We’re asked very soon into this novel to do a few things. One, accept that the novel will take up the space of only a few hours in a weekend getaway of group extremely rich British uppercrust. Two, we’re also asked to sometimes follow the thoughts and wisps of a young boy, the son of the estate-owner. And we’re asked to the deal with the fallout of a tremendously cruel and awful act of sexual violence, all the while the cutting insights of the satire play out. The violence is treated with clear and sympathetic emotion, but it cannot help but be contrasted with the utter ridiculous of the rest of the novel.
This is always the contrast of these novels. That sometimes something shockingly awful exists alongside someone else’s poor behavior, the corruption of the rich class, and the parasitic lives therein.
|Spoilers from here on out:
I don’t think this was the idea, but the fact that I’ve read these books twice and both times they were all packaged together, it’s difficult to not see them as part of a planned series, a roman-flueve type thing. With this is mind, it’s very difficult for me not to see the first novel as setup for the second. It’s supported by the plot of the second novel. Patrick Melrose is in New York to collect his father, or more specifically to collect his father’s ashes. In the previous novel, we encounter a scene where this father raped his son when he was boy. We learn later in the third novel that this scene was not the only time, and it’s not the only time he used cruelty to “teach” lessons.
Patrick has a problem though. He’s a functional drug-user in a new country without his normal connections. He’s also lonely, feeling hateful and resentful, and bored too maybe?
The novel dives into the depravity of Patrick’s drug addiction, but also with the full knowledge of how he got there and what it means. He’s also got to learn whether or not he can live in this world. He also needs to score, and maybe he can also get laid while he’s at it. He’s also got to try to be the very opposite of who is father is, because the only worse than what has happened to him, is that he could end up being like him.
Oh I really enjoyed this one more in this second read from the first. This is almost entirely because I actually had no idea who Princess Margaret was the first time I read it. I mean I did ostensibly, but not really. Now I do (thanks The Crown!), or at least I know the stories told about her. It’s also randomly the case that my wife is reading 99 Glimpses of Prince Margaret by Craig Brown and telling me about it.
So we’re at 30 with Patrick Melrose now and well, he kind of hates his life, but it could be worse. He’s in meetings, long sober now, and trying to figure out the rest of life. He goes to a dinner party where among other interesting guests, he gets to witness an older Princess Margaret holding court, as it were. We start to understand that sometimes this rich lifestyle does a number on people, even if they are rich.
Upon rereading, this novel stands out quite clearly and the strongest so far, and by far. Patrick is 40ish, he has two sons, and his mother has recently decided to give her wealth and French estate (as in Patrick’s father French estate) and a possible scam artist of a self-help guru. We get about half this novel through the close perspective (still third person) from Robert, Patrick’s older son. Patrick is around 5 and decidedly precocious, thoughtful, and tender. It’s impossible not to see the early Robert scenes as a doubling of Patrick’s scenes in the first novel, which ends in tragedy and violence for Patrick. He has mixed feelings about his younger brother because he represents a division of his parents’ love, but not entirely in the selfish way of a child (later Patrick tells Robert that he can’t be childish, because he’s a child) but in the sense of a perfect triangle is being diluted. But also, he wants to like his brother. In later scenes, some time has passed, and it’s very clear that he does in fact like and love his brother.
The other part of the early sections of the novel include Patrick and his wife’s finally losing the last of the sexual tenderness they ever had for each other, which was not much ultimately. There is a tacit agreement that Patrick can have affairs. Patrick for his part is trying to keep his life together (well, keep his sense of self together) so that he won’t shatter his children’s life like his was. He’s not quite connecting that his father’s sexual abuse of Patrick was the thing that destroyed him, not just his father otherwise being a miserable asshole. Patrick is a miserable asshole, but in a fairly regular way, and his children love him, even if it’s bad for he and his wife.
We jump forward later in time to the younger son being three or so. Robert is a little older and even more precocious. Patrick’s mother is, if not dying, deteriorating quickly. Patrick spends the last section of the novel realizing he has very tender and caring feelings for his mother and wants to help end her suffering and goes on a crusade to determine what options she might have at having her wish, to die. The estate is long gone, but his mother remains and he feels responsible to her.
This is the novel that broke Edward St Aubyn’s brain I think. He was shortlisted for the Booker and lost to a less good novel. It’s possible he might have also lost to other novels, but then he wrote a sendup of the Booker Prize, a bad book that I really like.
This final books find Patrick has squarely tried his drugs for alcohol, as much of the story takes place within the haze of deliriums tremens as Patrick is both in rehab and dealing with the final death of his mother. We learn what we already knew, that the scars of childhood often shape our battles for the rest of our lives. And that, trite as it might sound “hurt people hurt people”. Even with Patrick’s mother, we learn that Patrick (rightfully?) blames his mother for allowing him to be in such a vulnerable state as a child, victim to his sexually abusive father, while he perceives his mother enabling him. This is reinforced later by his mother’s turn to charity after her divorce from his father, where she (unwittingly?) became the enabler of another abuser of children, a Catholic priest working in a foreign ministry.
Patrick is in deep pain, aware that he’s hurt people too, and trying to figure out if he’s just as bad or only mild in comparison. He also know that this isn’t a lot of comfort. We also get to check in with his ex-wife, his children on their own journeys.
Edward St Aubyn is so squarely at his best writing Patrick Melrose, and it’s not even close.
“The drive rose sharply to the left of the steps to a circle of flat ground where her maroon Buick was parked under an umbrella pine. It looked preposterous, stretched out on its white-walled tyres against the terraced vines and olive groves behind it, but to Eleanor her car was like a consulate in a strange city, and she moved towards it with the urgency of a robbed tourist.”
“I still get more wedding invitations, but I find I enjoy the memorials more.’ ‘Because you don’t have to bring a present?’ ‘Well, that helps a great deal, but mainly because one gets a better crowd when someone really distinguished dies.’ ‘Unless all his friends have died before him.’ ‘That, of course, is intolerable,’ said Nicholas categorically. ‘Ruins the party.’ ‘Absolutely.’ ‘I’m afraid I don’t approve of memorial services,’ said David, taking another puff on his cigar. ‘Not merely because I cannot imagine anything in most men’s lives that deserves to be celebrated, but also because the delay between the funeral and the memorial service is usually so long that, far from rekindling the spirit of a lost friend, it only shows how easily one can live without him.’ David”
No, he mustn’t think about it, or indeed about anything, and especially not about heroin, because heroin was the one 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.”
“But then neither revenge nor forgiveness change what happened. They’re sideshows, of which forgiveness is the less attractive because it represents a collaboration with one’s persecutors. I don’t suppose that forgiveness was uppermost in the minds of people who were being nailed to a cross until Jesus, if not the first man with a Christ complex still the most successful, wafted onto the scene. Presumably those who enjoyed inflicting cruelty could hardly believe their luck and set about popularizing the superstition that their victims could only achieve peace of mind by forgiving them.”
“Presumably those who enjoyed inflicting cruelty could hardly believe their luck and set about popularizing the superstition that their victims could only achieve peace of mind by forgiving them.’ ‘You”