Sunday, February 19, 2012

Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels

I suspect the next couple of weeks are going to be hectic enough to impede blogging, and today's the first bit of evidence: with no time for a proper post, I'll instead simply register my pleasure that the last volume of Edward St. Aubyn's series of autobiographical novels about Patrick Melrose, At Last, has finally arrived in the States and is getting attention.

I read it nearly a year ago when I was published in the UK, and now that it's arrived here, it seems a good occasion to try to bring new readers to the series. I've written about the first four books before, and in particular about their elegant, memorable, witty prose and St. Aubyn's viciously sharp satire. These are not comfortable books--the portrait of drug addiction is truly horrific at times--but they're also incredibly smart and perceptive about human life and failings. In a post about the first four books, I wrote,
There is a payoff, of sorts, for being willing to stomach the darkness of the first couple of novels, as in the most recent two we see Patrick—by no means free of his inherited demons—actively trying to become a better, more complete person, a person he would not instinctively loathe. Aside from the sharpness of the writing, that desire for self-understanding is the real reason to read these St. Aubyn novels. We get a sense, not just from Patrick but from other characters as well, of a real mind sifting through its impressions, feelings, and thoughts in a constant effort to understand itself, make its way forward, and both accept and rein in its worst impulses.
At Last holds true to its predecessors and carries that effort forward. I made the mistake of not making notes when I read it but Sam Sacks in the Wall Street Journal offers a good summary--along with an argument for the value of the whole series. What has stayed with me is the modest sense of hard-won, and still quite fragile, peace that Patrick Melrose has managed to achieve by the end of this fifth book. As Sam Sacks put it at the start of his review, "Patrick Melrose has survived. It was never a sure thing." After a lifetime that started with abuse, then slid into addiction and self-destruction, At Last finds him making what feels like the first truly substantial steps towards something that might be called a real recovery, and it's incredibly moving.

I'll close with the one passage that I do happen have to hand from At Last because I featured it over at the Annex last spring. It's typically well-written and funny, if a bit goofier than is usual for St. Aubyn:
“Uncle Vlad,” as Nancy called him, had helped to assassinate Rasputin, lending his Imperial revolver to Prince Yusopov for what was supposed to be the final kill, but turned out to be only the middle stage between poisoning the energetic priest with arsenic and drowning him in the Neva. Despite many pleas, the Tsar exiled Vladimir for his part in the assassination, making him miss the Russian Revolution and the chance to get bayoneted, strangled, or shot by Russia’s new Bolshevik masters. Once in exile, Uncle Vlad went on to assassinate himself by drinking twenty-three dry martinis before lunch every day. Thanks to the Russian whimsy of smashing a glass after drinking from it, there was hardly a moment’s silence in the house.
Picador has just re-issued the first four books in one volume; you could do worse than spend your week in it, then turn to At Last.


  1. I read the first three when Picador UK released them in one volume. Somehow I missed the fact that there was a fourth and fifth--I must get them! St Aubyn manages a wonderful balancing act between absolute vicious horror and sublime comedy.

  2. What do you think of the two non-Melrose novels? I've just finished A Clue to the Exit and liked it much more than On the Edge.

  3. I've not read them--I'd actually forgotten that they existed. Clearly I should seek them out, given how much I love his prose. Thanks for the tip!

  4. The author is new to me too but I really enjoyed the first paragraph. After reading just one paragraph I realized I could easily fall into the easy conversational style of the writing.