I read a number of dazzling and memorable debuts this year, but for me, the literary highlight of 2012 was discovering Edward St. Aubyn.
Reading a gifted first-time novelist can be a heady thrill, but it’s nothing compared to the joy of coming across an unfamiliar talent with a deep catalogue. I read a number of dazzling and memorable debuts this year—including Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles and Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds—but for me, the literary highlight of 2012 was discovering Edward St. Aubyn.
This clever Brit has produced a smattering of books over the last 20 years, but the main point of interest is a series of short yet shattering novels about a charming libertine named Patrick Melrose. He’s a child of privilege, but it has not given him an easy ride. After a harrowing incident in his youth, Patrick grows into an edgy, self-destructive adult. Psychologically damaged and unencumbered by a need to work, he cultivates a litany of vices, including alcohol, heroin, and ill-advised sex.
This five-part series, which began with Never Mind (1992) and concluded this year with At Last, combines the moral ambiguity of Bret Easton Ellis, the satirical thrust of Evelyn Waugh, and a festering family tree worthy of V.C. Andrews. Sentence for sentence, these books are as brilliant and compelling as anything in the English language. Simply put, this guy deserves to be as famous as Ian McEwan.
St. Aubyn’s preoccupation is the English nobility, which he sees as economically flush but morally bankrupt. Deriding the rich isn’t a new fixation, although it has renewed cachet in the age of the 99 per cent and Britain’s very real financial decline. What makes St. Aubyn so compulsively readable is his keen understanding of human cruelty.
The Melrose novels are filled with sinners, strivers, and sycophants, but the undeniable villain of this saga is Patrick’s father, David, who comes from a long line of aristocrats. He’s a doctor by trade and a bully by nature. In Never Mind, which takes place in the ’60s, David Melrose spends most of his days stalking his giant estate and terrorizing his wife, Eleanor, whom he married not out of love but out of his need to dominate people. This impulse becomes even more obvious when he punishes five-year-old Patrick for a minor misdeed by raping him.
As it turns out, David’s predatory behaviour is ascribed to a feeling of his own unrealized potential, dating back to a bout of rheumatic fever as a child that killed his chances of becoming a piano prodigy. David’s self-loathing is a “knot of inarticulacy that he carried inside him,” St. Aubyn writes, tightening “like a promise of suffocation that shadowed every breath he took.” And this he bequeaths to Patrick.
As an ardent fan of British fiction, I’m ashamed to admit that I had never heard of St. Aubyn prior to this year, but I’m going to ascribe that to weak marketing. He has had a criminally low profile in North America. Yet I also realize why St. Aubyn was never destined to be a literary star on this side of the Atlantic. Compared to the British or the French, North Americans have mild tastes when it comes to our novels. Dramatic, harrowing—sure, we love that. But nothing too nasty.
Many years ago, St. Aubyn confessed to a journalist that some of the elements in the Melrose books—including the childhood rape and rampant drug use—were autobiographical. This fact makes the books even more chilling, and certainly justifies their harsh tone. After collecting his deceased dad’s ashes in Bad News (1992), Patrick realizes “it was the first time he had been alone with his father for more than 10 minutes without being buggered, hit, or insulted.”
While much of the author’s work is disturbing, it is also a testament to human resilience. Patrick grapples with his father’s monstrous legacy and the discovery that his mother stole his inheritance, and yet he endures long enough to become a parent himself in Mother’s Milk (2006). Patrick Melrose is a bona fide survivor, but as is his style, St. Aubyn never lets him stray into sentimentality. As Patrick notes dryly at the beginning of At Last, “I think my mother’s death is the best thing to happen to me since…well, since my father’s death.”