Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Saturn devouring his son

Saturn and son ... appropriately.
At Last by Edward St. Aubyn (Picador, 2011) 264 pages

This is the fifth book in the Patrick Melrose quintet of novels and I have to admit that although I enthusiastically embraced the series last year, my interest started to peter out by the fourth book Mother's Milk. You may read reviews of the first three books here, here and here (I did not review the fourth).

Perhaps that fourth book was too painful, too bitter. In that novel, Patrick's mother Eleanor had decided to leave the beautiful Melrose home in the south of France to a new age foundation that she had been fanatically devoted to in the last years of her life. St. Aubyn has a good time skewering the new age ninnies that people that novel and rightfully so. 

It was painful to read Patrick's rants against his increasingly debilitated mother who suffered a series of strokes as he wrestles with what he perceives as another betrayal - firstly, and most importantly, her inability to protect Patrick from his father's sadism and then the bequest of the house to strangers upon her imminent death. That hatred is corrosive and unrelenting. I understood it but I found it toxic to read. 

Eleanor is a dismal, poorly equipped, horribly emotionally beaten down wife and mother. When Patrick confesses to Eleanor that he had been raped by his father, she can only reply "Me too!" to her astonished son. Patrick later learns that his procreation was also the result of rape and that his father, a doctor, attempted a circumcision upon the poor infant on the kitchen table much to the horror of the women in the household, all of them powerless to stop him. Mercifully he does not give us a great many details of that incident. Perhaps in atonement for her deficiencies and lack of will as a mother, Eleanor uses her great wealth to help the underprivileged and seek spiritual enlightenment.

Well, by book five the old gal is gone and the entire book is set on the day of Eleanor's funeral and all the pertinent persons are present: avaricious Nancy, Eleanor's sister; Nicolas Pratt, a caustic friend of Patrick's father David and a representative of the old order; pious Mary, Patrick's ex-wife who has made all the funeral arrangements; Johnny Hall, once Patrick's fellow addict and friend, now a child psychotherapist; the shallow, prickly Julia, Patrick's former mistress; the dorkish intellectual Eramus, Mary's ex-lover; and the boobish Annette, representing the newly wealthy Transpersonal Foundation, the beneficiary of Eleanor's largess. 

Patrick can be an insufferable snob in his own right but he rightfully skewers his avaricious, self-obsessed family personified by his aunt Nancy who feels cheated on her own lost inheritance:
She had no prospect for getting any cash for the rest of the month ... her heroic response had been to spend as if justice had been done by cheating shopkeepers, landlords, decorators, florists, hairdressers, butchers, jewellers, and garage owners, by withholding tips from coat check girls, and by engineering rows with staff so that she could sack them without pay.
Nicholas Pratt, Patrick's father's friend, serves, I think, as a sort of father substitute saying and doing things at the funeral that one imagines the old monster himself would say. When he collapses before Johnny, who served as a psychotherapist to Nicholas' own daughter, one begins to think the title of the novel might refer to the final elimination of the vituperative older generation that almost destroys Patrick.

Amazingly, St. Aubyn writes with discretion in naming David Melrose's abuse of his son Patrick. I say amazingly because the details are horrendously autobiographical; he (and we as readers) cannot escape this past. It colours every passage, every remark that Patrick makes. 

St. Aubyn is brilliant is elucidating the poisonous ills of inherited wealth:
... the raging desire to get rid of it and the raging desire to hang on to it; the demoralizing effect of already having what almost everyone else was sacrificing their precious lives to acquire; the more or less secret superiority and the more or less secret shame of being rich, generating their characteristic disguises: the philanthropy solution, the alcoholic solution, the mask of eccentricity, the search for salvation in perfect taste; the defeated, the idle, and the frivolous ...
St. Aubyn writes with artistry and sophistication - perhaps too much so at times - the dialogue can be overblown, overly intellectual, overtly elegant in a manner that is spoken by virtually no one. Thomas and Robert, Patrick's sons are preternaturally articulate and wise in their precociousness - and, therefore, unbelievable as children. 

Patrick himself is literate, eloquent and desperately unhappy throughout. Not even the surprise that he has been bequeathed a tidy sum of money from a hitherto unknown family trust created by his American great grandfather and has inherited the not immodest sum of 2 million pounds, can alleviate this pain it seems. 

Perhaps I am more forgiving as a reader of this last novel as I know we are approaching the end - the end, we hope, of Patrick's torment with the death of both of his parents, his divorce from the too good to be true Mary, his final break with alcohol and substance abuse (we hope). He has endured much and somehow survived. He has remained a decent, if painfully self aware, human being. 

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