"A raid on the inarticulate".
The above quote belongs to T. S. Eliot who wrote this aphorism in the second part of his infamous Quartets, titled East Coker, in order to define the essence of the writing process. This little phrase caught the attention and subsequently became a life motto for Edward St. Aubyn, the English author of the Patrick Melrose quintet, five novels of high literary standing and considered to be on the forefront of the most eminent British fiction writings of the last decades. The protagonist Patrick Melrose, a troubled man who have suffered sexual abuse from his sadistic father as a little kid and lost himself in a hazy world of drugs from his adolescence all the way to his thirties, is the author's alter-ego and the most prominent characters of the books such as Patrick's father, David, and mother, Eleanor, are based on St. Aubyn's real-life parents. Thus, the series as a whole could be deemed an auto-biography, but the author's literary penchant for "compression and by the desire to create 'vivid and intense and non-boring' fiction, left out much of the process that helped him survive in midlife" as we read in "Inherit: How Edward St. Aubyn made literature from a poisoned legacy", an erudite article on St. Aubyn's life and work published in the New Yorker in May 26, 2014 and written by Ian Parker. The books deal with the themes of trauma, the therapeutic process, and the capacity for redemption, all issues that tormented St. Aubyn's mind and soul throughout his life, but his insistence to be a proper literary author prompted him to omit some parts that would perhaps spoil a smooth narrative or compromise the fluidity of his prose.
Edward St. Aubyn was the son of Roger and Lorna St. Aubyn and at the outset of his life suffered horrid sexual abuse in the hands of his own father that lasted for more than four years and left him deeply scarred for several decades, attempting to find solace in using heroin as a means of escape and in order to intercept his persistent suicidal thoughts that accompanied him throughout his youth. St. Aubyn has stated that heroin in fact saved his life as it became "the perfect halfway house between living and suicide" (Radiotimes.com), a bold declaration by a man who is not especially keen on public speaking and whose words should be treated with respect as his harsh life made him all the wiser and one of the most appreciated English authors of our era. Nevertheless, it was the actual practice of writing that mostly helped young Edward to overcome his addiction issues. In the www.radiotimes.com feature titled "The Real Patrick Melrose", the author, David Sexton, argues that St. Aubyn's series "don't just tell the story of how he survived such an upbringing; the very act of writing them was itself patently part of how he made it through" (Radiotimes.com). The English author was dyslexic as a child and this fact marked his attitude toward reading and writing and In an interview that he gave, he said that it "affected my prose style (...) I became very interested in the sound of words, and the rhythm of sentences, because it took me so long to get to the end of them" (New Yorker). Even though his relationship with heroin began in the tender age of 16, St. Aubyn studied in Oxford after two years of crawling the shady streets of New York and Paris, staying in posh hotels and succumbing to his need for hard drugs. This period of his life is the setting for the story featured in the second installment of the series, Bad News.
1988 marked the last time that St. Aubyn used heroin and also the beginning of his life as a writer, as it was in the same year that he started working on the first volume of the Patrick Melrose saga, Never Mind. For more than a year he experienced a severe type of writer's block and he couldn't get past the first chapter. It was then that he made a pact with himself: "Either I write a novel that I finish and get published, and is authentic, or I'll kill myself" (Radiotimes.com). This bizarre dilemma reinforced his commitment and in 1992, Never Mind was published. The second book, Bad News, was also published in the same year while the third, Some Hope, came out in 1994. Patrick Melrose's story was originally intended to be a trilogy, but St. Aubyn rebounded a dozen of years later and delivered the fourth installment, Mother's Milk. In this book we follow Patrick, who has cleaned up his act and is drug-free at the moment, attending a social gathering in which more than one repulsive guests taint the evening with their crude manners. The novel was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2006 and is written in a slightly different style compared to its prequels or as St. Aubyn puts it there was "a cruelty in the voice of the first three books but not in Mother's Milk" (New Yorker). It is worth noting that in one of his most recent outings, Lost for Words, published in 2014, St. Aubyn caustically satirizes the institution of literary prizes in a hilarious way, certainly influenced by his brief brush with the celebrity-obsessed culture of awards.
As I already mentioned, Never Mind is the introductory chapter in Patrick Melrose's life story and in this novel the protagonist is a little kid of five years old, living in a farmhouse built on a slope in Southern France along with his mother and father. David Melrose, is the archetype of the tyrannical, sadistic patriarch who never misses a chance to humiliate and manipulate those around him for the sheer pleasure of it. The lack of intimacy which David experienced as a kid from his father, an army general who would never let himself be empathetic to a child, was replicated and the son surpassed his father's viciousness, a feat that is no small accomplishment David is a trained doctor who never practiced medicine, especially after his lucrative marriage with Eleanor, an opulent American heir of a vast fortune and the source of money for the whole Melrose family. David's twisted relationship with her is only outweighed by his sick behavior toward his offspring, little Patrick, which is beyond reproach as he often demeans and beats him while in the course of the evening during which the action of the novel takes place, he will take a step forward and sexually molest his only son. I found the description of the assault to be particularly fascinating as we perceive the abominable actions committed by David through the inner eye of Patrick who spots a lizard on the wall and frantically tries to trade bodies with it so as to be spared of the pain and profound embarrassment that he feels.
Nevertheless, the main focus character-wise is on David and St. Aubyn builds slowly the image of a disturbed, conceited man who strenuously exhibits what is coined as "snobbery of contempt", thus "an assumption that those outside your circle can be treated as if not fully human" (New Yorker). His sadistic propensity is evident not only in action such as the rape of Patrick, but also in every bit of conversation that he has with others. He is always degrading and ridiculing those called his friends like the two couples that are invited for a dinner in the Melrose chateau, Nicholas and Bridget as well as Victor and Anne. We learn more about David and Eleanor's characters through the dialogues between the couples as they are approaching the house for the party. Nicholas and Victor have known David for a long while and they have more than one spicy stories to tell about their evening's host. The story about Eleanor and the fig tree demonstrates colorfully David's knack for cruel behavior toward his family and also shines a light in the uneven relationship dynamics in the Melrose household. Eleanor lives under David's shadow, never daring to stand up to him, even when she feels that his demeanor is provocative and extravagant. Unfortunately, it is this trait that impedes her form acknowledging the terrifying reality of her son's abuse by his father. Thus, she becomes in a way complicit to the crime exactly as St. Aubyn's mother, Lorna, denied that her son had been despoiled by her husband, Roger. The similarities between David and Roger are striking and St. Aubyn has said about his father: "His sadism was emboldened by a sense of social grandeur, and the pleasure he took in ignoring convention" (New Yorker). This character description is befitting to David Melrose whose blasé and superior attitude render him one of the most despicable characters in contemporary fiction.
St. Aubyn's prose is grand and the novel oozes sickness and depravity brought forth by the brilliant descriptions of the characters' inner state of mind and soul as well as through the potent dialogue parts which culminate in the dinner scene, the "heart" of the story and the point in which each of the protagonists is revealed for who he truly is. We, as the readers, can only marvel at the level of cynicism and barely concealed hostility that permeates the interplay and we root for those who seem to suffer the malevolence of the major players in the table, mainly David's. The utterance of remarks such as "vice is nice but incest is best" bring chills to our spines as we reminisce the last encounter of Patrick and David. Anne and Bridget, the most "innocent" members of the group futilely try to bring some sense to the discussion which is apocalyptic concerning the principles embraced by David, for example in regard to the education of minors. He summarizes his view as follows: "The preposition I want to make (...) is that education should be something of which a child can later say: if I survived that, I can survive anything". The complete lack of respect for childhood and its chastity is further reinforced by some brutish comments by Nicholas whose only care in the world seems to be that he is in David's books. David's persona terrifies all those around him and in a moment of admirable literary lucidity, the author makes a comment about David's use of the piano, which he played from an early age aspiring someday to compose music, as a weapon: "he could turn the piano on them like a machine gun and concentrate a hostility into his music that made them long for the more conventional unkindness of his conversation".
Never Mind is a harrowing story about the torment of a little child in the hands of those who are supposed to love and protect him. Little Patrick has been turned into a toy used in the anomalous relationship between his parents. The consequences of the rape will haunt Patrick for the rest of his childhood, adolescence, and early youth, always struggling to achieve an equilibrium between conscious thought and instinctive impulse. It is intriguing to read an author who essentially tells his own story, a "misery memoir" as some critics label chronicles of tough childhood, through the use of the norms of fiction prose. The final result is a text brimming with raw power and conveying a sense of truthfulness to the reader which becomes explainable when one learns a bit more about Edward St. Aubyn. The novels had become topical with the release of the 2018 Patrick Melrose television series by Showtime, directed by Edward Berger and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick. There are five episodes each corresponding to the titular novel, though there is an inversion in the chronological order of the first two parts, thus Bad News (#2) is the first episode while Never Mind (#1) the second. The show is exceptional in every possible way and Cumberbatch proves to be an ideal fit for the role. It almost seems like he was born to play Patrick and in his face we can always discerning the immense inner conflicts of the character. Every quality fiction reader who has a knack for morose stories with problematic characters and inventive narrative techniques. Of course, those who will watch the show will get a more than satisfying impression of the novels' mood and tone. I hate to say that I've just learned about Edward St. Aubyn but after reading this book, he instantly became one of the authors to respect and look out for. Next in line, Bad News.
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