With his tenth novel, Double Blind, coming out in March, now seems as good a time as any to get acquainted with Edward St Aubyn. I am rather late to the party, I know. Never Mind, St Aubyn’s debut, was published in 1992 and begat four more novels about antihero Patrick Melrose that have collectively become one of the most celebrated series in contemporary literature. Having not had great success with romans-fleuves in the past, however, I have been hesitant to get involved with Melrose. The two I have started in recent years – Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War (1960-80) and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75) – I never felt much compulsion to persevere with beyond their first volumes. So having now read St Aubyn’s first Patrick Melrose outing, I can offer it no higher praise than to say I can’t wait to read his second.
I look forward to more Patrick, for one thing. At just five years old, he features surprisingly little in Never Mind, which takes place over the course of a single day. The book’s main players are the adults – Patrick’s alcoholic parents and their friends – and as these aristocrats variously ready and converge on the Melroses’ South-of-France chateau, a sense of ill-fated anticipation builds for the dinner party they are to have there that night. The way St Aubyn cuts between them is very skilfully done, alighting on such character-revealing moments each time that no other introduction is necessary and the point of view can ping-pong back and forth with impunity. When we meet David Melrose, for instance, he is hosing ants; when we meet his much younger wife, Eleanor, she is popping pills; when we meet philosopher Victor Eisen and his much younger wife Anne, they are sleeping in separate bedrooms; and, finally, when we meet Nicholas Pratt and his twenty-year-old girlfriend Bridget, Nicholas is hungover and Bridget is anticipating becoming the fourth Mrs Pratt so that she can divorce Nicholas and “get half a million pounds, or whatever.”
It helps that these characters are so similar. Belonging to a class in which difference is spurned, they are all desperate to fit in and “be conventional,” and their essential sameness is the reason why this roving point of view never jars. There is only so much time a reader could spend in one of these people’s heads, anyway; they are ugly places to be. Even the characters long to escape themselves, their bodies exhausted by a lifetime of keeping up. Here’s Eleanor:
By the time they got back to the car, the cognac and tranquilizers had come into their own and Eleanor felt her blood tumbling like ball bearings through the veins under her numbed skin. Her head was as heavy as a sack of coins and she closed her eyes slowly, slowly, completely in control.
The weight of those repeated sounds – “blood tumbling […] under […] numbed skin” – and those two sentence-lengthening prepositions make this a suitably numbing reading experience. Given how elaborate St Aubyn’s similes tend to be, the plainness of these ones is also striking. This is more typical of him:
[Eleanor] settled into her body, like a sleepwalker who climbs back into bed after a dangerous expedition.
Separated by punctuation, this simile comes as an afterthought, the external world to which metaphor gestures not troubling the main body of the sentence. In the previous passage, by contrast, the similes are right in the midst of things, hurting the sentences’ internal logic in the same way that the drugs and booze are hurting Eleanor’s internal logic.
The constant comparison – and there are a lot of similes in this book – makes sense given the kind of characters we are dealing with. Comparison is how they police their sameness, and they are constantly eyeing and scrutinising one another to work out how to behave. So frequently, in fact, does St Aubyn compare things that his raw materials start to suffer as a consequence and the outside world begins to take on the ugliness of his characters. For instance: “The curtains billowed feebly and collapsed again, like defeated lungs.” Naturally, all of these people are smokers, so it follows that the Melroses’ house would begin to feel the effects of all that smoke. Sometimes it is hard to believe we are in the South of France. At one point, Anne opens a door and it gets “stuck on a bulge” in the floor, as if the very ground at her feet is ill and pustulent. Yet, like the best purveyors of the grotesque, St Aubyn writes about ugliness so precisely that it takes on a kind of beauty:
His oyster-coloured complexion and the thick jowls that looked like a permanent attack of mumps were the unhappy setting for a large hooked nose with tufts of intractable hair about the nostrils.
There it is again: the tumorous, mid-sentence simile.
With such ugliness in his life, it is perhaps unsurprising that Patrick is turning out the way he is. Cruel, sadistic and a bully, he is a little David Melrose in the making, and if this book had an epigraph, it would surely be those Larkin lines: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They don’t mean to, but they do.” At least, at five years old, his body should be okay, right? Wrong. In the most memorable and shocking scene in the book, David hauls Patrick over his knee, spanks him with a shoe and then does something even more unspeakable. While this torture is going on, Patrick spies a gecko on the wall and, jealous of its freedom, “disappear[s] into the lizard’s body” to escape his own:
The gecko understood, because at that very instant it dashed round the corner of the window and out onto the wall. Below he could see the drop to the terrace and the leaves of the Virginia creeper, red and green and yellow, and from up there, close against the wall, he could hold on with suckered feet and hang upside down safely from the eaves of the roof. He scurried onto the old roof tiles which were covered in grey and orange lichen, and then into the trough between the tiles, all the way up to the ridge of the roof. He moved fast down the other slope, and was far away, and nobody would ever find him again, because they wouldn’t know where to look, and couldn’t know that he was coiled up in the body of a gecko.
A transcendent moment, the more poignant for its brevity; in the next paragraph, Patrick is Patrick again. It does not bode well for his future.
Never Mind is published by Picador and is available here.