These days British novelist Edward St Aubyn is regarded as one of his country's finest literary stylists. From New York to London, Berlin to Paris, he's been lauded for his wit, his intelligence and ferociously comic-tragic vision, as well as for the sheer beauty and clarity of his sentences.
But as this 53-year-old author is quick to tell you, he's the last to know what critics have said of his now famous quintet of novels about the privileged and dysfunctional Melrose family. For a start, he never reads reviews. Then he adds: "The books were written in an atmosphere of complete obscurity and it's taken so long to write them I haven't really kind of caught up."
St Aubyn sat down to write Never Mind, the first novel in what was intended to be a trilogy about his alter ego, Patrick Melrose, in 1988. By the time he'd completed the trilogy with Some Hope, in 1994, his merciless portrayal of the social milieu into which he was born, saw him likened to Evelyn Waugh and the novels extolled for their waspish, class-bound, satirical wit, at the expense of the profound humanity at play in them.
Awash with irony and comedic flair on the surface, but with an achingly tragic undertow, the novels are tragicomic, says St Aubyn. "But not as a literary device, but because of something very deep in me which alternates quite quickly between heartbreak and acerbity. It's just how I see the world. I didn't sit down and think 'I'm going to write some tragic- comic novels'."
Then there was the long-running media guessing game, which began 20 years ago, over which bits of his books were true, when he acknowledged to an interviewer that certain elements of Never Mind - notably his depiction of the rape of five-year-old Patrick Melrose by his father David - were autobiographical.
He later went on to acknowledge the parallels of his own life in his portrayal of Patrick's years as a trust-fund heroin addict in Bad News. But St Aubyn has always declared the novels an attempt to get to the dramatic truth of the situation rather than to describe the facts. "I was interested right from the beginning in being involved in some sort of transformational process rather than a confessional process."
But with the publication of a fourth Melrose novel, Mother's Milk, in 2006, the astonishing range and power of his ambitious and, indeed, transformative literary undertaking began to impress itself upon a wider public. The novel won a Booker Prize short-listing as well as France's prestigious 2007 Prix Femina Etranger and was adapted into a film of the same name. It also established a new tone in the Melrose saga which is brought to a conclusion in his 2011 novel, At Last, which, like all the books, unfolds over the course of a single day, this time at Patrick's mother's funeral and wake. It also draws all thematic threads of the preceding works together and leaves Patrick in a state of grace, having wrested his life back from the wreckage.
While each novel can be read separately, at the core, St Aubyn says, "they're about psychological annihilation and an attempt to reconstruct an identity on voluntary lines. But there's a tension between the tragic core and the comic surface, which is something that makes the books possible to read".
Indeed, he argues: "If they were just about psychological annihilation, and child abuse and drug addiction they would be probably unbearable. But I've thrown everything I know about writing at them, so I hope the pleasure of the text is greater than the emotional pain of the things that it describes. Everyone wants to lead a voluntary life and wants to see through the values that have been given to him or her, by their upbringing and their culture, and to choose them rather than to simply reiterate them."
One of the most potent themes of the novels is their play between the articulate and inarticulate, with the real miracle being in the way in which St Aubyn gives voice to the inchoate. He cites Elliot, and says: "That whole thing about 'the raid on the inarticulate' being the nature of poetry has always struck me as true of all serious writing."
As for his much-lauded and preternatural ability in portraying the inner life of children, he says: "I just think I've always had, in some ways a catastrophically easy access to my own childhood and therefore I'm completely on the side of children and find it very easy to tune in, if you like, to childhood mentality."
In a more general sense, he adds: "The upside of the very destructive collapse of all proper boundaries familiar to a child is that I do find it easy to imagine other people's mentalities, and that's what novelists have to do." But although he describes Patrick as an alter ego and says, "roughly speaking, his parents are portraits of my parents", he is at pains to state: "A lot of everything else is invented. So I think it's a mistake to conflate the two, and the interesting thing is what I've done with the material rather than whether it's true or not."
For just as Patrick refuses to take the easy road of simply hating his father in the fictional realm, St Aubyn has from the outset refused to take any easy route in the writing of this life-changing quintet."If it had been a vindictive project it would not have been transformative. But because it was an attempt to understand what was going on beyond Patrick's suffering, what values or social setting this disaster arose from, it became something else. But it's a very hard-won understanding. It took me 25 years and five books to achieve any kind of equanimity but I think the process from the very beginning was heading in that direction."
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