I did it! I finished the five Patrick Melrose novels in five days, in time to see Edward St Aubyn at the Wheeler Centre without any spoilers! And there were spoilers…
The whole experience was humbling and I’m so glad I got this opportunity. Having a reason to read something I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up and being blown away by it is the reason I started reading the list. I forget that sometimes in my laziness and desire to read things I know I will like. Book four, Mother’s Milk is on the list and shortlisted for the Booker and, while it was not my personal favourite, I can see why.
What is my favourite, I hear you ask? Hard to
say. When colleagues asked if I loved the books, it was hard to say yes because, though I could easily say they are compelling and accomplished and generally amazing they are also (especially at first) deeply disturbing. I found Never Mind to be the most striking. I am incredibly over-sensitive (seriously) and tend to avoid violence and particularly cruelty in all my reading endeavours. Never Mind is full of unrepentant cruelty; the sociopathic David inflicts pain on Patrick while pretending it is some sort of social experiment and wife Eleanor, also a victim, self medicates and ignores responsibility for her son. However what makes the book so accomplished is the stylish way St Aubyn is able to depict the most profound violations without forcing the reader to flinch away. Even a very sensitive reader. The shifts between character viewpoints highlights the flaws and pretensions of each of the characters while simultaneously allowing understanding of the damage that brought them to these points.
Mother’s Milk is far more traditional in a number of ways. Instead of just a day or two, the action takes place over the same day repeated over a number of years. It’s also much less graphic and frightening in the depiction of abuse as Patrick, now in his 40s tries to deal with his marriage, his sons, his mother’s compulsive but misdirected charity that leaves him disinherited. His relationship with his father takes on new meaning as he is now a father himself and constantly worries how best not to become the man he loathed. As in Never Mind it tells the story from numerous perspectives: Patrick’s, his son Robert’s, his wife Mary’s. This is perfect for showing up both flaws and motivations in each character and, even more than before, probably due to a more introspective Patrick, creates great empathy for each of the characters.
Seeing Edward St Aubyn was a wonderful experience. He was exactly how I had hoped and imagined him to be: dry, funny, incredibly eloquent and slightly tortured. And handsome. He was also incredibly insightful about his own work which sounds like an obvious thing but, as my favourite teacher once told me, just because you’re a good writer it doesn’t mean you are the best person to talk about your work. But there were a few things he said that really crystallised some of the trajectories of the series, things that I wouldn’t have been able to annunciate myself but once he did it was kind of an “of course!” moment. He talked about the way that these novels came about, his own lofty influences (Proust) and insisted, as he always does, that while they are based on his own life they are not autobiographical. It never occurred to him to write about himself, he said, but he had always imagined he’d write a book and had been writing from a very young age. He also talked about the dialogue, that of course it was polished and overly witty because “There’s no point writing down what people actually say. What would be the point of that?” It is frequently noted that the Melrose series creates a scathing portrait of the upper class but, in another “of course” moment, St Aubyn explained that the class of his characters was fairly incidental to the events. Cruelty happens regardless of socioeconomic status and, for him, class is the setting rather than the subject.
It was a wonderful evening and a humbling reading experience.