Reality. Or should that be “reality”? Our insatiable appetite for what’s billed as the raw experience of others is surely among the most pervasive cultural forces of recent times. In literature, its chief manifestation has been the misery memoir, harrowing fables of neglect and abuse that shot up the bestseller lists jacketed in images of sacrificial innocence.
Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose novels are one of contemporary fiction’s most interesting and distinctively British achievements — mordant and shocking and savagely entertaining. But they also stand as a crystalline reproach to the shifty allure of the misery memoir. The latest in the series — the last, he insists — is a forceful reminder of fiction’s enduring superiority as a tool for personal transformation and transcendence.
When the series began with the trilogy Some Hope in the early 1990s, Dave Pelzer was unheard of. Rummaging deep in his own busted past, St Aubyn wrote into being an alter ego named Patrick Melrose. Much has befallen Patrick in the 20 years since. Raped as a five-year-old by his blue-blooded father, David, he stumbled into adulthood a snobby junkie and got clean only to wind up mired in depression.
That was the last we saw of him until a dozen years and a couple of novels later, when St Aubyn brought Patrick back in a companion novel, Mother’s Milk. By then, he had torn through his inheritance and become a jobbing barrister. Having acquired a wife and two sons, he took a mistress, flirted with suicide, and tottered into the sodden embrace of alcoholism. Along the way, he cremated his paternal tormentor and watched his mother — fey American heiress Eleanor — gift the Provençal house whose magic had saved his infant self to a New Age cult as she slipped into senility.
Mother’s Milk made the Man Booker shortlist and won France’s Prix Femina Etranger. It has just been filmed, too, from a screenplay co-written by producer Gerald Fox and St Aubyn himself. Yet as a full stop to the series, it wasn’t wholly convincing.
Now comes At Last, a mesmerising distillation of all the acerbity, acuity, and yearning of those earlier works. The novel uses the occasion of Eleanor’s funeral to clarify as it concludes. David’s monstrousness is well established but Eleanor’s complicity is finally hauled into the open. She always used his violence to explain her fear of leaving him, but did it captivate her as she cowered — was she less “co-victim” than collaborator? All those times she’d gone off to Save the Children meetings leaving her son alone with him. All those other children she’d invited to Provence for the holidays. How could she not have known what even their teenage nanny intuited?
Told largely from Patrick’s viewpoint, the novel channels other mourners as well, including his estranged wife, the grotesque Nicholas Pratt — last surviving crony of his father — and Eleanor’s terminally supercilious sister who stomps around in disbelief that they should hold the funeral on the day of Prince Charles’s wedding. “The only other people who might have come will be at Windsor.”
As the service ends and the reception begins, the novel moves from social satire to macabre farce, funnelling in philosophical musings on inheritance and wealth, reincarnation and consciousness. It almost functions as a stand-alone, though had you not already encountered these characters, you’d be missing out on the marvel of compression that depicts Patrick’s love life as “a child’s wind-up toy made to march again and again over the precipice of a kitchen table”, or compares Julia, his former mistress, to “a spider’s web, trembling at the slightest touch, but indifferent to the light that made its threads shine in the wet grass”.
St Aubyn is regularly likened to Evelyn Waugh — the same social milieu, the same haute tartness. Mother’s Milk somewhat dashed those comparisons with its excessive whimsy (it opened with Patrick’s five-year-old son’s recollections of his own birth). At Last blends the bitter with the sweet far more effectively, and draws on a powerful tenderness that has matured over the series.
Despite its gothic horror, it has evolved into a meditation on a universal conundrum: how we come to be who we are, and what scope there is for change. Freedom is its enduring dream — freedom from ancestral baggage and the snares of drink and drugs, bad relationships and false gods. For Patrick, middle-aged and newly orphaned, it finally seems a possibility.
But these novels tell another story, too — the story of a writer’s recovery. Back when he was promoting the trilogy, St Aubyn let slip that the darkest spectres of Patrick’s life — the abusive father, the tangos with addiction, the suicidal urges — were plucked directly from his own experience. Reviewers who had already been remarking upon his aristocratic pedigree and titled friends began to peer more closely at the pages he had sweated over, trying to tease the fact from the fiction.
Ultimately though, St Aubyn’s biography doesn’t change the way we read his work. Its excellence sees to that. As he told one probing interviewer: “If it does have any therapeutic value, the only way to get access to it is to write without any therapeutic intent. You transform experience into, for want of a better word, art.”
The immediacy that readers crave from pulp misery memoirs is here in abundance, but mediated by skill and wisdom and insight — by artistry, in short — it also becomes something that will endure.