Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk

Time passes even more quickly for Patrick Melrose, the eponymous hero of Edward St. Aubyn’s justly celebrated Patrick Melrose quintet of novels, than it does in real life. When we first met him, he was just five years old, an innocent child helpless against his father’s predations; in the second novel, he’s well into both his twenties and a heroin addiction; in the third novel, he’s in his early thirties, and recovering some sense of equilibrium; and now, in the fourth novel in the series, he’s in his early forties, working as a barrister, with a wife and two young sons of his own, potential heirs to the family trauma that devastated his own childhood. Patrick’s tyrannical father is long dead – though no less capable of haunting Patrick’s thoughts – and attentions now turn to Eleanor Melrose, Patrick’s mother, who spent most of the previous novels in a self-medicated stupor.

The central drama of the novel, in typical St. Aubyn fashion, is both comic and tragic. Eleanor Melrose has bequeathed the bulk of her estate, centred around a lavish country home in France, not to her only son and his family, but to a spiritual guru skilled in wooing elderly women with large bank accounts and latent guilt. In a further twist of the knife, she has enlisted Patrick’s legal aid to finalize the transfer, making him complicit in his own (and his children’s) disinheritance. Eleanor’s own mother, Patrick’s grandmother, an ultra-wealthy American heiress, had performed a similar deathbed denunciation, choosing to offer the larger share of her estate not to her own daughter but to her second husband, a broke nobleman: “Her mother had liked dukes whereas Eleanor liked would-be witch doctors, but regardless of the social decline the essential formula remained the same: rip off the children for the sake of some cherished self-image, the grand dame, or the holy fool.” More than one reviewer has pointed out, with some justification, that the average reader, having no expectation of a multi-million dollar inheritance, will struggle to feel much sympathy for Patrick’s plight, but the psychodynamics of their relationship are explored with admirable subtlety. Even more interesting to readers is the growing gap between Patrick and Mary, his wife, who has retreated from her role of wife in favour of full-time motherhood. In Patrick’s telling, she was a lover to him only in the interim period between having their first and second child, and has since foregone sex entirely. This, in turn, becomes Patrick’s excuse for seeking an affair with Julia, a childhood friend, adding to the novel’s drama. There is some lip service paid to middle-age, and the existential crisis it can provoke:

He tried to remind himself what his youth had really been like, but all he could remember was the abundance of sex and the sense of potential greatness, replaced, as his view closed in on the present, by the disappearance of sex and the sense of wasted potential.

But St. Aubyn never allows Patrick to become a caricature of the middle-aged man, whose appetites outweigh his obligations: he genuinely loves his children and his wife, and suffers for the emotional distance between them: “He struggled so hard to get away from his roles as a father and a husband, only to miss them the moment he succeeded. There was no better antidote to his enormous sense of futility than the enormous sense of purpose which his children brought to the most obviously futile tasks […].”

Another consideration, for admirers of St. Aubyn, is that though the demands of marketing have combined these five novels into a single volume, years – almost two decades, in fact – separate the composition of the first book from the final one, and so attentive readers can revel in his growth as a writer. One conspicuous difference between this, the fourth volume in the series, and the earlier ones, is the growing number of perspectives we are given: Patrick’s, of course, but also his wife’s, and their eldest son Robert’s. The effect, on readers, is to enlarge our sympathies, and dampen our harshest judgments of certain characters. Mary, for example, is described as possessing a “permanently exhausted smile in which her eyes didn’t participate. They inhabited a harder world in which she was trying to survive the ceaseless demands of her sons, and the destructive effect on a solitary nature of spending years without a moment of solitude.” Later, we are told that she “had spent too long in a state of shattering empathy, tuned in to her children’s vagrant moods. She sometimes felt she was about to forget her own existence completely. She had to cry to reclaim herself.” These moments of sympathy are largely products of the novel’s structure, and serve to lighten the often-fatal, always-amusing condemnations of Patrick, who can say, of his own mother, for example:

[…] the defining characteristic of Eleanor’s life was her incompetence. She wanted to have a child and became a lousy mother, she wanted to write children’s stories and became a lousy writer; she wanted to be a philanthropist and gave all her money to a self-serving charlatan.

It’s as if St. Aubyn is reigning in his own worst tendencies, particularly the overpowering sharpness of his own cutting wit, to summon our sympathy. And then there are the flights of lyricism that mark St. Aubyn as one of the premier living prose stylists, operating at the highest levels of the craft. Consider this passage, written from Mary’s perspective, as she spends a sleepless night in the Connecticut mansion of wealthy family friends:

It wasn’t going to happen. Her body had started its landslide towards sleep. She took one last glance out of the window and wished she hadn’t. A thin streak of cloud was crossing the moon in a way that reminded her of the elision in Un Chien Andalou between the same image and a razor blade slicing open an eyeball. Her vision was the end of vision. Was she blinded by something she couldn’t bear to look at? She was too tired to work anything out. Her thoughts were just threats, sleep just the rubble of wakefulness.

The image she conjures is one of the most famous and disturbing in all of cinema, but rather than leave the image adrift, St. Aubyn recycles it to greater advantage, tormenting Mary with the possibility of a psychological blindspot. There is a final layer of complexity added to the image when it is considered in the context of the novel’s Freudian themes: Oedipus, who unwittingly trespassed against his own family, puts out his own eyes, making his metaphorical blindness painfully real.

I continue to believe, with renewed conviction, that this series of novels constitutes a modern masterpiece, and can only hope that the impending television series, and my own meagre praise, will bring it the recognition it deserves.