Archive for the ‘St. Aubyn, Edward (2)’ Category

Mother’s Milk, by Edward St. Aubyn

July 9, 2011

Purchased from

Welcome to stop two of my three-stage “catch-up” on the life of Patrick Melrose and the work of Edward St. Aubyn. As I indicated in my review a few months ago of Some Hope, the trilogy of short novels that introduces readers to Patrick Melrose, St. Aubyn’s story (the first volume was published in 1992) had escaped my attention. The latest (and one assumes final) part, At Last, is attracting much Booker speculation this summer — readers whom I respect urged me to read the earlier volumes first. The experience has been more than worthwhile; I’ll finally get to At Last in a few weeks but I recommend reading them all.

Perhaps what most struck me about Mother’s Milk is how different it is from the three volumes of Some Hope. I know that is an unconventional way of opening a review of volume two of a trilogy, but the impression is so strong that I can’t resist. The Patrick Melrose of those first volumes is dissolute in the extreme. St. Aubyn introduces him as a child being abused, moving on to describe a country weekend where his parents entertain some truly vapid friends. As a young adult, Patrick turns to alcohol and drugs; a trip to New York to pick up his deceased father’s ashes provides the excuse for an escapade in chemical indulgence that, for me, was reminiscent of John Self in Martin Amis’ Money.

So it was with some surprise that I read the opening of Mother’s Milk, a description of Patrick’s son, Robert, emerging from the womb (“Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born?” is the novel’s opening sentence). The babe’s adult-like perceptiveness continues in an observation of an exchange between nurse and mother:

Then the nurse looked at Robert and he locked on to her blue eyes in the heaving dimness.

“He’s very alert. He’s really checked me out.”

“He is going to be all right, isn’t he?” said his mother, suddenly terrified.

Suddenly Robert was terrified too. They were not together in the way they used to be, but they still had their helplessness in common. They had been washed up on a wild shore. Too tired to crawl up on the beach, they could only loll in the roar and the dazzle of being there. He had to face facts though: they had been separated. He understood now that his mother already had been on the outside. For her this wild shore was a new role, for him it was a new world.

Okay, a newborn, literally only minutes old, is not only incapable of making those kinds of observations, he could not even see the nurse — if you want an author who sticks to the “real”, you’ll want to give St. Aubyn a wide berth. On the other hand, if you are willing to grant licence to substantial diversions from reality, St. Aubyn rewards that by using them to heighten the perceptiveness of his observations not just of the Melroses, but the upper-class world around them.

Robert represents generation three of the family; the abusive elder Melrose may be long dead but his widow is still around, living at the French estate where we first met Patrick in Some Hope. A few pages into this novel, Robert is five years old with a new brother added to the family — he is still precociously perceptive and provides the bridge between the generations that is the central concern of this novel:

His brother was probably floating right now in Robert’s old crib. The grown-ups didn’t know what to make of floating. That was the trouble with grown-ups: they always wanted to be the center of attention, with their battering rams of food, and their sleep routines, and their obsession with making you learn what they knew and forget what they had forgotten. Robert dreaded sleep. He might miss something: a beach of yellow beads, or grasshopper wings like sparks flying from his feet as he crunched through the dry grass.

He loved it down here at his grandmother’s house. His family only came once a year, but they had been every year since he was born. Her house was a Transpersonal Foundation. He didn’t really know what that was, and nobody else seemed to know either, even Seamus Drake who ran it.

“Your grandmother is a wonderful woman,” he had told Robert, looking at him with dimly twinkling eyes. “She’s helped a lot of people to connect.”

“With what?” asked Robert.

“With the other reality.”

There is an undertone of “selfishness” in that exchange, which introduces a trait that is common to all members of the Melrose family and their acquaintances. For a child like Robert, it is just fine since he is learning life’s early lessons — although he already has an ability to do imitations that amuses his parents greatly. And we know from the first volume that selfishness is a foundation element of Patrick’s character, although in this volume the chemical abuse has been replaced with an equal obsession about being a repressed son and husband, the prison of being the “in-between” generation. Robert’s mother, Mary, has the trait in spades as well — with the new baby, she has devoted herself entirely to motherhood and effectively abandoned her husband.

Perhaps the most selfish of all in this novel, however, is Patrick’s mother, Eleanor. A victim in the first novels, in this book she becomes the victimizer with her decision to bequeath the family estate and wealth to the Transpersonal Foundation led Seamus, who trained as a nurse with Irsh National Health but has been adopted by her as a guru for her declining years, despite his obvious self-serving charlatanism.

Patrick was not a sympathetic character in his youth but he becomes one in this book. While he cannot completely overcome his own selfishness, at least here it is devoted to trying to preserve the family estate from the clutches of Seamus and his own mother’s version of self-serving behavior. Alas, his own history has so deeply ingrained the trait (evidenced by the fact that an old flame, Julia, and her daughter are annual visitors to the estate — something his wife hates, but Robert likes) that he is hapless at altruism, even if the motivation is there.

All of this makes Mother’s Milk an intriguing book. While every character is deeply-flawed, the author uses that to establish a depth of dimension that makes each of them credible. And with that in place, their interactions and inevitable conflicts introduce a distinctive version of “reality” that is both entertaining and instructive.

Mother’s Milk was Booker-shortlisted in 2006 — and deservedly so. I’d like to offer my thanks to Will Rycroft from Just William’s Luck who in a comment on my review of Some Hope convinced me that I should read this novel before opening At Last. It was time well-invested and, after a few weeks of rest (Patrick Melrose is both a demanding and depressing character so I need the break), I will be approaching the new novel with some anticipation. Patrick Melrose is one of those multi-novel characters (like Nathan Zuckerman and Rabbit Angstrom) who are special attractions in the world of fiction.

(A note for North American visitors here: Mother’s Milk shows up as “sold out” on NA online sites — I ended up buying an unread new copy from used bookseller Alibris. If you click on the cover image at the top of the review, it will take you to the UK Book Depository site where copies are available — it is worth the effort to get a copy of this very good novel.)


Some Hope, a trilogy by Edward St. Aubyn

May 5, 2011

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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