Some Hope, a trilogy by Edward St. Aubyn

Purchased from Abebooks

Forewarned is forearmed: this is a “catch-up” post. Earlier this year when participants at a number of book sites were looking at possible Booker Prize contenders for 2011, Edward St. Aubyn’s At Last was frequently mentioned. The author says it concludes the story of Patrick Melrose, begun with the trilogy of this volume (Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992), Some Hope (1994)) and continued in the Booker-listed Mother’s Milk (2006). I had not read any of the four so getting started seemed like a good idea. At Last was released this week (you can read a couple early reviews at The Asylum and Just William’s Luck) and I will get to it in the forthcoming weeks. If, like me, you haven’t already started on the Patrick Melrose story, here’s a look at the opening volumes.

St. Aubyn is often compared to Evelyn Waugh — both not only observe the English gentry in their writing, they came from it (not without some damage). So, while the trilogy under discussion here may be Patrick’s story, he is the child of his parents and their class — and it is worth taking a bit of time to see how they are introduced. Here’s his mother, Eleanor, contemplating her car:

Globules of translucent resin were stuck to the Buick’s bonnet. One splash of resin with a dead pine needle inside it was glued to the base of the windscreen. She tried to pick it off, but only smeared the windscreen more and made the tips of her fingers sticky. She wanted to get into the car very much, but she went on scratching compulsively at the resin, blackening her fingernails. The reason that Eleanor liked her Buick so much was that David never drove it, or even sat in it. She owned the house and the land, she paid for the servants and the drink, but only this car was really in her possession.

Doctor David Melrose has already been introduced to us, bulllying the servant at the family’s Provence estate, so that observation about Eleanor’s powerlessness comes as no real surprise. St. Aubyn expands on the relationship a few paragraphs later:

There had been a time when she admired the way that David became a doctor. When he had told his father of his intentions, General Melrose had immediately cut off his annuity, preferring to use the money to rear pheasants. Shooting men and animals were the occupations of a gentleman, tending their wounds the business of middle-class quacks. That was the General’s view, and he was able to enjoy more shooting as a consequence of holding it. General Melrose did not find it difficult to treat his son coldly.

The doctor is his father’s son and he models that parental behavior — a few pages later, he humiliates five-year-old Patrick by picking him up by his ears. It is a game that he has played before and Patrick knows to hang on to his father’s wrists:

His father still held him dangling in the air. “You’ve learned something very useful today,” he said. “Always think for yourself. Never let other people make important decisions for you.”

“Please let go,” said Patrick. “Please.” He felt that he was going to cry, but he pushed back his sense of desperation. His arms were exhausted, but if he relaxed them he felt as if his ears were going to be torn off, like the gold foil from a pot of cream, just ripped off the side of his head.

The abuse of young Patrick will get worse, but it is only one of the threads in the opening volume of the trilogy. Indeed, most of the narrative of this volume is devoted to a study of the class to which the family Melrose belongs, in the form of a gathering at the Provence estate. Guests include the despicable Norman Pratt and his empty-headed wife, Bridget; the philosopher, Sir Victor Eisen, and his wife, Anne Moore (a former New York Times reporter); and an acquaintance of Victor’s, Vijay Shah, who has the advantage of wealth if not birth. These are empty, decadent people and, in the final analysis, living examples of evil.

That cast gives St. Aubyn ample opportunity for critical assessment — like Waugh, the result has frequent moments of black humor. St. Aubyn was born to this class, experienced similar abuse and responded with drug addiction. This opening volume is devoted to examining the environment that produced Patrick — it should come as no surprise that he too turns to drugs for his escape.

That addiction is at the centre of volume two, Bad News. David Melrose has died suddenly in New York and Patrick is flying in (on the Concorde) to collect his ashes:

The thought that had obsessed him the night before cut into his trance. It was intolerable: his father had cheated him again. The bastard had deprived him of the chance to transform his ancient terror and his unwilling admiration into contemptuous pity for the boring and toothless old man he had become. And yet Patrick found himself sucked toward his father’s death by a stronger habit of emulation than he could reasonably bear. Death was always, of course, a temptation, but now it seemed like a temptation to obey. On top of its power to strike a decadent or defiant posture in the endless vaudeville of youth, on top of the familiar lure of raw violence and self-destruction, it had taken on the aspect of conformity, like going into the family business. Really, it had all the options covered.

Attempts at self-destruction are ever-present in Bad News; Patrick indulges in a smorgasbord of coke, heroin, uppers and downers, washed down with copious amounts of alcohol. If Never Mind was reminiscent of Waugh, Bad News is more like the story of John Self in Martin Amis’ Money, a relentless pursuit of substance-based escape that only produces more complications. The book ends up with Patrick headed to the airport and the flight home (although he has had to send the bellman back up to the room for the box containing his father’s ashes since he forget to bring them). The volume is depressing and exhausting throughout — that should be treated as a description, not a criticism.

In Some Hope, set eight years after Bad News, the adult Patrick has moved into full membership in his class. As the book opens, he is contemplating a schedule of dinners and parties, none of which he is enthusiastic about:

Perhaps all of his problems arose from using the wrong vocabulary, he thought, with a brief flush of excitement that enabled him to throw aside the bedcovers and contemplate getting up. He moved in a world in which the word “charity”, like a beautiful woman shadowed by her jealous husband, was invariably qualified by the words “lunch”, “committee”, or “ball”. “Compassion” nobody had any time for, whereas “leniency” made frequent appearances in the form of complaints about short prison sentences. Still, he knew that his difficulties were more fundamental than that.

Patrick’s father may be gone, but his world isn’t. Nicholas Pratt is still on hand, having arranged an invitation to an up-scale party at Chealey: “No need to thank me for getting you invited to this glittering occassion tonight. I owe it to your dear Papa to see that you get into the swim of things.”

As the novel’s title implies, volume three is somewhat less depressing. St. Aubyn introduces a new group of Patrick’s contemporaries, although they are every bit as vapid and decadent as his father’s — and Pratt is present throughout the book to serve as a destructive guiding force.

I have done the author some disservice by attempting to outline the narrative thread. As depressing as it is (and this trilogy is definitely not a “fun” read), it does provide a platform for some bitingly acrid observations about what goes on in this class. St. Aubyn is a gifted writer — I hope the quotes that I have chosen illustrate that (he is an author who demands a lot of quotes, I must say).

I am now ready to move on to At Last — yes, I probably should read Mother’s Milk next to keep the chronology intact, but the appeal of the new book simply is too attractive. I’ll let you know in a couple of weeks if that turned out to be the right choice.

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25 Responses to “Some Hope, a trilogy by Edward St. Aubyn”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Well, happy St. Aubyn day! I’m feeling very out of the loop, here, waking up to find three of the best bloggers talking about one author — an author I haven’t read yet!

    However, I do have this trilogy on hand, and like you I’ll be playing catch up (only even more so now) at some point in the next few months. Consequently, I’ve avoided most of your review here. Still, a handy reminder to get reading St. Aubyn at last.

  2. William Rycroft Says:

    Thanks for the mention Kevin and really pleased to see you getting some St Aubyn under your belt. Now I may be too late for this already and guilty of hypocrisy to boot (having read Mother’s Milk first, gone back to Some Hope, before finishing with At Last) but I will implore you to read Mother’s Milk next rather than jump to At Last. Not only will that keep chronology intact but the development of writing style, themes and approach. I really think it will make a difference. Plus, Mother’s Milk is brilliant. Please….!

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    A very useful retrospective Kevin. I’ve not read any St. Aubyn so reading reviews of the last of a tetratology wasn’t nearly as useful to me as this (not knocking William and John’s excellent reviews, I just was a bit too late to the party to really have much to add by way of comment).

    Are there any standalone St. Aubyn’s worth checking out or is his best work this pentalogy?

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I forgot to add, looking at the UK cover and matching that to the choice of the third book’s title as the title for the collected edition it seems to me that in the UK it’s being marketed almost as a misery memoir. I’m not sure that’s wise. Fans of that genre will probably find the writing too highbrow. Fans of serious writing tend not to like misery memoirs. For me it’ll be one for the kindle partly for those reasons.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Will: I can see your argument, but I still think I’ll read At Last next. Then again, maybe not. I’ll think about it for a couple of days. :-)

    Max: I figured that I wasn’t alone in not having read St. Aubyn and some people would find an opinion on the trilogy useful, with the most recent book attracting all the attention. He has not had much exposure in North America (this trilogy is out of print, as is Monther’s Milk although quite a few used copies are available). As for the “trilogy” aspect, I found the volume to be much more a novel in three parts than a conventional trilogy. Yes, there is time separation between the three (and they are quite short — just over 100 pages each), but the story does flow in a novel-like fashion. I did find the cover on my version strange — a playhouse has nothing to do with the story and doesn’t even figure metaphorically. The only reference I can make (and it is a major stretch) would be the idea that the book is like a play or opera in three acts.

    This is the first St. Aubyn that I have read so I can’t comment on any of his other work.

  6. Sweet Fanny Adams Says:

    Kevin, you have not done the author a disservice with your review, it is – like all your reviews – excellent and has inspired me to read these books.
    Thanks.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Fanny — St. Aubyn may not be an easy read, but he is a rewarding one.

    • Sweet Fanny Adams Says:

      Yes, not one to let the grass grow, I’ve ordered it already so thanks again for the recommendation.

  8. kimbofo Says:

    I read this trilogy back in 2006 (review here http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/authors-edward-st-aubyn/ ) and remember enjoying it very much. I thought the second novel was an outstanding depiction of what it must be like to be wrecked/dependent on drugs. I have a copy of Mother’s Milk, so must read it at some point, before moving onto this year’s At Last.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I’m starting to think that Will is right and I should read Mother’s Milk first. I’ve ordered a copy so now the question will be which arrives first and how much will power I have. :-)

    The answer to that latter issue, when it comes to books, is virtually none.

  10. John Self Says:

    In response to Max, St Aubyn has written two non-Melrose books, On the Edge and A Clue to the Exit. Both have their moments (I recall one line about fat people in a health club who “exclusively wore sportswear but looked as though they would have a difficult time getting out of a soft chair”), but neither matches up to the Melrose books, or comes even close in my opinion.

    I will take this opportunity to copy and paste a comment I made about the titles of the trilogy on Palimpsest:

    A word about the titles. I just love them. Never Mind. Bad News. Some Hope. Their stark, bare, blankness mixed with tiny ambiguities – like the names of exhibits at a modish art exhibition – makes me chuckle just to look at them. Never Mind sums up the coolly distant narrative voice, glossing over the horrors which David Melrose inflicts on his ‘loved’ ones. Bad News speaks literally of the central piece of information in the second book – that David Melrose has died – but ironically, because for his son Patrick, now 22 years old, it is very good news indeed. It is also reflective of Patrick himself, walking bad news if ever there was. Some Hope, finally, is a deliciously simple but subtle double-entendre, a rolled-eyes dismissal of the possibility of anything good coming from the contents of Never Mind and Bad News – but also a good-hearted acknowledgement of the existence of that possibility, however small. Not very much hope, then, but some hope nonetheless. Just wonderful. It’s a shame then that in the omnibus edition, these superb, perfect titles are reduced mostly to the status of chapter headings.

    I think At Last carries on this titular tradition, where Mother’s Milk didn’t quite.

    Also I think it’s worth reiterating that although Kevin describes these books as depressing and not a ‘fun’ read, my abiding memory of them – and it is five years ago – is of the delight in the language on every single page. That, for me, utterly overwhelms the subject matter, as it does again in At Last.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    JS: I must admit that the language (which is excellent) does not overtake the power of the (depressing) plot for me — this project for me is much more about story than it is about language. And, yes, sometimes “depressing” stories and “non-fun” reads are relevant — indeed, most of the world’s best literature shares those characteristics. I would still argue that this project is about story, not style.

    I agree with your point about the titles, but I would submit that the volumes in Some Hope are a single work, not a trilogy in the sense that I would accept. We meet a character at three different points in his life and each of these scenarios is very well-developed. The titles are not just nice, they are very appropriate — as sub-titles they are equally effective.

    Will’s plea has pretty much convinced me that I should read Mother’s Milk before trying At Last. If it gets here in time.

  12. John Self Says:

    It would certainly be interesting to know St Aubyn’s intentions in relation to the first three books. It’s hard to get clear information after all this time, but according to Amazon (not necessarily a reliable source, of course), Never Mind and Bad News were published, in separate hardback volumes, on the same date in 1992. Some Hope (the individual volume, not the trilogy) was published in 1994. I suspect that Amazon has the date for Bad News wrong, as 1993 would make more sense: one slim volume per year, then deafening silence.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: The copyright page on my edition (Open City Books, New York) says that Never Mind and Bad News were published by Heinemann in the UK in 1992, followed by Some Hope in 1994. The three-volume collection was published by Vintage in 1998 — I think that was also his North American debut, but can’t really tell.

    It is only speculation on my part, but I have to wonder if St. Aubyn isn’t one of those authors who has agent/publisher issues (a modern John Fante, if you will). Despite his writing achievement, my only option for Some Hope was used sources. And when Will convinced me to read Mother’s Milk before the new book, I discovered it is out of print in North America — even more depressing was that most of the used copies were libraries de-acquisitioning, always a sign that the book is not being read. That’s incredible for a Booker-short-listed book from only five years ago.

    It does strike me that the Patrick Melrose books do deserve a “group” printing, like Highsmith’s Ripley novels or the Alexandrine quartet. Maybe someone at the Folio Society could consider it?

  14. Guy Savage Says:

    Thanks Kevin. I want to read this.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I think it is worth planning on reading all five. St. Aubyn is “noir” in a different kind of way.

  16. Guy Savage Says:

    I’ll have to start with this one too. As you know–noir anything….

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: If you do buy the trilogy, it comes in three parts (about 120 pages each). I would say that leaving some space between the parts is a good idea (I didn’t) — each third is a one-night read and leaving some space would have an advantage (I think).

  18. Guy Savage Says:

    Just bought Some Hope. I was a bit confused about the trilogy sequence as there are the individual editions too (high priced though). So you think should take a short break between each bit, then, even though it comes in the one volume?

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: The three parts do flow — and I would tend to describe the “trilogy” as a novel in three parts. Having said that, the parts are quite different (three views at the same lump of coal, I’d say) and, if I had it to do over again, I would have left a few days contemplation before picking up the next section.

    Given the “noir” festival that you are on, that should not be a problem. Read a section, move on to a “noir” book and then come back to another section. I’ll be interested in seeing how St. Aubyn compares to Jim Thompson, if you do choose to explore that option.

  20. Guy Savage Says:

    I’m on my third Thompson: A Swell-Looking Babe and this one is a lot more complex than it first appears.

    Do you like short stories?

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I probably read more short stories than most bloggers (it is a form that Canadians have been good at — Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod, just for a start). I tend to prefer collections rather than magazine one-offs (Trevor certainly reads more than I do with his New Yorker project — I get to the New Yorker stories eventually, but it tends to be five or six at a time). I’ve never figured out a disciplined way to approach them — I read the whole volume right through (which is not fair to the author). I’m thinking I should create a dedicated “shelf”; read one or two from three or four different collections.

  22. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I just saw the last few comments here. The tips on how to read it are very useful. I really wasn’t sure with this one when I get it how much space to put between them. The few days sounds eminently doable and it could be interspersed with some light crime or short stories.

    Helpful stuff Kevin. Thanks as ever.

  23. Lisa Jones Dobbs Says:

    I have found it difficult to locate hardback books of this series. I could not find Bad News for under $500 so had to buy paperback. Even so, it came from UK and I had to wait two weeks between Never Mind and Bad News. I love these books and am wondering if anyone knows of a source for them in US or even reasonably priced hardback versions. I already have At Last in hardback since it was recently published. I just think if more people knew about St Aubyn, he would become popular in the US and we could solve this problem!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Lisa: Sorry, I can’t help — my experience is the same as yours and the only hardback one I have is At Last. Picador finally published a paperback collection of the first four last year, but St Aubyn continues to be hard to find in North America.

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