Edward St. Aubyn’s At Last, Reviewed

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 26 2012 3:45 PM

Literature of the 0.1 Percent

At Last, the latest of Edward St. Aubyn’s masterful novels of privilege and the ways it warps its victims.

Edward St Aubyn.
Edward St Aubyn poses with the Literature award for 'Mothers Milk' at the South Bank Show Awards at the Savoy Hotel on January 23, 2007 in London, England.

Photograph by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images.

“ ‘Privilege’ is a judgment,” Joan Didion writes in Blue Nights about her late daughter, Quintana, who grew up wealthy and well-connected and who died at age 39 after a long siege of physical and psychological ailments. “ ‘Privilege’ is an accusation,” Didion adds. Privilege is “an area to which—when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later—I will not easily cop.”

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

Edward St. Aubyn will cop to it. A child of extreme privilege and equally extreme suffering and dysfunction, the English writer has spent five autobiographical novels slinging judgment and accusation at his own rarefied social class. St. Aubyn’s brilliant bildungsroman is literature of the 0.1 percent, and one of its signal achievements is to convince the rest of us that a trust fund and an entry in Burke’s Peerage are vectors of inheritable—and possibly incurable—disease.

By now, readers have glimpsed the ghastly childhood of St. Aubyn’s alter ego, Patrick Melrose (in Never Mind, 1992); the drug-deranged wreckage of Patrick’s early twenties (Bad News, 1992); his rueful steps toward the exotic climes of sobriety and gainful vocation (Some Hope, 1994); and his midlife passage into ambivalent, alcoholic fatherhood (2005’s Mother’s Milk, shortlisted for the Booker Prize). These first four books have been collected in one volume as The Patrick Melrose Novels, arriving in the United States alongside the fifth and possibly valedictory entry, At Last (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which finds Patrick broke, divorced, recently suicidal, once again sober, and about to bury his mother.

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World-weary and reiterative of previous Melrose books, At Last is less a full-fledged chapter of the saga than a summing up; the title itself is a sigh of sour relief. But it still wrestles with the enigma Patrick has been deflecting most of his life with drink, drugs, and caustic wit: the mystery of “what it would mean to be free, to live beyond the tyranny of dependency and conditioning and resentment.” When, St. Aubyn asks, does the clay set forever on the psyche your parents pounded into its damnably unique shape, leaving the adult you with no recourse but to quote Philip Larkin and pour a drink?

Patrick, like his author, was  conditioned in a lavishly upholstered milieu of withered aristocracy and toxic languor. St. Aubyn, a direct descendant of William the Conqueror and godparent to Earl Spencer’s son, writes what he knows. So did Anthony Powell in A Dance to the Music of Time, a clear forerunner of the Melrose novels set among recognizable slices of the British upper crust. But a major fuel of St. Aubyn’s project, unlike Powell’s, is contempt—a startlingly intimate and empirical species of contempt that lends the Melrose books the visceral immediacy of great reportage, whether his self-annihilating doppelgänger is combing Manhattan for drugs with his father’s ashes in tow (Bad News) or navigating, with Evelyn Waugh–like finesse, a party for the landed gentry (Some Hope).

St. Aubyn’s father, like Patrick’s, really was a defunded blueblood who raped his 5-year-old son and continued the attacks for years afterward. St. Aubyn’s mother really was an heiress to an American industrial and real estate fortune who rerouted her loot to various New Age interests. His grandmother’s French estate really was the Pavillon Colombe, where Edith Wharton spent her last days; his great-aunt really did marry a Russian grand duke who aided in the assassination of Rasputin. (The temptation to find out what else is “real” in the Melrose books can lead down any number of Google rabbit holes, where one might find, say, this 1939 Life magazine piece on St. Aubyn’s maternal grandfather, playboy Capt. Alastair Mackintosh, “who spins through the Palm Beach social scene like a whirling top.”)

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Social bona fides aren’t everything, of course; if they were, the roman à clef The Truth About Diamonds would have secured a Booker nod for Nicole Richie. St. Aubyn also has an astonishing technical virtuosity that animates both his dialogue (Patrick is frighteningly quick on his feet, pursuing even casual conversation with a dyspeptic prosecutorial zeal) and his descriptions of interior states, be they that of a newborn baby in Mother’s Milk or a daisy chain of funeral-goers in At Last.

But Patrick’s mind is the landscape St. Aubyn knows best, and the pharmaceutical Inferno of Bad News provided the most stunning canvas for St. Aubyn’s gifts, whether Patrick is grasping after a dissipated cocaine rush (“he had missed that blissful fainting sensation, that heartbreaking moment, as compressed as the autobiography of a drowning man”) or narrating la petite mort of his assignations with opiates:

Heroin was the only thing that really worked, the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster’s wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favourite cushion. It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm.

Heroin is only a symptom of Patrick’s disorder. Even though four-fifths of the Melrose series is largely taken up with either drug or alcohol abuse, the missing chair leg is really Patrick’s childhood, and his parents, and the corrupting effects of his birthright: “the more or less secret superiority and the more or less secret shame of being rich.” Patrick’s curse is the alchemy of the empty self-regard granted by a mere accident of birth and the substantiated self-loathing imprinted by a father’s sadism and a mother’s neglect. He is forever scampering around in that hamster's wheel of regret and recrimination—which may sound like a grim prospect for readers, except that this particular hamster possesses the wit of Waugh and the existential reach of Beckett, and the hamster's wheel is a priceless 16th-century family heirloom.

Patrick is stuck in time, and fittingly, St. Aubyn’s novels treat time as structure: Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope are extended vignettes that transpire over a handful of days, while Mother’s Milk stretches over four consecutive Augusts as Patrick’s ever-delightful mother forces him to coordinate the terms of his own disinheritance. At Last returns to the tighter temporal strictures of the first three books as well as to the childhood horrors of Never Mind, underlining some gruesome details and filling in new ones. (David Melrose, amazingly, was even more of a bastard than we thought.) St. Aubyn comes full circle, or perhaps Patrick is just going around in circles. He’s bored of his own grievances, and maybe, At Last suggests, boredom—not therapeutic epiphany, not substance-aided euphoria—is what will set him free.

The novel’s air of goodbye-to-all-that finality makes perfect sense for middle-aged Patrick, but it also means that Patrick no longer makes perfect sense as the protagonist of a multi-volume work of fiction. Which isn’t to say that Eleanor Melrose’s funeral should be the nail in the coffin of the Melroseiad. Given that Patrick disobeyed the cardinal rule of Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” (“Get out as early as you can,/ And don’t have any kids yourself”), the reader might wonder if his uncannily precocious sons could take up the baton—their inheritance, you might say.

Robert Melrose and his little brother, Thomas, come off as ingeniously programmed robot dandies who can pun and mimic like Robin Williams at his youthful peak, with occasional judicious pauses to ponder big questions. (“But seriously, what is the ‘consciousness debate’ that Dada gets so angry about?”) They are twee, faintly ridiculous, and weirdly affecting figures, and their flagrant departure from the author’s otherwise photorealist class portraiture reads like a specific warning to those readers who might try to line up the biographical parallels in this particular wing of the St. Aubyn estate. (For the record, St. Aubyn has a daughter and a son.) If privilege is an accusation, would these innocent sons of a deeply troubled, downwardly mobile aristocrat cop to the charge? Enough already about Patrick Melrose and his childhood. What do his children think of Patrick Melrose?

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