May 5, 2011
Edward St Aubyn: At Last
Edward St Aubyn’s last book, Mother’s Milk, was the bridesmaid of the 2006 Booker season, the loser in one of the prize’s regular deciding votes. Mother’s Milk was the fourth instalment of Patrick Melrose’s story, slow on the heels of the trilogy Never Mind, Bad News and Some Hope (1992-94), but a welcome return to form after the non-Melrose titles On the Edge and A Clue to the Exit.
At Last declares from its title that this is (relief) another Melrose book. It’s a title which recalls the reticent beauty of the names of the first three books (now almost obliterated by their publication in one volume). At Last: speaking of its status as reportedly the final Melrose book, of the end of life, and even perhaps a joke at its five year gestation period.
Eleanor Melrose, Patrick’s mother – “the daughter of one bewildered family and the mother of another” - has died. We join him on the day of her funeral, 9 April 2005, when he is left with nothing but her corpse – “a transitional object for the far end of life” – and a desire to make sense of her. “Patrick wondered if he could ever make his ego light enough to relax in not having to settle the meaning of things. What would that feel like?” It would feel like he was someone else entirely, not Patrick Melrose, perhaps not human at all. He can’t let go, and why should he, when he still can’t work out whether his mother and father were “collaborators as well as antagonists”? Readers of the earlier volumes will know the horrors inflicted on Patrick by his father David Melrose, but was his mother forced to “abandon her desire to love him … compelled to pass on so much fear and panic,” or did she “use him as an extension of her lust for humiliation”?
Patrick’s turmoil is somewhat irrelevant, since one thing that everyone else attending the funeral seems to be agreed on is that Eleanor was a force for good (it would be unusual for mourners to come to any other conclusion). And what a crowd she has attracted! Grotesque family members, clingers and hangers-on, neurotics and charlatans: people who are “exclusively social and entirely friendless at the same time,” or people like Emily Price, who
had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions.
Prime among these is the monstrous Nicholas Pratt, whose hilarious and heartless monologue opens the book with a kick (“I saw [your aunt] last week in New York and I’m pleased to say I was the first to tell her the tragic news about your mother”) and shows us that St Aubyn’s comic gifts are undiminished. Indeed, it’s worth pointing out to new readers that the primary response to the coolly perfect prose in At Last is laughter: uncomfortable sometimes, desperate too, but tinkling as regularly as the ice in one of Patrick Melrose’s drinks. (“It felt so ancestral to have delirium tremens, to bow down, after his disobedient youth as a junkie, to the shattering banality of alcohol.”) If the earlier Melrose books are about the “varying states of being trapped“, then At Last promises to offer release – or threatens to promise to offer it. “Now that he was an orphan everything was perfect. He seemed to have been waiting all his life for this sense of completeness.”
Threading through the dominant arc of the story – simply the day of Eleanor’s funeral – are numerous threads. St Aubyn lets few characters off the hook, and we go back at least two generations in Eleanor’s family, as well as having the gaps filled in from Patrick’s life since Mother’s Milk. (Predominantly an account of his time at a rehab clinic, with its “downpour of self-centred advice.”) The very rich are different from you and me, even when they’re not very rich any more. Why try to make the reader empathise with characters whose defining characteristics include “the psychological impact of inherited wealth, the raging desire to get rid of it and the raging desire to hang on to it”? It is by treating Patrick and Eleanor dispassionately that St Aubyn does finally make the reader’s heart sing for them, albeit with restrained good taste. The author’s background, like Patrick’s, is of inherited wealth; perhaps it is this which enables him to treat his characters mockingly and sympathetically at the same time. His brittle, witty prose evokes comparisons with Evelyn Waugh, whose snobbish attraction to the upper classes, looking in on them from without, contrasts with St Aubyn’s cool-eyed appraisal. The phrase “a handful of dust”, quietly slipped into At Last, could be an acknowledgement of the similarities and contrasts.
Patrick is like his creator, not just in his background, but in his stylistic weaknesses:
It’s the hardest addiction of all. Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.
Patrick cannot evade fixed meanings forever, though he would like to. He recalls ruefully the family house in Saint Lazaire from his childhood (the one which Eleanor transferred to her shyster guru Seamus), which had “hiding places where no one had ever found him.” He may be forced to accept that by helping others and disinheriting her own family, Eleanor has indeed been a force for good, or at least has “made the question of what it meant to be good central.”
“There’s a sort of swelling orchestral effect to these last days. And plenty of horror, of course,” the loathsome Nicholas Pratt points out to Patrick. The worst horror of all might be the most banal: that he will never again see “the face he had known before he even knew his own.” This reader, unlike Patrick (“just how unconsoled was he prepared to be?”), prayed for a happy ending. Yet after all that we have witnessed in the last five volumes of Melrose madness, what could a happy ending even look like? Perhaps just that St Aubyn might yet change his mind about making this the final instalment (“In fact,” says Thomas, Patrick’s young son, “you should change your mind, because that’s what it’s for!”), and show us that where family stories are concerned, death is not the end.