Edward St Aubyn was born in 1960 in London, and was educated at Westminster School and Oxford University.
He is the author of On the Edge (1998), shortlisted for the 1998 Guardian Fiction Prize; and A Clue to the Exit (2000), about a hack screenwriter given six months to live.
He is best-known for his semi-autobiographical series of books: Never Mind (1992), winner of a Betty Trask Award; Bad News (1992); and Some Hope (1994), now published together under the name of the last volume, Some Hope (2006).
Mother's Milk (2006) is a loose sequel to these books, also featuring Patrick Melrose, and was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The final book in the series, At Last, was published in 2011.
There are many English novels that are set in country houses or stately homes.
Such novels, sometimes setting the middle classes against the upper, sometimes evoking nostalgia, sometimes satirical, have been part of a tradition from Jane Austen onwards.
Jane Austen depicted cold and sometimes tyrannical fathers, but hers pale against St Aubyn's creation of David Melrose. This character, and the world the author is representing, are best illustrated by the opening of his first novel Never Mind (1992). Yvette the servant has started work, and her broken sandal, making 'a faint slapping sound', seems to subtly indicate decay. She then sees 'the doctor standing in the garden'. The doctor is Melrose, her employer, but the presence of a doctor, waiting, seems to the reader a harbinger of trouble.
This doctor is not actually waiting, but is busy exterminating ants. He is doing this with great method and foresight. Here is someone who not only delights in coldly killing insects, but some of the smallest insects. Power is feeding on its destruction of the impotent. We soon learn that Melrose has a five year old son and fear the worst; given that this is contemporary literature, mirroring a cold world with no consolation, the worst happens and Melrose rapes young Patrick later in the book. Meanwhile, we are introduced to David's wife Eleanor, who is an alcoholic. Her husband's internal pain has found an outlet in external destruction; she is consumed by despair and an inability to cope with day to day life. A bizarre trip to a funfair provides solace in her drunkenness; it masquerades as an outing to see if her son will like the place. Longing for alcohol in the first scene in which we meet her, we see her imagine 'vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath.'
Violence, self-hatred, couples and families who only function as isolated individuals, temporary escape, and the deceptive arena of financial security: these are Edward St Aubyn's themes. Never Mind builds to a conclusion in a brilliantly superficial dinner party hosted by the Melroses where the accepted discourse is insincerity and performance. Presenting the women of the novel as having more potential to see through this, despite their cowed position which shows that upper class life has changed little over the centuries, St Aubyn has Eleanor find it 'inexplicable that the best English manners contained such a high proportion of outright rudeness and gladiatorial combat.' Melrose's monstrosity has survived, owing to his class position.
The next novel of the trilogy, Bad News (1992) again has an ironic title. If 'never mind' shows a ridiculous but likely platitude that might be uttered by some in the face of the events - uttered by David Melrose, at least - the bad news here is in fact good, for years have passed and Melrose is dead. The novel takes place over only a few days, this time in New York, where the now adult Patrick goes to view his father's body. It seems that blood will out, for he has inherited his father's intense internal pain, and has resorted to a coping mechanism, like his mother. Patrick is a heroin addict. We follow his desperate attempts to acquire drugs, which allow a phantasmagorical view of New York seen through Patrick's unstable vision; it culminates in a series of hallucinations where Patrick is surrounded by a comic chorus of voices including the President of the United States, characters from Star Trek, and the Trapp Family Singers. In this novel, and Some Hope (1994), which completes the trilogy, the mode is conventional realism, written with elegance to mirror the content, and point of view shifts between characters. This apparently traditional approach is juxtaposed with the intensity of mental suffering we are brought close to, and the highly inventive similes and metaphors.
When Eleanor hears her son in pain in Never Mind, for example, we are told that 'Patrick's screaming impaled her on her chair like a javelin'. One character is an obsequious flatterer; we learn that he 'had poured himself out in a rich gurgling rush of compliments, like an overturned bottle of syrup'. In Never Mind, youth is an 'endless vaudeville'; the metaphor perfectly encapsulates Patrick's ironic view of it. It is St Aubyn's style that marks him out as one of the great writers of our time.
Mother's Milk (2006) is not part of the trilogy as such, but does continue the story of Patrick, who is now married with a small son. Much of the novel is narrated from the child's point of view, and it is noteworthy that St Aubyn carries this off without sentimentality or loss of believability. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and brought the writer's work before a much wider audience; Francis Wyndham, in The New York Review of Books (6 November, 2008) felt that the novel was his best, identifying the maternity nurse Margaret as 'a comic creation on the grand scale', praising the wit of the characters, and noting 'an undercurrent of human sympathy' that was present in earlier works but is now nearer the surface. Wyndham notes that the novel addresses 'a more general range of concerns' than the Some Hope trilogy, which is perhaps why the novel had such deserved success.
On the Edge (1998) is a comedy of manners; the overlooked but very rewarding remaining novel is A Clue to the Exit (2000). It tells the story of how its narrator, scriptwriter Charlie Fairburn, copes with being given six months to live; he manages to write a novel (sections of which appear in the text), and experiences in his closing months an intense existence that Wyndham felt had 'the surrealism of a Bunuel film'. Charlie's 'real' life, and his creative work, both comment on the question of the consciousness.
The title of the novel comes from words by Henry James who, in his depiction of the interior life, discriminations of feeling, and currents of tension within the upper classes, is a strong influence on St Aubyn. Evelyn Waugh's name has also appeared a literary ancestor, but whereas Waugh is extravagantly comic and even farcical in his execution - and finally forgives the upper classes - St Aubyn's humour is blacker, his tone more serious, and his depiction unforgiving. It mirrors the unease of the times in which he writes; yet his style, amongst the bleakness, will always uplift and delight.
Dr Nick Turner, 2011