What do you get when you cross drug addiction and child abuse with the upper class world of an Evelyn Waugh novel?
Why Edward St. Aubyn, the British novelist who I feel more than any other of his generation will stand the test of time.
This is strange for a number of reasons. Firstly, he’s writing about a dying almost irrelevant upper class world that seems completely at odds with the subject matter of a ‘modern’ novel
Secondly, the style in which his books are written owe more to the first half of the twentieth century then the beginning of this one.
And finally, it’s hard to write autobiographical/confessional work without it seeming painfully self-indulgent.
Yet perhaps because St. Aubyn combines to estranged formats together, the confessional and the comic novel of social manners, he creates something truly original
The hero of the novels, if hero is the right word, is the deeply flawed but charming Patrick Melrose. Patrick has been the victim of a vicious father, who amongst other thing sexually assaulted him.
His maltreatment leads to a drug addiction that sees him trawl the streets of 80’s New York for cocaine and heroin in ‘Bad News’.
Here lies the key to the success of the books. The wounded Melrose becomes empathetic. He begins, beneath his cutting remarks and withering disdain for practically everyone not least himself, to think about how to deal with what has happened to him. He also realizes during his Narcotics Anonymous meetings that however comic the notion of people standing up and confessing their addiction is, it’s making him feel.
A writer like Waugh would have just exposed the ridiculousness of such an ‘American’ concept as the 12 step program. St. Aubyn understands, probably first hand its value.
In the wrong hands such material could get rather earnest and sentimental but St. Aubyn uses his gift with the bon mot to undercut any such tendencies brilliantly.
Indeed throughout all of these wonderfully entertaining books there are some staggeringly good one-liners and superb set pieces, notably the dinner party held for the late Princess Margaret in ‘Some Hope’, which is even better than Evelyn Waugh.
I could write much more about these books but I won’t. I would just encourage anyone who has a love of British fiction to get the hold of them.