Edward St. Aubyn and the Depressive Third Person

Few recent novelists offer as many misguided reasons for being liked or disliked than Edward St. Aubyn, whose five Patrick Melrose novels—Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992), Some Hope (1994) ...

Few recent novelists offer as many misguided reasons for being liked or disliked than Edward St. Aubyn, whose five Patrick Melrose novels—Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992), Some Hope (1994), Mother’s Milk (2006), and At Last (2011, published in the United States in early 2012)—have been the occasion of some glowing press.

Sensationalism is the first reason many might embrace or dismiss him. Raped repeatedly by his father from the age of five, a heroin addict in his 20s running rapidly through the family money, disinherited in adulthood by a mother who finds in New Age charities absolution for her complicity in her son’s abuse, Patrick Melrose is all too inviting a subject for traumatophiles, and by the same token all too tempting to reject as yet another instance of our cultural romance with lurid abuse-and-recovery narratives. St. Aubyn’s admission that the novels, while narrated in the third person, are rooted in autobiography—asked by a journalist shortly after the publication of the third Melrose novel if the rape recounted in Never Mind had happened to him, he famously replied, “Yes. Why not say that?”—only ratchets up the tendency to enjoy or dismiss him as a succès de scandale, child-abuse division.

Add to this the matter of class. Bearer of a Norman surname, affiliated with a Cornish baronetcy, his father’s ancient name enriched with his mother’s American fortune, educated at Westminster School and Oxford, godfather to one of Earl Spencer’s children to boot, St. Aubyn is hard to separate from an aura of aristocracy that might attract some readers and repel others. It seems to matter little that the Melrose novels skewer the class St. Aubyn occupies; few things are as instantly captivating, or instinctively distasteful, as the scent of rotting privilege.

Then there is the prose, which merits all of the adjectives associated with English prose style at its most luxurious—polished, elegant, cutting, gemlike. Perfectly finished, St. Aubyn’s sentences are eerily adept at capturing other, more dangerously fixed qualities. From Never Mind’s opening, on Melrose’s father: “The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David’s face.” Or, from At Last, on his mother, where what might otherwise be empty abstractions are deployed with Jane Austen’s deadly precision: “If she had been articulate, this loyalty might have made her political; as it was it made her charitable.” Virtuosic similes enliven these cool, poised rhythms with bursts of sensory detail, as here in Some Hope: “Constantly on the verge of hallucination, he walked on ground that undulated softly, like a swallowing throat.”

With the liberality of abundant talent, St. Aubyn distributes good lines even among his most repellent, or ordinary, characters, but the extent to which St. Aubyn is praised for his sentences—which are “brilliant” in the gemological sense, cut so well that they seem to radiate—raises a suspicion that, here again, what is on offer is just another luxury import, admired as much for what it says about the taste of the consumer as for any more nourishing value. As with the novels’ shocking scandals and aristocratic veneer, the lustrous prose seems too seductive to be good for you: not the sort of product one should want, but what a product! If only St. Aubyn wasn’t already aware of this dynamic: after all, Patrick Melrose—a connoisseur of addictions—knows a bit about liking things for the wrong reasons.

Reading the Melrose series provokes a wrenching sense that these novels can’t entirely disaffiliate themselves from the things that they dislike: the self-regard of the English upper class, the bitter sedative of polished irony, the fixity of language itself.

Perhaps the most curious feature of the Melrose novels, however, is that they can’t be said to endorse any of the bad reasons one might have for wanting to read them. Suspicious even about their own elegant lucidity, they are far from celebrations of style, or occasions for class- or scandal-based prurience. Yet they wear even that suspicion with something like resignation. Reading the Melrose series provokes a wrenching sense that these novels can’t entirely disaffiliate themselves from the things that they dislike: the self-regard of the English upper class, the bitter sedative of polished irony, the fixity of language itself. Call it a depressive relation, a literary equivalent to the melancholic’s despairing adhesion to the self, a despair that can never quite become a critique. In one way, of course, this is just stasis, dull self-absorption; St. Aubyn might plausibly be accused of it. But it also points another way, through the stasis and into something like clarity about the condition of being stuck.

That depressive clarity is the core of the Melrose novels. They are finally not about childhood trauma or aristocratic corruption, traumatic experience or the sadists who make that possible; they are about what happens—what insights ensue—when you remain attached to the thing that antagonizes, exhausts, and routinely fails you. More than anything else, more than any specific social setting, more than his wonderfully beveled epigrams, St. Aubyn is interested in what is illuminated by the recursive logic of depression: given that this is who I am and what I know—abuse and trauma, privilege and dispossession, and a strikingly poised prose style with which to describe it all—how do I ever come to know that I know it? What is this consciousness that I am stuck with and in? How might coming to know this consciousness help me, incrementally and often at great cost, change how it works? And how does the novel get closer, perhaps, to the feeling of consciousness, even its trapped, despairing, hall-of-mirrors feeling, than any other way of thinking and writing—not just despite but through its most familiar and tenacious conventions?

For a clue to St. Aubyn’s most obsessive aim, take the recurrence, in At Last, of darkened rooms. First, in a New York City hotel room, Patrick, now in his 40s, receiving the phone call that will announce his mother’s death:

The phone was ringing when he arrived in the velvet jewel box of his room, bathed in the murky urine light of parchment lampshades and presumptive hangover. He groped his way to the bedside table, clipping his shin on the bowed legs of a chair designed to resemble the virile effeminacy of a matador’s jacket, with immense epaulettes jutting out proudly from the top of its stiff back.
“Fuck,” he said as he answered the phone.

“Are you all right?” said Mary.

“Oh, hi, sorry, it’s you. I just got impaled on this fucking matador chair. I can’t see anything in this hotel. They ought to hand out miner’s helmets at the reception.”

“Listen, I’ve got some bad news.” She paused.

Patrick lay back on the pillows with a clear intuition of what she was going to say.

The juxtaposition of what we might call small thoughts—acute, temporary, ceaselessly renewing physical sensations—with Big Thoughts is one St. Aubyn appears to relish. His characters tend to be in search of some basic kind of homeostasis at the same time as they are “thinking”: hangovers, caffeine highs, aches, digestive alarms, drowsiness, and chills color their cognitive activities, not to mention lusts for different kinds of highs. But here, with St. Aubyn’s characteristic tact, the moment will later reveal itself as metaphor. In the novel’s summary meditation, Patrick wonders what he mourns in mourning his monstrously absent mother:

For a man who had tried to talk his way out of everything he had thought and felt, it was shocking to find that there was something huge that he had failed to mention at all. Perhaps this was what he really had in common with his mother, a core of inarticulacy, magnified in her case by illness, but in his case hidden until he heard the news of her death. It was like a collision in the dark in a strange room; he was groping his way round something he couldn’t remember being there when the lights went out.

A series that began with a father’s violation and ends with a mother’s cremation reaches, at its climax, for an image of inner blindness. This darkened room has a history: it happens to be William James’s most celebrated image for introspection. “The rush of the thought is so headlong that … if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself …,” James wrote in The Principles of Psychology (1890). “The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.”

The game being hunted here is bigger than an acerbic account of a decadent social class, or even, finally, an account of how one severely damaged member of it might live past the damage. It is something like an attempt to feel around the unfamiliar darkened room of consciousness itself, particularly the most mysterious aspect of it: the awareness of the process of awareness. St. Aubyn’s echo of James may not be deliberate, but more likely it is; Mother’s Milk and At Last both display references not only to object-relations theory but to recent ontologies of personal identity like those of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. Other St. Aubyn novels, like A Clue to the Exit (2000), are even more steeped in the various contemporary discourses of consciousness, from evolutionary psychology to neuroscience to the philosophy of mind.1 Nor is this a recent concern for St. Aubyn; Never Mind already introduced, as an uneasy onlooker to David Melrose’s paternal cruelty, the philosopher Victor Eisen, trying to write “an intelligent description of what it is to know who you are.” (Eisen’s book has appeared by the time of Bad News—“like a masterful broom, his new book had scattered the dust long settled on the subject of identity, and swept it into exciting new piles”—and is presented as a gift by his widow to the adult Patrick, who dutifully carries it with him unread on his search for the next fix.)

But nothing is finally as illustrative of how consciousness works as a story about how it feels, in this world, to be well and truly fucked up.

The “problem of other minds,” the mind-body dilemma, the criteria of personal identity: the novels not only speak these different languages but relish their inert, almost autistic, inability to capture the feeling of thinking. The virtuosity of St. Aubyn’s shifts in point of view is his constant, and best, argument against tone-deaf cognitivists. Far from being able to identify the narrative voice with Patrick’s consciousness alone, we are always in these novels oscillating from observers to participants, from victims to perpetrators and back again; immediately after Patrick’s first rape we move with chilling ease back to his father: “During lunch David felt that he had perhaps pushed his disdain for middle-class prudery too far.” But the argument takes more slyer, referential forms as well. When At Last’s resident epistemologist, Erasmus Price (who not incidentally has a brief affair with Patrick’s wife), tries to school Patrick’s young sons on the utilitarian ethics that dispense with the shibboleth of personal identity, the boys respond by making the Vulcan “live long and prosper” gesture—St. Aubyn’s wry joke at the expense of Parfit’s fondness for Star Trek–inspired examples. The moral of the joke: teleportation and alien hive-collectives may be decent fodder for the philosophy of mind, but nothing is finally as illustrative of how consciousness works as a story about how it feels, in this world, to be well and truly fucked up.

The Melrose novels, incipiently in Never Mind and baldly by the time of At Last, are also dramatic reassertions of the novel’s standing as the form best capable of describing consciousness without trying to “solve” it. Even more curiously, they insist on the flexibility, diagnostic acuity, and delicate modesty of traditional third-person narration, as if it alone—the odd habit of transforming an I into a he, she, or it—could begin to describe what it is like to be aware of our awareness, to be tied down to the only force we know that promises any freedom. If anything can light up the dark room stealthily enough to tell us what darkness looks like, St. Aubyn suggests with a bit more than diffidence, it might be the oldest and most ordinary of fiction’s resources. The decision to write his own story in the third person is more than legal caution or familial reticence. It is also a strong philosophical claim: only by using that linguistic sleight-of-hand might I get a sense of how I am.

That third-person version of consciousness also happens, not coincidentally, to be the first resource of a powerless child. Insofar as the Melrose series offers an etiology of narration, it starts with sickness. David Melrose’s sinister paternal admonition—“observe everything”—fulfills itself in his first rape of his son, when Patrick finds himself immediately vanishing into the impossible vantage point of self-observation. The places into which he vanishes—a curtain pole, and then a gecko exiting a window—become the series’s emblems for self-erasure. Immediately after the rape, having been warned by his father never to speak of it, Patrick saw “the top of his head as if from ten or twelve feet in the air, and he felt an uncomfortable curiosity about the boy he was watching. It was not quite personal, like the accident they saw on the road last year and his mother said not to look.” Among the professional disciplines in the Melrose series only psychoanalysis has an accurate, unassuming grasp of what has happened here. When in Some Hope Patrick, now 30, finally tells his closest friend—Johnny Hall, a child psychoanalyst and former partner-in-addiction—about his father’s violations, Johnny replies with plainspoken acuteness: “It must have split the world in half for you.”

Like jealousy in Proust, or ambition in Balzac, the habit of self-division is so constant in St. Aubyn as to become, like gravity or magnetism, the thing that makes his fictional world what it is.

Here, however, St. Aubyn surprises—because as pathological as this kind of psychic splitting is, the series refuses to see it as Patrick’s specific malady, separating him from his putatively healthier peers. Instead, the third-person vantage point, despite being initially depicted as having its genesis in horror, becomes common property, both subject of analysis and means of analysis. Like jealousy in Proust, or ambition in Balzac, the habit of self-division is so constant in St. Aubyn as to become, like gravity or magnetism, the thing that makes his fictional world what it is. There are outlandish examples of self-division, like the story of Pierre, Patrick’s drug dealer in New York, who spent eight years in an asylum thinking he was an egg. Patrick himself is given, at moments of stress or inebriation, to adopting multiple inner voices, each competing with the others in a Joycean cacophony.

Even the most common affects in these novels—snobbery and sadism—are treated as forms of self-division. St. Aubyn’s snobs are not, like Proust’s, lapsed believers or lapsed artists who have chosen their objects of veneration poorly; they are simply, if also complicatedly, people who cannot not see themselves from the outside, people whose “disdain for vulgarity included the vulgarity of wanting to avoid the appearance of being vulgar.”2 The novels are full of scenes of just-tolerated public degradations—Patrick’s father forcing his mother, in their early days together, to eat rotting figs while on all fours; more amusingly, Princess Margaret forcing the French ambassador to clean her dress on his knees—but what gives these scenes their specific energy is the doubled perspective of the sadist: not just watching the victim suffer, but watching the watching of the victim, the pleasure of observing oneself, through the imagined perspective of others, observing. It is an identification with the onlooker so frequent that St. Aubyn’s social scenes, whether in the mode of routine social rottenness or flagrant indecencies, have the feeling of a complicated group consciousness, as each ordinary point of view constantly adopts the point-of-view-of-another.

This intent focus on self-division—awareness of our awareness—helps explain the series’s gradually increasing interest in the extremes of childhood and old age. Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope move from childhood trauma through addiction to something like lucidity; Mother’s Milk and At Last stretch to extremes of inarticulacy. There is first, in Mother’s Milk, an extraordinary attempt to narrate infancy as the ordinary trauma of learning how to self-divide, how to abstract from one’s own point of view—how, in other words, to be conscious.

Like the young child’s gradual proficiency in the use of pronouns, everything in Mother’s Milk is about what St. Aubyn calls the “explosive transition from being ‘you’ to being ‘I.’” Then, as Mother’s Milk progresses and throughout At Last, the focus shifts to the extremity of old age, as Eleanor Melrose loses speech before she loses conscious awareness. The series’s sudden lengthening of the life span, peculiar enough given the usual trajectory of a bildungsroman, serves to emphasize that what seems in middle age like the effect of depression—that deadening sense of being caught watching ourselves—is revealed in the laughter of infants or the horror of the dying as the essential feeling of selfhood. The only lie of adult depression is the sense that it might be temporary.

St. Aubyn’s obvious admiration for the therapeutic arts and their essential tact is also the source of his best comedy.

At Last, the final book in the series, is in this sense purer St. Aubyn—less aristocracy and addiction, more consistent interest in what the series has all along been defining as experience: the not-quite-articulate, and always claustrophobic, stumbling around the dark room of one’s thoughts. At their most intense, these moments are narrated with understanding but without empathy. Set on the day of Eleanor Melrose’s funeral, At Last spreads our interest among numerous assembled mourners, all caught in the round of their typical obsessions, Patrick included. They would be caricatures if it were not for the narrative’s general empathy for their second-order feelings of being stuck in their overly familiar, caricatured selves. The empathy, that is, is not for their thoughts, behaviors, or feelings, but for their frustrated awareness of how adhesive those usual aspects of selfhood are.

Take the example of the character that gives At Last much of its wit, anger, and pathos: Nicholas Pratt, whose unsubtle surname might be his only sin against good form. An aging baronet whose caustic commentary hides an equally caustic heart, Pratt is often given St. Aubyn’s best and most cruel lines; At Last begins with his most extended declamation yet. (His advice to Patrick: “Try not to be bitter about the money. One or two friends of mine who’ve made a mess of that side of things have ended up dying in National Health wards and I must say I’ve been very impressed by the humanity of the mostly foreign staff.”) The novel concludes with Pratt’s death from a heart attack, occasioned by his harangue of Johnny Hall, who has become his daughter’s therapist and, Pratt feels, turned his daughter against him. In the midst of an angry denunciation of psychoanalysis—a “sinister art … polluting the human imagination with murderous babies and incestuous children”—Pratt collapses, while one witness to the scene, an unhinged former recipient of Eleanor Melrose’s charity, mordantly observes: “This is what happens to people who won’t ask for help.” St. Aubyn’s obvious admiration for the therapeutic arts and their essential tact is also the source of his best comedy; the contortions and misapprehensions of those who try to resist therapeutic self-investigation become hideously amusing.

But Pratt’s comeuppance is not where St. Aubyn leaves us, or Pratt himself. Instead we get his interior monologue shortly before his final ambulance ride. Unable to speak, like Eleanor Melrose in her last years, like Patrick Melrose after his father rapes him, Pratt thinks frantically of organ donation:

He must tell them he was not an organ donor, or they would steal his organs before he was dead. He must stop them! … A man asks him to open his eyes. He opens his eyes. Show them he’s still compos mentis, compost mentis, recycled parts. No! Not his brain, not his genitals, not his heart, not fit to transplant, still writhing with self in an alien body. They were shining a light in his eyes, no, not his eyes; please don’t take his eyes. So much fear. Without a regiment of words, the barbarians, the burning roofs, the horses’ hooves beating down on fragile skulls. He was not himself any more; he was under the hooves. He could not be helpless; he could not be humiliated; it was too late to become somebody he didn’t know—the intimate horror of it.

Buried more deeply in himself by virtue of his speechlessness than he ever was in his caricatured speech, all Pratt can ask for is to stay rooted in that consciousness—the very thing that, in its blindness and anger, has brought him to this place. Depressive self-adhesion, one might say, made desperate in extremis. As surprising as it is to follow this figure past the comedy of his aristocratic awfulness to something like empathy—“Lord have mercy,” his thoughts conclude—more peculiar yet is the cunning force of the third person here. It is, in one sense, the kind of free indirect discourse that St. Aubyn’s stylistic models made prominent: it is the recognizable narrative habit, the legacy of Austen, that spread across nineteenth-century narration. But what this free indirect discourse captures is not just the content of his thought (fear, a frantic grasping for self) but its form: as if St. Aubyn refers to Pratt as “he” not out of narratorial convention but because Pratt himself does. Stream-of-consciousness “I” is only the first layer of consciousness; above that there is the third person, observing the self from a distance but rooted in it, that despairs of the inseparability of that connection—and desires the very connection that creates the despair. It is undecidable, in other words, whether this is “omniscient” narration or Pratt’s self-division narrating itself.

Which is precisely the point: the austere tones of omniscient narration are no different from the kind of depressive relation to the self—watching from a remove but stuck nonetheless—that the Melrose series continually evokes, and for which it reserves its rare moments of pity. “Like everyone else, he lived in a world where the same patterns of emotion were projected again and again against the walls of an airless chamber”: the trap of consciousness, the flavor of its experience, which is also, as Patrick realizes, not quite the same thing as “life.” To get the most out of the Melrose series, or perhaps to understand why its grip on its readers seems to transcend its subject matter, it might help to understand one of its central intellectual claims: how standard novelistic techniques come out of self-adhesion and self-alienation; and how the depressive state might, dwelt in attentively, give us our best shot at illuminating the darkness of consciousness. icon

  1. Not yet issued in the US, A Clue to the Exit is the kind of parabolic fantasia—a successful screenwriter, given six months to live, tries to explain human consciousness thorough various experiments, including gambling, venturing into the desert, and writing a novel set at an academic conference on the subject—that explores an author’s dearest interest in a too-programmatic fashion. Not surprisingly, St. Aubyn has been given in interviews to calling it his favorite among his novels.
  2. Proust’s shadow hovers over the series, evoked usually as a kind of heartbreaking comparison. Never Mind ends with Patrick waiting on a staircase, during an adult dinner-party, for his mother to come minister to his cries, while inside the party his father dissuades her by expounding his theory of the necessary cruelties of proper rearing: what we would now call Ferberizing, with a dash of the torturer’s glee. Marcel’s successful wait for a nighttime maternal kiss in the opening of the Recherche is one of many Proustian solaces that St. Aubyn gestures to by way of closing the door.