There has always been a tendency — especially pronounced among those of a conservative disposition — to scorn the cultural works of the present. At its least dyspeptic it declares, “They don’t write songs like that anymore.” At its worst it sweeps aside everything from modernism onwards. Of course there is something to be said for this. When given a contemporary novel it is generally best to read a classic you haven’t got around to instead. But something is not everything.
Time is required to do the sifting. Yet very occasionally something comes along that can be judged worthwhile. For the last few years, when I have met people who too gleefully dismiss the modern novel, I ask whether they have read Edward St. Aubyn. Since this is the year that the author’s most celebrated novels will come to our television screens, it may also be the year that more people begin to answer “Yes.”
It is now just past a quarter of a century since the novelist (born in 1960) published Never Mind, the first of his Patrick Melrose novels. Set during a holiday in the south of France, it describes the life of a wealthy English family and its circle, dominated by a deeply unhappy, thwarted father — David — who when not locked alone with a piano revels in a sadism that is shocking not just in its detail but for the lack of provocation with which it is presented. David enjoys humiliating his richer wife in front of friends and, in a scene that would normally put anyone off wanting to read further, rapes his five-year-old son, Patrick. St. Aubyn describes the aristocratic father’s thought process after this terrible scene: “During lunch David felt that he had perhaps pushed his disdain for middle-class prudery a little too far. Even at the bar of the Cavalry and Guards Club one couldn’t boast about homosexual, pedophiliac incest with any confidence of a favourable reception.” This cruel, tinder-dry humorous tone is St. Aubyn’s peculiar style, a style all the more peculiar for the author’s making clear in interviews that the terrible things described are autobiographical: He is Patrick.
The first work was immediately followed by Bad News, in which a 22-year-old Patrick — now a drug addict — heads to New York to collect his father’s ashes. Over a weekend at the Pierre hotel, Patrick wines and dines as finely as he cares to whilst finding other means downtown to take himself to oblivion. This too is autobiographical. St. Aubyn admits that he started injecting heroin while still a boy at Westminster School. Those who knew him at Oxford relate how devotedly he pursued self-annihilation at the point of a needle in those years.
Yet nobody could claim that Bad News glamorizes drugs. In fact it could be used to drive people away from the stuff, so relentlessly does it show how someone with everything can destroy himself in search of nothing. But the detail, narrative drive, and access-all-areas, luxury-to-dregs societal immersion of St. Aubyn’s prose provides a deeply rewarding and safe addiction of its own. Obviously all readers react differently, but while reading this second volume I had to call a friend and ask him to pick up the next three volumes in the series, as I already knew that they would be needed and could see no way of putting this one down.
The third novel — Some Hope (1994) — centers on a party at a grand house in the English countryside. Attendees include a drug-free Patrick (now in his mid thirties) and Princess Margaret. Though people often describe novels as readable in one sitting, it is hardly ever true. But Some Hope presents a slice of life so utterly engaging in its appallingness that it cannot but be consumed in this way. A swathe of human life commingles in that English evening where, shortly after Patrick finally confides to his best friend what his father did to him three decades earlier, he meets one of his father’s friends, who tells him that he owes Patrick’s father his life. Among this and much more, Princess Margaret makes one of the most unforgettably obnoxious appearances in modern fiction. Not least with her correction after another guest loosely refers to something as “an accident of birth.” The princess: “There is no accident in birth.”
Even then it was not clear St. Aubyn would fulfill the promise of what he had started. The early three novels were well received, had small print runs, and might have settled among the literary silt of their decade. There was also an ominous gap, of more than a decade, after Some Hope. And then something remarkable happened. Those involved from the start say they have never known anything quite like the validation that gathered pace throughout the publication of the Melrose sequence.
The fourth and fifth novels (Mother’s Milk and At Last) made this clear to a wider audience. Published in 2005 and 2011, they moved to a more profound level than the brilliant turns of the earlier works. The surface is no less dazzling, but the subjects now demand, and receive, a deeper shade of dazzle. Melrose himself has become a family man, with all the usual worries and more. He had earlier described how, “as his struggle against drugs grew more successful, he saw how it had masked a struggle not to become like his father. . . . The memory of his father still hypnotised him and drew him like a sleepwalker towards a precipice of unwilling emulation. Sarcasm, snobbery, cruelty, and betrayal seemed less nauseating than the terrors that brought them into existence. What could he do but become a machine for turning terror into contempt?”
For obvious reasons he is especially careful in watching his own reactions to his newborn child, Thomas. At one point in Mother’s Milk, “Patrick scanned himself for jealousy, but it wasn’t there. There was plenty of dark emotion but no rivalry with his infant son.”
Despite appearing solely in the first novel, Patrick’s father looms over them all. At one point in the first novel he orders his wife (in front of a friend) to eat the fallen, rotting figs lying around the base of their fig tree. Three novels later, when the word “fig” is said in front of Thomas, the reader cannot help wincing. Even posthumously, Patrick’s father curdles whatever he touched, making objects, images, even words tainted by his one-time proximity to them. Several years ago in an interview, the generally taciturn novelist observed that, despite the relative smallness of the canvas he had to work on, his father “was as destructive as he could be. If he’d been given Cambodia, or China, I’m sure he would have done sterling work.”
At the end of his cycle, Melrose contemplates fidelity and meaning while mulling these dark spirits. He also approaches — and raises himself to answer — some of the largest questions any writer can address: the nature and possibility of forgiveness; the chance or otherwise of breaking cycles of hatred and dependence; the question of where, if anywhere, humans can find meaning, solace, or even diversion. Though the world of the Melrose novels is undeniably amoral when it is not immoral, it is also a place in which people have a choice to act morally. And though this world is almost terrifyingly free (not least thanks to money), it is a world where people have the choice to introduce some order.
Outside of the Melrose novels St. Aubyn has struggled. In the gap before the more mature final volumes, he published two comic turns. On the Edge (1998) sends up the new-age fads of California, while A Clue to the Exit (2000) centers on a writer who believes he is dying and tries to waste his money in Monte Carlo. Both are failures. St. Aubyn’s cask-strength scorn is simply too strong for the targets he selects. Of course he is able, in the earlier volume, to maul the practices and pretensions of a bunch of privileged hippies trying to “find themselves.” No fish barrel was ever more packed, no shooter more heavily armed.
The problem became clearer with the first post-Melrose novel. The savageness of St. Aubyn’s gaze needs to be at least partly introspective in order to be tolerable to the reader. When it locks on anything else it simply overwhelms the target. Lost for Words (2014) mined the experience of being shortlisted for the Booker prize for the fourth Melrose novel. Its central conceits are diverting enough (a cookbook by an elderly female Indian writer is accidentally submitted and becomes a contender for the novel prize), but the whole thing leaves behind an unamusing, acid taste. Why is he doing this, you wonder? Is there anyone on earth who didn’t know, or hasn’t guessed, that literary prizes — like Californian ashrams — are stuffed with pseuds, fakes, and frauds? By the time this much-reworked, ill-disguised roman à clef came out, it looked like no subject remained quite big enough to detain St. Aubyn.
Which must be where the Hogarth Press felt they had landed on a good idea. In 2012 the publishers decided to commission a set of contemporary writers to “retell” Shakespeare’s plays, presumably believing that Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, et al., might help bring attention back to the neglected playwright. St. Aubyn — perhaps as a specialist on tyrannical fathers — elected to rewrite King Lear.
Dunbar recasts him as a press baron persuaded by his two eldest daughters (Abby and Megan) to relinquish control of his empire. They then incarcerate him in a care home in the Lake District. “Its dimensions,” we learn, “generous as they were for a large Victorian household, could not keep up with the modern demand for a place in which to neglect the mad, the old and the dying.” There Dunbar meets his fool (an alcoholic, Shakespeare-echoing comic) and escapes with him into the wilds. Dunbar’s daughters (including his youngest, intent on saving him) pursue him by helicopter.
On a technical level St. Aubyn does the sensible things, such as dropping the Gloucester sub-plot. There are sparkling phrases, and flashes of humor, such as when one American investment shark barks down the phone to a co-conspirator in Manchester, “Manchester? What is this, 1850? Why would anybody be in Manchester at this point?” But elsewhere the author seems to be on autopilot. St. Aubyn even bolts the final tragedy, pulling down the curtain as Dunbar’s Cordelia is dying. The total global cataclysm that has you leaving Lear emotionally ransacked is ducked. Not, you sense, because a modern reader cannot cope with it, or because St. Aubyn could not — if he wanted to — achieve something like what Ivan Turgenev did in King Lear of the Steppes (1870), which comes as close as anyone could to getting alongside Shakespeare. But rather because the game that St. Aubyn has set in motion at the behest of the Hogarth Shakespeare project appears to have stopped interesting him. It is as though his trademark magisterial contempt has turned on the business of performing his task. As though even the story of Lear is not enough to persuade St. Aubyn to go back under his carefully reconstructed carapace and lift it even briefly — as he did in the Melrose novels — to produce a work that could have equaled Turgenev, if not Shakespeare.
Later this year an adaptation of the Melrose novels (starring Benedict Cumberbatch, with a script by the novelist David Nicholls) will arrive on the small screen in a co-production from Showtime and Sky Atlantic. It will doubtless bring the works the kind of audience that the last quarter-century of dinner-party recommendations could not. New readers have a dark but extraordinary treat before them, as well as the greatest possible argument for the ongoing relevance of the novel. Of course the question will remain over whether (still only in his fifties) St. Aubyn has anything left to produce. Those about to encounter his works should expect to be recruited into the ranks of those of us already deeply hoping that he does.
— Mr. Murray is the author, most recently, of The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam.