Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Patrick Melrose Novels, So Painful, So Funny. . .

I haven't only been reading mysteries recently, although I've been lucky enough to have borrowed a number of good ones from the library these past several weeks.

I've also read the first four Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, pointed towards them by a friend whose recommendations I always trust, and perhaps especially motivated by her telling me that BernardBenedict Cumberbatch will be playing the protagonist in the upcoming Sky Atlantic/Showtime series. I read these four -- Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk -- in a special edition that bound them together; I have yet to read the final volume in the series, At Last.  I wonder what it might have been like to have read each novel as it was published,  what the effect might have been to close that rather slim (just over 200 pages) first book with its arch, aphoristic, stylish wit which shockingly manages to describe too precisely the details of a young boy's rape by his father. Then to learn, through the various interviews surrounding the novel's publication, that the fiction was disturbingly autobiographical.

As it was, reading the four bound together, I went from that strange mix of the dense and the dark and stylish and the aphoristic directly into the next book, jumping forward to see the young boy, not so shockingly, I suppose, become a heroin addict. A heroin addict with enough funds to cushion himself from the full depredations of that addiction. Again, the stylishness of the writing mesmerizes, gruesome details of needles and veins and dangers ignored in desperation for the next fix, the out-of-control behaviour of an addict who imagines himself to be in control.

And it's not that the writing is merely stylish in its prosody, its word choice, its rhythms. It's stylish also in its content, in the knowingness, the aptitude of its observations about this privileged class of 1960s England, for a start. If it merely sneered, that might be entertaining enough, but there's something so disarming about the blend of intimacy and distancing that the writing effects. It shares the intimacy of such close observation, but even as the writer lets us see Patrick Melrose seeing, there's something of that young boy we met at the beginning that sticks. There's something about looking and mirrors and cloaking that is wound right into the aphoristic style. The gleeful grabbing for a pen to copy down yet another amusingly worded skewering is arrested often by the reader's awareness of the trauma that has saturated Patrick's life.

I know that some of you will not want to read any book that includes such a traumatic event, and I can understand that. And yet there are so many delightful moments, so much sheer fun, in the novels. Hard to believe if you haven't read them, and hard to explain even though I have, but wait until you meet Patrick's precocious children -- their brilliant and delightful laying-out of the terrain between innocence and experience.  Or until you read of Princess Margaret as an honoured guest at a dinner party, the table full of sycophants -- she does not come off as any more appealing than the sycophants, and if you were inclined to admire her or pity her after watching The Crown, you might feel less so after this depiction.

This, of course, is an absolutely inadequate response to St. Aubyn's work in this series, and I can only excuse myself by saying that I'd rather read than write, and that there are so many clever, professional reviews of the books out there already. I will mention, before closing, that I haven't seen this series compared yet to Elena Ferrante's or Karl Knausgaard's series, but all three blur the lines between fiction and autobiography, all three draw long narrative arcs of a protagonist in a family context against while revealing something about the social and/or political national culture (Whoops! I did a bit of Googling after I wrote that last sentence, and I found this article on Serial Storytelling in the 21st Century, by NYU's Karen Hornick.)

If you're at all intrigued, you might want to read Mick Brown's review of the series and interview with St. Aubyn in this 2014 Telegraph article. I hope some of you may have read the books already and/or that some of you will read them now, so that we might chat about them a bit. I've requested At Last from the library, but I think I'll end up buying my own copies of at least some of the volumes,  simply because there are so many sentences, paragraphs, whole sections that I want to read aloud to others (my poor family! the travails of living with a passionate reader ;-)

8 comments:

  1. What a wonderful post on these novellas. That dinner party with Princess Margaret is waspishly hilariously described as you say. They are books about cruelty and about humanity. They remind me a bit of Waugh or Anthony Powel but with much more bite. Brenda

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    1. That's spot-on, Brenda: "They are books about cruelty and about humanity." At once. Thanks very much for pointing them out to me.

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  2. Thank you. Excellent description and review. Your thoughts concerning a comparison of St. Aubyn's series with Ferrante's or Knausgaard's are of particular interest to me. I'll read your links. (BTW, I think you are referring to Benedict Cumberbatch rather than Bernard, when you name the actor appearing in the Melrose series.)

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    1. Thanks for that catching that error -- of course you're right, and I've changed "Bernard" to "Benedict."

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  3. Thank you Mater for the enlightening review and introduction to Edward St. Aubyn's books. Wondering if I'm the only on who had not heard nor read any of his books. I ordered the Melrose series from Amazon, the five in one book edition. I look forward to reading all the books although it's going to be a hard read. The savagery of what was done, to a very young child. Not that it can be condoned at any age. I can't stop thinking about what he told Mick Brown, quoting only half a sentence from a full paragraph "...to publish a book or commit suicide". Thank goodness he published "the book". Thank you.
    ~Amelia (aka am)

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    1. Amelia, I hadn't heard of them either until Brenda mentioned them. Hard to keep up with all the good writing out there.
      I'll be curious to see what you think. The stylish writing and the abundant droll wit will help you deflect the pain, I think, although it's clearly there alongside.

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  4. Turning suffering into pieces of art....how painful
    Even reading Mick Brown's article was overwhelming and poignant,living such an agony....
    It is interesting,I have Anita Desai's Inheritance Of Loss on my bedside table ,ready to read
    I will read St. Aubyn eventually-it seems brilliant through your review, and I respect your recommendations
    Dottoressa

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    1. Sorry I'm late to respond, Dottoressa.
      I know you will appreciate these novels, and they're much more entertaining than you could imagine, given the horror at their core.

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