Monday, January 15, 2007

The poet of loathing, part three

Part one of this post on Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels is here and part two is here.

The satire really is brilliant, St. Aubyn's words are chosen with Wodehousian care. I've written about his prose briefly before, and the sharpness continues throughout the four novels. Here's a character reflecting on a diplomat he sees at a party:

Diplomats, thought Nicholas, long made redundant by telephones, still preserved the mannerisms of men who were dealing with great matters of state. He had once seen Jacques d'Alantour fold his overcoat on a banister and declare with all the emphasis of a man refusing to compromise over the Spanish Succession, "I shall put my coat here." He had then placed his hat on a nearby chair and added with an air of infinite subtlety, "But my hat I shall put here. Otherwise it may fall!" as if he were hinting that on the other hand some arrangement could be reached over the exact terms of the marriage.
In yesterday's post I mentioned Martin Amis; here's a passage that strikes me as worthy of his father, Kingsley. Patrick, having just been treated to a lengthy disquisition by a tremendous blowhard, thinks:
The loop of his monstrous vanity was complete. He had been talking about a book in which he wrote about his photographs of the animals he had shot with guns from his own magnificent collection, a collection photographed (alas, not by him) in the second book.

The only place St. Aubyn's satire falls short is when his characters visit America in Mother's Milk. Even there, it's not unfunny, but most of his targets are familiar or too broad (obesity, guns, the Bush administration), whereas the best of his satire of upper-crust British culture is more carefully targeted. Yet sometimes his writing can redeem even a tired topic, as in this scene in a coffee shop:
"Have a great one!" said Pete, a heavy-jawed blonde beast in an apron, sliding the coffee across the counter.

Old enough to remember the arrival of "Have a nice day," Patrick could only look with alarm on the hyperinflation of "Have a great one." Where would this Weimar of bullying cheerfulness end? "You have a profound and meaningful day now," he simpered under his breath as he tottered across the room with his giant mug. "Have a blissful one," he snapped as he sat at a table. "You all make sure you have an all-body orgasm," he whispered in a Southern accent, "and make it last." Because you deserve it. Because you owe it to yourself. Because you're a unique and special person. In the end, there was only so much you could expect from a cup of coffee and an uneatable muffin. If only Pete had confined himself to realistic achievements. "Have a cold shower," or "Try not to crash your car."
"Heavy-jawed blonde beast." "Weimar of bullying cheerfulness." "Simpering." Those are the words and phrases of someone who has taken care with every sentence; they, far more than topics, are what separate great satire from pedestrian.

So should you read Some Hope and Mother's Milk? I laughed a lot, cringed a lot, felt dirty merely for being human, was aghast at cruelty and astonished at more simple meanness, and was totally wrung out by the end. If that sounds fine to you, read away.

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