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.