards this ideal is halting and fragmentary, Patrick defines his soul as “the part of him which was not dominated by the need to talk” [SH, pg. 208]; the Melrose sequence is a remarkable exploration of how language can be used both – and simultaneously – as a route to self-knowledge and as a retreat from it.