At Last is the fifth — and, it’s pretty safe to say, most eagerly awaited — of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels.
At Last is the fifth — and, it’s pretty safe to say, most eagerly awaited — of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. The first three, now called the Some Hope trilogy, took Patrick from an upper-class childhood where he was raped by his father from the age of five, through his understandably drug-addicted youth and on to the nervous beginnings of recovery at 30. Somehow, though, the result was a joy to read: full of dazzling phrase-making, terrific black comedy and stirringly vicious satire on the ghastly inhabitants of Patrick’s privileged world.
Not that this was widely noticed at the time — because when they came out in the 1990s the books earned what’s euphemistically known as ‘a cult following’. But then in 2006 came the unignorably brilliant Mother’s Milk, which reintroduced Patrick in middle age as a disappointed and increasingly drunken husband and father. Perhaps because it added a bit more warmth to the mix, it was both a commercial success and shortlisted for the Booker prize. All of which means that, for the first time, a large number of readers will be approaching a new St Aubyn novel with serious expectations — expectations, I fear, that may not be fully met.
At first, all is well. The opening pages see the welcome reappearance of Pratt, one of the most memorable of the trilogy’s ghastlies. Within minutes, Nicholas has characteristically savaged Picasso (‘that arch fake’), Edward and Mrs Simpson (‘those dimwits, the Windsors’) and his own estranged daughter (‘I blame her therapist, filling her never very brilliant little head with Freudian ideas’). Not far behind is Patrick’s ferociously snobbish Aunt Nancy, who, dwelling as ever on her gilded background, points out that ‘Mummy only had one car accident in her life, but even then, when she was hanging upside down … she had the Infanta of Spain dangling next to her.’
These and other recurring characters have gathered for the funeral of Patrick’s long-widowed mother, where — give or take several back-stories — the action of the novel takes place. As for Patrick himself, he’s now given up the booze, but only after a month in the Priory and the break-up of his marriage. Still, at least he has just achieved his lifelong dream of becoming an orphan.
So far, then, so good for St Aubyn devotees. The trouble is that the longer the book goes on, the more the jokes and raging exuberance give way to chunks of Patrick’s largely humourless psychological introspection:
The sudden absence of the woman who had brought him into the world was a fleeting opportunity to bring something slightly new into the world instead. It was important to be realistic: the present was the top layer of the past; but even something slightly new could be the layer underneath something slightly new.
Admittedly, this did feature in the earlier novels too — but never at such punishing length, or so repetitiously. And once it comes to dominate, there’s no ignoring the fact that St Aubyn simply isn’t as good at it as he is at the more crowd-pleasing stuff. (Think Woody Allen’s ‘serious’ films of the 1970s and 80s.)
The same thing also infects the dialogue. Patrick tells his former mistress:
In a sense I can think about [my mother] clearly for the first time, away from the vortex of an empathy that was neither compassionate nor salutary, but a kind of understudy to her own horror.
Nobody in their right mind would regard Nicholas Pratt as a moral guide. Nonetheless, he might win a few murmurs of assent from readers with his remark that
When the vocabulary of Freudian mumbo-jumbo is emptied onto every conversation, like vinegar onto a newspaper full of sodden chips, some of us choose not to tuck in.
The unsolved (and possibly insoluble) problem, I think, is that what’s good news for Patrick is bad news for us. Two of the projects he sets himself in his quest for mental stability are to rid himself of his addiction to irony, and not to reduce his emotions to aphorisms. Yet, by succeeding, he also ensures that St Aubyn is no longer playing to his strengths. As a result, the effect of Patrick’s transformation is rather like when a roistering friend goes on the wagon: however pleased you are at his progress, you can’t help noticing that he’s a lot less fun.