Possibly because England is such a small and relatively isolated country, the literature that predominates, both past and present seem to be the relatively modest-in-scope psychological drama.  Many of England’s finest living novelists clearly continue to be influenced by the great Jane Austen, the novel’s greatest depicter of manners and morals in all of literature.  Although American critics have tended to isolate the psychological novel into the domain of women writers, other that mysteries which tend to be classified as male, gender lines are much blurrier in the United Kingdom, as well as in Ireland, a country with an impressive literary resurgence.

Edward St. Aubyn completes a series of five novels, known at The Patrick Melrose Novels, of which “At Last” is the last, and in which some resolution of issues raised in the first four are at hand.  St. Aubyn writes of the declining and decadent British upper classes, from which he seems to descend.  All the novels are written from the point of view of Patrick Melrose, whom we meet at the age of five, and currently find in his early 30s.  Melrose has lived in the grandest of styles in a number of European castles and villas, with two of the most dysfunctional parents presented anywhere in recent literature.  His American heiress mother, a vague and weak-willed woman, marries a witty but drunken, nasty and brutish wit (thanks to Hobbes for those words), and this socially much in demand couple have two children, the first of whom the father murders, and the second of whom, Patrick, survives nearly the same fate.  Melrose is very astute with how the staffs of these houses continually leave rather than intervene and this class based world; Patrick’s father is a homosexual paedphoile, who begins raping his son (and his friends) at the age of five.  Although his mother and some of the parents’ friends are aware of, or at least have glimmerings of what may well be horrifyingly wrong, good manners and future invitations to dinner parties are more important to them than the well-being of this child.  St. Aubyn is immensely astute in describing all of these people, and his horrifying tale is frequently mitigated with sections of great wit and observations of nature, which, the abstract begins represent Patrick’s salvation.

In the four books to date, we have lived Patrick’s childhood, his period of heroin and alcohol addiction, which includes a trip to New York because he has learned of his father’s death.  This death cannot possibly liberate him, and creates new layers of guilt and self-hatred, but Patrick has a childhood friend, who later becomes a child psychologist to whom he does reach out in all of the novels.  Male friendship is well depicted in its various stages, as are Patrick’s attempts to find an appropriate woman, marry her, and create his own family, which accounts for book three.  In the fourth novel, Patrick’s mother has been conned into giving her French estate to a group of new age ninnies, thus yanking Patrick’s inheritance as well as his childhood.  Mrs. Melrose turns out not to be so vague at all, as she chases for her own personal salvation and redemption at her son’s cost.  Patrick’s wife is immensely sympathetic, and his children are brilliant; St. Aubyn manages these genetic leaps through generations with exception sensitivity and brilliance.  When he hooks up with an old girlfriend, seeking comfort there, he knows that this affair won’t work, and St. Aubyn has prepared the readers for its failure as well.

In “At Last”, the current offering, and presumably the last of the series, St. Aubyn has the whole novel take place at his mother’s funeral.  People from all aspects of his past, and his mother’s show up, each as self-absorbed as each always was; this comingling of people from widely and wildly differing social classes is a tour de force of the first rank.  Patrick himself has acquired levels of awareness we might have thought not possible in choosing not to be a victim and in rejecting the worlds of alcohol and drugs as solutions.  His own native intelligence, and obviously St. Aubyn’s, allows for a greater, if partial, transformation, as Patrick begins to seek more ordinary experience, and a probably rapprochement with his wife and children.  In allowing people from his and his parents’ past to speak at the funeral, St. Aubyn has utilized the simplest of settings to throw all of these people together at one time to great effect, and with great humor.

Edward St. Aubyn, who was born in 1960, is a writer of great strength, great gifts, and huge psychological insights.  We could see St. Aubyn as a character in Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time”, but we can also see him finding that world ultimately boring, and taking a pass on it.  Such is the strength of St. Aubyn’s keen observations and massive intelligence.  He is a writer of the first rank.

–Daniel Brown

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