Books, like red wine, are an ever constant in a gentleman’s life. Whether stuffed in a coat pocket and dragged from pub to tube or perched on the arm of a chair in front of a hot fire, a good book should always be in comforting touching distance – an impossible to leave unread for even the briefest time.
As an inveterate reader I am happy to hang my hat on The Quiet American by Graham Greene and say it is the finest novel I have ever read. It is perhaps the finest work by this most delectably talented writer; Greene offers his usual mix of pathos and betrayal – no matter how many times it is reread, the book renders this reader heartbroken.
It is not often another novel marches straight up to you and renders you as dumbfounded as does a Greene classic. It is rarer still for such an author to pack suck wonderful ink in his pen that he can sustain that emotion through a further four books.
One such is Edward St Aubyn.
As a member of the Greene church it is difficult for me to bestow laurels upon another. But if Greene is a writing God, then St Aubyn deserves to sit at his right hand.
The five epic novels are known collectively as the Patrick Melrose Novels – a roman a clef – about a very privileged young man who suffers deeply with depression, addiction, and social maladies.
Neither a hero or antihero, Patrick is a flawed human with all of his frailties laid bare for the cannibalistic reader to gorge on.
Sadie Smith quotes appropriately that The Melrose Novels combine ‘The wit of Wilde, the lightness of Wodehouse, the waspishness of Waugh. A joy’.
I could not agree with Ms Smith more – a wonderful triumvirate of British writers but equally a dangerous plinth to stand against. Other critics say that St Aubyn concocts worlds that compare to those of Proust’s. However I would argue that a Melrose novel has a lot less mawkishness and that he finds sharp humour in his gloom.
The first book is set in the South of France in the early 1980s, when Patrick is a young boy with a tyrannical father and a drunk petrified Mother. What ensues over a day is deeply poetic and villainous – the young boy is subjected to the worst imaginable abuse from his father; somehow St Aubyn manages to write this terrible episode elegantly and beautifully.
After spanning four decades of their intertwining lives, the series culminates on the day of his mother’s funeral. Some of the books last less than a day but we are constantly included in the protagonists’ reveries; this means we can learn great swathes of their histories – often pinpointing obviously significant moments.
Patrick is a bi-polar addict and the author uses this to his advantage. St Aubyn is often fastidious in his accuracy of language which, especially when mirroring Patrick’s isolation in this world, can feel strangely cold.
He is equally bold and vivacious in the high times, while he is languid and dripping in sumptuous adjectives when describing scene or objects of desire.
Like any decent book, the structure and bon mots are specifically placed – however St Aubyn does this with wonderful clandestine ease.
As it is written as a series, the subtle references are enhanced because we become so ensconced in the world that serendipitous meetings don’t feel forced or in need of explanation.
I have little doubt that reading this series of novels will enrich the life of any reader. The books are full of moments that will leave one questioning morality and base human interactions.
The prospect of reading sound of a five books focused on a privileged melancholic addict my not immediately float your boat. But I implore you to pop down to the local bookshop, peruse the stands and at least see if he can excite your sensibilities.