His Dark Materials: An Evening with Edward St Aubyn

Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels have been called ‘some of the most perceptive, elegantly written and hilarious novels of our era’. The fourth, Mother’s Milk, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – and he’s been compared to Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde.

St Aubyn joined a packed crowd at the Wheeler Centre last week to talk to Louise Swinn about his alter-ego Patrick Melrose, writing from life, and the agonies of novel-writing.

Edward St Aubyn: ‘These books are an attempt to be lucid about things that seemed completely chaotic.'

Edward St Aubyn: ‘These books are an attempt to be lucid about things that seemed completely chaotic.'

‘It never occurred to me to write a memoir,’ he said, when asked why he chose the novel as his form. The novel, he said, was the tradition that had impressed and moved him the most. ‘Also, it’s about putting as much distance as possible between me and the material.’

Readers first meet Patrick Melrose aged five, making his solitary way around his parents’ property in Provence, while his psychopathic father stews and his alcoholic mother drives shambolically around the countryside. Later that day, Patrick’s childhood brutally ends as his father rapes him, seemingly to see what will happen. The five books follow Patrick through his parent’s divorce and their deaths (and his disinheritance, in favour of a new age cult, by his mother), his heroin addiction and alcoholism, and the collapse of his marriage to a woman as maternal as his own mother was not.

St Aubyn’s own family is famously ensconced in the upper classes – they have inhabited the same part of Cornwall since the Norman conquest. He has spoken about having been raped by his father at the same age as Patrick Melrose was, and his long battle with heroin and alcohol. Despite the many similarities between himself and Patrick Melrose, he is careful to emphasise that his works are fiction.

And grim though the material is, the books don’t merely wallow in their darkness – they’re an attempt to make a kind of sense of it.

Not confessions

‘The most famous autobiographies of all time begin with their confessions, and I’m not making a confession,’ said St Aubyn. ‘If I’d known the truth already I might not have had to write these novels. If there is any freshness to them, it’s because I’m finding out the truth as I write them.’

The books are also remarkable for their ability to draw the reader in, to coax a kind of empathy for some seriously damaged characters. For example, Patrick often behaves abominably, but the reader largely forgives him, knowing the weight of his past – and the strength of his desire to transcend it.

‘These books are an attempt to be lucid about things that seemed completely chaotic,’ said St Aubyn. ‘The only things worth writing about are those that seem impossible. It has to seem very nearly impossible in order to be worthwhile.’

Never Mind, the first Melrose novel, was particularly impossible to write; he was so sweat-soaked throughout the process that he wrote wrapped in a towel.

‘I thought, Either I’ll write a novel I can finish or I’ll kill myself,’ he recalls now.

‘Torn between heartbreak and absurdity’

‘On every page of St. Aubyn’s work is a sentence or a paragraph that prompts a laugh, or a moment of enriched comprehension,’ wrote a laudatory James Wood of the Melrose quintet in the New Yorker. And indeed, the books’ juxtaposition of familial horrors with bone-dry wit are what make them so addictive.

‘I see the world as being torn between heartbreak and absurdity,’ said St Aubyn. ‘This alteration between comedy and anguish is there already.’

‘I’m a very bad writer on the first 20 or so goes,’ he said. ‘Except for the dialogue.’ He said that, like his alter-ego Patrick, he’s able to ‘flow into other mentalities easily’.

Louise Swinn commented on the whip-smart acerbity of his character’s conversations – and asked if he actually knows anyone whose witty repartee mirrors his characters. (The answer was no.)

‘There’s no point in writing what people actually say and how people actually talk. Of course it’s improved.’

Fanatical reader to fanatical writer

Are there any books St Aubyn feels compelled to re-read?

‘There are lots of books I haven’t even read once. I can’t afford to start re-reading.’

A self-confessed slow reader, he says that there’s a ‘window of influence’ in terms of being touched by the work of other writers. For him, that was his teens to mid-twenties, when he read ‘the quite obvious’ authors – James Joyce, Nabokov, Proust, Beckett and Henry James. (He told the New York Times recently that he’d like to marry Portrait of a Lady’s Isobel Archer.)

‘These books were of burning importance to me,’ he said, though he’s now made the switch from ‘a fanatical reader to a fanatical writer’.

St Aubyn has just finished his next novel – a week before he came to Australia. It’s not a Patrick Melrose novel, and he found a ‘huge improvement’ in his mental state while writing it.

‘I was interested in whether I could enjoy myself while writing a novel. In my worst paranoid nightmares, I think everyone will hate it because I enjoyed myself.’

Repeating the past - or not

Are we all doomed to repeat the past? Is Patrick Melrose?

‘I think he just manages to crawl across the threshold of enough self-knowledge not to have repetition syndrome,’ said St Aubyn. ‘I do think we are all doomed to repeat our own conditioning without active opposition.’

‘Patrick is interested in really understanding the truth of what happened. It’s his passion for the truth that saves him from following in his father’s footsteps.’

St Aubyn has two children; he says that having a child ‘adds a kind of depth to your unconscious and brings up all sorts of new material’.

He brilliantly captures a child’s perspective in his books – first, he inhabits a young Patrick Melrose, and later Patrick’s (much loved) young son Thomas, as he observes his damaged father from the outside.

‘It’s always been terrifyingly easy for me to imagine the world from a child’s point of view,’ he says. ‘I’ve always been on the side of children, even at my most disturbed.’