The Quality of Mercy: Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels

“If I could imagine a mercy that was purely human, and not one that rested on the Greatest Story Ever Told, I might extend it to my father for being so unhappy.” — Patrick Melrose

This is the point at which I almost stopped reading Never Mind, the first of the four Patrick Melrose novels included in this collection:

During lunch David felt that he had perhaps pushed his disdain for middle-class prudery a little too far. Even at the bar of the Cavalry and Guards Club one couldn’t boast about homosexual, paedophiliac incest with any confidence of a favourable reception.

The rape itself is told, with harrowing obliqueness, from the point of view of David’s victim, his five-year old son Patrick. Patrick doesn’t know exactly what is happening to him, and he certainly doesn’t know why. He endures it by dissociating himself from his body:

He could hear his father wheezing, and the bedhead bumping against the wall. From behind the curtains with the green birds, he saw a gecko emerge and cling motionlessly to the corner of the wall beside the open window. Patrick lanced himself towards it. Tightening his fists and concentrating until his concentration was like a telephone wire stretched between them, Patrick disappeared into the lizard’s body.

It’s a scene unbearable to contemplate, and St. Aubyn presents it with clinical precision, not buffering the horror with euphemism, or with narrative intrusions to ventriloquize our shock and outrage. David’s afterthoughts (and indeed the whole of the novel) are handled the same way, with pitiless detachment, but even though I understand perfectly well that it’s David, not the novelist, being ironic here at the expense of a raped child, it’s still a sickening moment of levity. I didn’t know if I could bear another 600 pages in this company–not David’s company, as I knew he would be dead by the beginning of the second novel (though thanks to flashbacks this doesn’t altogether spare us his presence on the page, and of course his influence is pervasive) as the company of the novelist who could dedicate his conspicuous writerly gifts to creating such a bitterly unpleasant world.

The novel I kept thinking of as I did, after all, keep reading, was Madame Bovary. There, too, the world is a pretty nasty place full of people who (like the people in St. Aubyn’s world) are at best self-centered and at worst sociopathic. When my book club met to discuss Madame Bovary, one response to the suggestion that it’s too negative was that its cynicism is justified: that it’s not in fact negative but realistic. To which, of course, the only possible answer is “of course”: people are awful. But not all people, not all of the time, and I don’t see there’s any necessary artistic superiority to playing up the worst of us. Not that a novelist has any obligation to offer consolation–but unless there’s some glimpse, some hint, some tremor, of an idea about what might be different, or what might make a difference, then no matter how elegantly articulated it is, isn’t a novel about the unremitting nastiness of it all just the artistic equivalent of craning your neck at a car wreck without even calling for roadside assistance?

It’s possible to do social criticism by negative example: think Thackeray, for instance. Patrick Melrose lives in a world that is not altogether different from Vanity Fair, and where in that novel do we find consolation? Where is the ought arising from Thackeray’s is? We find it, not among the characters, but in the narrator, whose companionable exhortations encourage us, as I argued in the essay I wrote on the novel for Open Letters, “to look in the unflattering mirror of its pages and face the moral reality of [our] lives, … to smarten up before [we] die wretched and unlamented.” This is not consoling, but it is constructive: it adds a dimension beyond prurient revulsion and creates the possibility of sympathy. For me (and I know this is not an absolute or uncontested point of view), that expansion is a vital part of literary excellence, though it need not be done as overtly as Thackeray or George Eliot does it. (My post comparing Mrs. Lydgate and Mrs. Bovary turns on this question of how to weigh different kinds of artistic mastery; the thoughtful comments are worth a look, if you weren’t part of that earlier discussion.)

So the question for me is ultimately, what is the relationship of the novelist (properly, of course, the ‘implied author’ or some such) to what is going on in his novel? and where, if anywhere, is the alternative to the evils we’re shown? To what ends are we being treated to this particular aesthetic display? I kept reading The Patrick Melrose Novels because I thought that someone who could write Patrick’s escape into the gecko must have a worldview that allowed for our horror to foster compassion, but by the end of the second novel, Bad News, I was not reassured. Bad News brilliantly, ruthlessly, chronicles Patrick’s trip to New York to collect his father’s ashes. I say “brilliantly” because sentence by sentence it is about as flawless an evocation of 24 hours in the life of a drug addict as you can imagine. I say “ruthlessly” because it is intensely and unforgivingly voyeuristic: it makes an artistic spectacle of Patrick’s pathetic, grovelling, disgusting, occasionally comic degradation. Occasionally comic? See, there’s that levity again! And this time I couldn’t blame it on the character, though to be sure Patrick finds some things funny during this appalling interlude. It should be appalling, just as “paedophiliac incest” should be harrowing. But reading Bad News I thought St. Aubyn was having too much fun: the writing passes from excoriating realism into flamboyance, at the expense of his character the rape victim. Patrick’s inability to find a moral center is his father’s fault, of course (“The obscene necessity of going over that curtain pole”)–but what’s St. Aubyn’s excuse? There’s an easy answer here too: that Patrick’s story is, to a significant extent, St. Aubyn’s. But an important autobiographical explanation is not necessarily a sufficient literary one.

If I hadn’t bought the Melrose novels in this collected set, Bad News might have been the end for me. I wasn’t really interested in seeing how many more variations on the worst of human character and experience St. Aubyn could compose, and I was tiring of the conspicuous stylishness of his prose, with its excess of pat similes (“Soon enough, his synapses would be screaming like starving children, and every cell in his body tugging pathetically at his sleeve”; “Constantly on the verge of hallucination, he walked on ground that undulated softly, like a swallowing throat”; “Patrick slammed the car door and glanced up at the stars, gleaming through a break in the clouds like fresh track marks in the dark blue limbs of the night.”). But the next volume was called Some Hope, and so I read on, hoping, through it and then through Mother’s Milk. By the end I found no sign of consolation: these novels are the antithesis of the inspirational redemption stories popular, say, on Oprah. There is no transcendence, no rising above, no lesson in loving emerging from the experience of hate and abuse. The damage to Patrick is irreparable. He learns to live, damaged; perhaps that is the best hope St. Aubyn has to offer–that, and that maybe the harm need not be passed on to the next generation.

For Patrick somehow finds enough hope to marry and become a father himself (and both acts are, surely, essentially optimistic). Mother’s Milk begins from the perspective of Patrick’s son Robert, who brings back into the novels something of the innocence that went out of them when Patrick disappeared into the gecko. Robert is uncannily self-aware, precocious to the point of total unbelievability. Looking around Manhattan on a family vacation, when he is around eight years old, he observes that the faces he sees

looked to him like the embittered softness of betrayed children who had been told to expect everything. For those who were prepared to be consoled there was always something to eat; a pretzel stall, an ice-cream card, a food-delivery service, a bowl of nuts on the counter, a snack machine down the corridor. He felt the pressure to drift into the mentality of grazing cattle, not just ordinary cattle but industrialized cattle, neither made to wait nor allowed to.

This is not the articulated thought process of an eight-year-old child: this is St. Aubyn’s (deft, skewering, funny) analysis of the entitlement and  emotional neediness of contemporary middle-class America. It could have been Patrick’s point of view being repeated, but even Robert’s much-remarked (and, again, uncanny) gift of mimicry doesn’t really smooth this kind of commentary into realism–in this precocity, he is a device, a mouthpiece, as often as he is himself. But when Robert was more himself, it was his childish openness–he’s not yet set into the patterns of resentment that govern both of his parents–that let in a breeze of the sympathy I thought the novel had shut out.

It’s not a moment of easy sympathy. Patrick’s mother is declining into senility and immobility. She herself is a victim of his persecutor: Patrick is the result of rape, and David dominated his wife to such an extent that he once compelled her to crawl around on all fours eating figs straight off their terrace: “he put his foot on her back and said, ‘Eat them up. We don’t want them going to waste, do we?’” But in her turn she utterly failed to protect, much less love, her son, who has since had to watch, and even help, her squander her wealth (his inheritance). Patrick does his duty by her, but, understandably, he can barely repress his anger at her. Robert, on the other hand, watches his grandmother’s struggle to speak and is moved by her fear: “His grandfather had done her family some wrong,” he understands, “but she was suffering horribly.” He takes her hand:

That way she could tell him things without having to speak, her thoughts flooding into him in pictures.

The bridges were burnt and broken and everything his grandmother wanted to say got banked up on one side of a ravine, never taking form, never moving on. She felt a perpetual pressure, a scratching behind her eyeballs, like a dog pleading to be let in, a fullness that could only escape in tears and sighs and jagged gestures.

Under the bruise of feeling there was a brutal instinct to stay alive, like a run-over snake thrashing on a hot road, or blind roots pumping sap into a bleeding stump.

Again there’s a problem with believing quite this perception of Robert, here around five. But it makes some sense that he would grasp (if not articulate) these feelings, because they are not foreign to the experience of a child– both the inaccessibility of language and the pain of vulnerability and weakness. Robert sees, with simplicity, that it’s “unfair to gang up against his frightened grandmother.” He can think that clearly because he hasn’t been broken, hasn’t been betrayed, hasn’t lost his hope or his trust in other people. That ability to reach out, or at least to do so sincerely, is what Patrick lost. What this scene reminds us, though, is that under different conditions Patrick too might have seen the world very differently. In that idea is at least a hint of that other dimension I was looking for: cruelty, indifference, “incomprehensible violence” like David’s beatings–these are elements of our world, and predominant elements of Patrick’s world, but they are not the whole world, and fighting against them is worthwhile. “Nobody should do that to anybody else,” Patrick thinks in Bad News. In its immediate context, the phrase seems like futile railing against his own unthinkable experience. In the broader context of the series, it becomes a credo, the bitterness and cynicism of the books themselves testimony of its importance to sustaining our humanity.

But is it still a futile thought? How can the pattern of destructive egotism really be broken, especially if forgiveness remains elusive? In Some Hope, Patrick meditates on what it might take for him to “live instead of merely surviving”:

Only when he could hold in balance his hatred and his stunted love, looking on his father with neither pity nor terror but as another human being who had not handled his personality especially well; only when he could live with the ambivalence of never forgiving his father for his crimes but allowing himself to be touched by the unhappiness that had produced them as well as the unhappiness they had produced, could he be released, perhaps, into a new life …

“Hearing the word mercy in Measure for Measure,” he tells a friend, “made [him] imagine that there might be a course that is neither bitter nor false, something that lies beyond argument.” But Patrick has trouble grasping quite what that course would be: how can you temper justice with mercy? Should you, even, with such a crime? In Mother’s Milk  mercy remains just out of reach: bitterness and falsity still govern much of Patrick’s life. Paradoxically, his quest to help his mother achieve the death she longs for is his most life-affirming work, because in it he acknowledges, as his son did, that suffering should move us to kindness: seeing her “writhing on the bed, begging for death,” finally “the rivalry between revenge and compassion ended.”

Though I don’t expect or want an artificially uplifting or sentimental conclusion to his story, I wonder if in the final volume, At Last, Patrick (and St. Aubyn) will allow himself, touched as he is by unhappiness, to be blessed by the gentle rain of mercy. Is that outcome precluded by the dark vision that governs these novels, or would it realize the hopeful possibility so cruelly betrayed in that elegant bedroom, with that elegant prose? It’s probably a sign of my own optimism–or just naiveté–that I’ve gone ahead and ordered the book. Even though after the traumas of the first four books I’m braced for disillusionment, St. Aubyn has left me with just enough hope to read to the end.

3 Comments to The Quality of Mercy: Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels

  1. Annette Weinold's Gravatar Annette Weinold
    August 1, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Dear Rohan Maitzen
    Thank you very much for your comments on the Patrick Melrose novels. I am from Denmark and nevertheless I read English litterature most of the time.
    I have just read “At last” and I then read your comments on the first 4 novels and I was grateful. I felt exactly the same thing and I am also grateful now that I jumped over a lot in the novels since I couldn’t stand being with the awful people presented there. I was confused since the books are so well written, but I saw in the end no meaning of being a part of it.
    Enjoy the last end of the journey! Your comments made sense for me – thanks again
    Best regards Annette Weinold

  2. August 3, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been seeing St. Aubyn popping up in the review papers and they all make him sound really good but didn’t offer much detail on what the books were actually about. Now I know, so thanks for that! They sound really harsh and intense but the fact that you kept reading and plan to read At Last too says something. I would like to give them a try sometime and now I feel somewhat prepared for what I will find.

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