Thursday 5 May 2011

'the most extraordinary gathering'

'Death is not an event in life, we do not live to experience death' - Ludwig Wittgenstein

At Last
by Edward St Aubyn

St Aubyn's previous novel, Mother's Milk, should've won the Booker in 2006 for my money. It is a marvellous book, coruscating one minute, tender the next, a wicked portrait of a man in crisis that sent me back to read the trilogy that preceded it, Some Hope. It is when reading that that you get an idea of the horror of St Aubyn's own biography. Raped by his own father until he confronted him at the age of 8, a heroin addict at 16, a potential suicide in his late twenties, it was writing that prevented him from ending it all, Never Mind, the first volume of the trilogy, quite literally saving his life. Without attempting to sort out exactly what is fact and what fiction we followed Patrick Melrose dealing first with his father's death, his own addiction and finding a measure of redemption in the trilogy and then a transference of his anger onto his mother Eleanor in Mother's Milk as she fell under the spell of a New Age charlatan and gave away the family home in Saint-Nazaire. It's important not to forget the vicious humour that accompanies this dramatic plot, not only in direct relation to his own situation but particularly in Patrick's observations of the vapid socialites that surround him. I generally find it hard to care much about any difficulties faced by the super-wealthy, but the brutal honesty and frequent barbs launched by Patrick Melrose made him a compelling narrator.

So I have been waiting five years for another novel from St Aubyn and I was pleased to find out that it would pick up Patrick's story. As the title and cover suggest this is the final instalment in the Melrose saga, taking place at the funeral service for Patrick's mother Eleanor. Will the passing of both of his parents allow him to move forward into a life free of their influence? I shouldn't have been so surprised I guess, but in a novel that takes place during a funeral service you don't immediately expect to be laughing, but that is exactly what happens from the very first page, thanks largely to the witterings of family friend, Nicholas Pratt ('like Toady in a very grumpy mood').

'I suppose your aunt will be here soon... I saw her last week in New York and I'm pleased to say I was the first to tell her the tragic news about your mother.  She burst into tears and ordered a croque monsieur to swallow with her second helping of diet pills. I felt sorry for her and got her asked to dinner with the Blands. Do you know Freddie Bland? He's the smallest billionaire alive. His parents were practically dwarfs, like General and Mrs Tom Thumb. They used to come into the room with a tremendous fanfare and then disappear under a console table.'

And on he goes. The family gathering is a scenario well exploited for character comedy in many mediums and having already introduced his characters to readers in the previous books St Aubyn is well placed to allow Patrick's attentions to wander around the room, drifting from conversation to conversation, puncturing the pretensions of the upper-class as he goes. But St Aubyn has always been a very humane writer and his real skill is to make you care or at least understand in some way even the most unsympathetic characters, whilst also somehow making you sympathise with the trials of those who have begun life with everything and found themselves with nowhere to go.

As far as Patrick was concerned, the past was a corpse waiting to be cremated, and although his wish was about to be granted in the most literal fashion, in a furnace only a few yards from where he was standing, another kind of fire was needed to incinerate the attitudes which haunted Nancy; the psychological impact 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, and their opponents, the standard bearers, all living in a world that the dense glitter of alternatives made it hard for love and work to penetrate.
Having gone some way to settling his own demons of addiction Patrick seems to present a far more balanced character, a family man determined to avoid the pitfalls of his own family history in setting up his own. This comes after furious examination though and naturally it is Eleanor who comes under the spotlight here, pinned to the specimen board like a fragile butterfly. If Patrick's father has always been cast as the villain of the piece then his mother has always seemed to be ill-equipped to deal with the life she found herself in -  'a small baby perfectly preserved in the pickling jar of money, alcohol and fantasy.' - but Patrick isn't content to let her off the hook so easily.

No doubt David had searched hard among the foolish and the meek to find a woman who could put up with his special tastes, but once his depravity was on full display, how could Eleanor escape the charge of colluding with a sadist and a paedophile?

He wasn't the only victim of his father's 'depravity' after all; friends who came to stay over were subjected to the same humiliations and there is a real tussle with the apportioning of blame. Even that house in Saint-Nazaire, so bitterly fought over in Mother's Milk, is now tainted by its association, provided by Eleanor 'as a massive substitute for herself, a motherland that was there to cover for her incapacities.' No, Eleanor comes in for a rough ride in this novel, she will be laid to rest only after having been dragged over the coals by a son who can only conclude at her passing that 'I think my mother's death is the best thing to happen to me since . . well, since my father's death.'

That wandering gaze I mentioned earlier lends the prose a wonderful fluidity and the ease with which Patrick can dip back into his memories intensifies this even further. Memory is unsurprisingly a major theme with Patrick first espousing that 'life is just the history of what we give our attention to. The rest is packaging.' Then later realising that some of his childhood memories have been manufactured from family photographs (something I have done several times). Eventually he even questions the value of memory.

What if memories were just memories, without any consolatory or persecutory power? Would they exist at all, or was it always emotional pressure that summoned images from what was potentially all of experience so far. Even if that was the case, there must be better librarians than panic, resentment and dismembering nostalgia to search among the dim and crowded stacks.
It's not that I've been waiting for a brilliant book about death to be written but two have certainly come along at once. After the excellent Today by David Miller, At Last is another beautifully crafted examination of death, grief and remembrance. I mentioned at the beginning that fiction that concerns the privileged can have little concern for the average reader unless it endeavours to speak to them in some way. I also began with a quote from Wittgenstein and it is another that I will finish with to hopefully tie all of that together. If 'nothing is more important in teaching us to understand the concepts we have than constructing fictitious ones.' then both Today and At Last have done just that in order to teach us something about our own reaction to the sudden removal of those people who have helped shape exactly who we are, or thought we were.


Anonymous,  6 May 2011 at 19:42  

great review will ,I ve read mothers milk and clue to .. by him ,said in jons post may read if get near booker as I like his style of writing a humour at times ,but otherwise be a while till I read it ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 9 May 2011 at 11:49  

I reckon the temptation to read this one will be too great for you to resist Stu, especially as someone who's read Mother's Milk. Hope you enjoy it.

Simon (Savidge Reads) 17 May 2011 at 15:36  

I have yet to read any of his books, but now thanks to your review I am thinking I finally will. I had it in my head that these were like the Dave Pelzer books, misery memoirs which I don't really have time for, yet it seems I was barking up the wrong tree and while these are based on something horrific it looks like these are done in a different, and rather incredible way. So thanks for changing my mind.

William Rycroft 18 May 2011 at 08:41  

Hi Simon, thanks for the comment. I'm so pleased to have changed your mind about what these books are like. Without having read a single misery memoir I can say that St Aubyn's Melrose books are nothing like that at all. Think more of a modern Waugh. His writing is exquisite, hilarious and full of barbs. I'd recommend starting at the beginning with the trilogy published together as Some Hope. If you like those then you'll have the joy of Mother's Milk and At Last still to come. Lucky you.

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