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Highlighted passages in The Patrick Melrose Novels

She opened the door to his room gently, excruciated by the whining of the hinge. Patrick was asleep in his bed. Rather than disturb him, she tiptoed back out of the room.
     Patrick lay awake. His heart was pounding. He knew it was his mother, but she had come too late. He would not call to her again. When he had still been waiting on the stairs and the door of the hall opened, he stayed to see if it was his mother, and he hid in case it was his father. But it was only that woman who had lied to him. Everybody used his name but they did not know who he was. One day he would play football with the heads of his enemies.

‘Be absolute for death’, a strange phrase from Measure for Measure, returned to him while he bared his teeth to rip open a sachet of bath gel. Perhaps there was something in this half-shallow, half-profound idea that one had to despair of life in order to grasp its real value. Then again, perhaps there wasn’t. But in any case, he pondered, squeezing the green slime from the sachet and trying to get back to his earlier line of thought, what was this central intelligence, and just how intelligent was it? What was the thread that held together the scattered beads of experience if not the pressure of interpretation? The meaning of life was whatever meaning one could thrust down its reluctant throat.

‘It takes about a hundred of these ghosts to precipitate one flickering and disreputable sense of identity,’ said Patrick. ‘These are the sort of people who were around during my childhood: hard dull people who seemed quite sophisticated but were in fact as ignorant as swans.’
‘They’re the last Marxists,’ said Johnny unexpectedly. ‘The last people who believe that class is a total explanation. Long after that doctrine has been abandoned in Moscow and Peking it will continue to flourish under the marquees of England. Although most of them have the courage of a half-eaten worm,’ he continued, warming to his theme, ‘and the intellectual vigour of dead sheep, they are the true heirs to Marx and Lenin.’
‘You’d better go and tell them,’ said Patrick. ‘I think most of them were expecting to inherit a bit of Gloucestershire instead.’

How could he tell anyone? But if he told no one, he would stay endlessly isolated and divided against himself. He knew that under the tall grass of an apparently untamed future the steel rails of fear and habit were already laid. What he suddenly couldn’t bear, with every cell in his body, was to act out the destiny prepared for him by his past, and slide obediently along those rails, contemplating bitterly all the routes he would rather have taken.

Some brutality...
‘There’s a blast of palpable stupidity that comes from our host, like opening the door of a sauna. The best way to contradict him is to let him speak.’

...which disarms us for the following long-awaited confessional:
Something more practical made him rummage about for a reason to make peace. Most of Patrick’s strengths, or what he imagined were his strengths, derived from his struggle against his father, and only by becoming detached from their tainted origin could he make any use of them.
     And yet he could never lose his indignation at the way his father had cheated him of any peace of mind, and he knew that however much trouble he put into repairing himself, like a once-broken vase that looks whole on its patterned surface but reveals in its pale interior the thin dark lines of its restoration, he could only produce an illusion of wholeness... Perhaps he would have to settle for the idea that it must have been even worse being his father than being someone his father had attempted to destroy.
     Simplification was dangerous and would later take its revenge. Only when he could hold in balance his hatred and his stunted love, looking on his father with neither pity nor terror but as another human being who had not handled his personality especially well; only when he could live with the ambivalence of never forgiving his father for his crimes but allowing himself to be touched by the unhappiness that had produced them as well as the unhappiness they had produced, could he be released, perhaps, into a new life that would enable him to live instead of merely surviving. He might even enjoy himself.

The Princess, who had announced in the hall that she would tell Peter herself, and forced her lady-in-waiting to intercept other well-wishers on the same mission, was thoroughly impressed by her own goodness.
     ‘And who are you?’ she asked Johnny in the most gracious possible manner.
     ‘Johnny Hall,’ said Johnny, extending a hand.
     The republican omission of ma’am, and the thrusting and unacceptable invitation to a handshake, were enough to convince the Princess that Johnny was a man of no importance.
     ‘It must be funny having the same name as so many other people,’ she speculated. ‘I suppose there are hundreds of John Halls up and down the country.’
     ‘It teaches one to look for distinction elsewhere and not to rely on an accident of birth,’ said Johnny casually.
     ‘That’s where people go wrong,’ said the Princess, compressing her lips, ‘there is no accident in birth.’
     She swept on before Johnny had a chance to reply.

It would probably be better if women arrested in their own childhood didn’t have children with tormented misogynist homosexual paedophiles, but nothing was perfect in this sublunary world, thought Patrick, glancing up devoutly at the moon which was of course hidden, like the rest of the sky during an English winter, by a low swab of dirty cloud. His mother was really a good person, but like almost everybody she had found her compass spinning in the magnetic field of intimacy.

I've done this:
Impressions that were too fleeting to be called stories yielded no meaning. On the same visit to New York he had passed a red-and-white funnel next to some roadworks, spewing steam into the cold air. It felt nostalgic and significant, but left him in a state of nebulous intensity, not knowing whether he was remembering an image from a film, a book, or his own life.

The ugliness and shallowness of even good therapy:
Angie said she had started ‘using’, by which she meant taking drugs, in the sixties, because it was ‘a gas’... Half an hour later, she was still describing her wild twenties, and yet there was clearly some time to go before her listeners could enjoy the insight that she had gleaned from her regular attendance of meetings over the last two years... Thanks to the meetings she had discovered that she was totally insane and completely addicted to everything. She was also ‘rampantly co-dependent’, and urgently needed individual counselling in order to deal with lots of ‘childhood stuff’, Her ‘relationship’, by which she meant her boyfriend, had discovered that living with an addict could create a lot of extra hassles, and so the two of them had decided to attend ‘couples counselling’. This was the latest excitement in a life already packed with therapeutic drama, and she was very hopeful about the benefits...

The chair had ‘identified one hundred per cent’, not with her using because his had been very different – he had never used needles or been addicted to heroin or cocaine – but with ‘the feelings’. Johnny could not remember Angie describing any feelings, but tried to silence the scepticism which made it so difficult for him to participate in the meetings... The secretary went on to say that a lot of childhood stuff had been coming up for him too, and he had recently discovered that although nothing unpleasant had happened to him in childhood, he’d found himself smothered by his parents’ kindness and that breaking away from their understanding and generosity had become a real issue for him.

On motherhood:
How could she say she was sad when she was happy the next minute? How could she say she was happy when a minute later she wanted to scream? She had no time to draw up a family tree of every emotion that rushed through her. 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.

Was Seamus, after all, really a bad man doing a brilliant impersonation of an idiot? It was hard to tell.

In the end it was unfair on everyone, being who they were, because they couldn’t be anyone else. It wasn’t even that he wanted to be anybody else, it was just a horrible thought that he couldn’t be, in an emergency.

The predictability and of adultery:
the gap soon filled with the concrete of another role. She was his mistress, he was her married man. She would struggle to get him away, he would struggle to keep her in the mistress slot without tearing his family apart. They were already in a perfectly structured situation, with ultimately opposed interests.

Eleanor and Seamus had corrupted each other with the extravagance of their good intentions. Seamus might have continued to do some good, changing bedpans in Navan – the only town in Ireland to be spelt the same way backwards – and Eleanor could have lived on Ryvita and given her income to the blind, or to medical research, or to the victims of torture, but instead they had joined forces to produce a monument of pretension and betrayal.

He had made it out of what he thought of as Zone One, where a parent was doomed to make his child experience what he had hated most about his life, but he was still stuck in Zone Two, where the painstaking avoidance of Zone One blinded him to fresh mistakes. In Zone Two giving was based on what the giver lacked. Nothing was more exhausting than this deficiency-driven, overcompensating zeal. He dreamt of Zone Three.

In any case, he now felt in danger all the time. Danger of liver collapse, marital breakdown, terminal fear. Nobody ever died of a feeling, he would say to himself, not believing a word of it, as he sweated his way through the feeling that he was dying of fear. People died of feelings all the time, once they had gone through the formality of materializing them into bullets and bottles and tumours.

We think the purpose of a child is to grow up because it does grow up. But its purpose is to play, to enjoy itself, to be a child. If we merely look to the end of the process, the purpose of life is death.

I’m sorry about the Venus Pizza,’ said his father. ‘After going there, and shopping at Carnegie Foods and watching a few hours of this delinquent network television, I’ve come to the conclusion that we should probably fast during our holiday here. Factory farming doesn’t stop in the slaughterhouse, it stops in our bloodstreams, after the Henry Ford food missiles have hurtled out of their cages into our open mouths and dissolved their growth hormones and their genetically modified feed into our increasingly wobbly bodies. Even when the food isn’t “fast”, the bill is instantaneous, dumping an idle eater back on the snack-crowded streets... (...) ...

Thomas [2 years old] still knew how to understand the silent language which Robert had almost lost as the wild margins of his mind fell under the sway of a verbal empire. He was standing on a ridge, about to surge downhill, getting faster, getting taller, getting more words, getting bigger and bigger explanations, cheering all the way. Now Thomas had made him glance backwards and lower his sword for a moment while he noticed everything he had lost as well. He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of colour on a page.

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, such as pouring buckets of sea water into holes in the sand. Before he managed to break away from his family, he liked to imagine that once he was alone he would become an open field of attention, or a solitary observer training his binoculars on some rare species of insight usually obscured by the mass of obligations that swayed before him like a swarm of twittering starlings. In reality solitude generated its own roles, not based on duty but on hunger.

Parenthood; when your child takes a nap:
that moment into which the rest of life was supposed to be artfully crammed... It wasn't going to happen. Her body had started its landslide towards sleep.

Let’s hope that it’s purgatory rather than hell,’ said Mary. ‘I’m not very up on these things,’ said Patrick, ‘but if purgatory is a place where suffering refines you rather than degrades you, I see no sign of it.’ ‘Well, maybe it can be purgatory for us at least.'

a mid-life crisis was a cliché, a verbal Tamazepam made to put an experience to sleep, and the experience he was having was still awake - at three thirty in the fucking morning. He didn't accept accept any of it: the reduced horizons, the fading faculties... He didn't make fresh connections any more. All that was over.

He arched backwards trying to ease the dull pain in his lower back. Eroded vertebrae? Swollen kidneys? ‘We have to think our way out of the box

‘Have a great one!’ said Pete, a heavy-jawed blond beast in an apron, sliding the coffee across the counter. Old enough to remember the arrival of ‘Have a nice day’, Patrick could only look with alarm on the hyperinflation of ‘Have a great one’. Where would this Weimar of bullying cheerfulness end? ‘You have a profound and meaningful day now,’

Fenelon sat back in his buttoned leather chair with a sympathetic nod, exposing the crucifix he kept on the shelf behind him. Patrick had often noticed it before, but it now seemed to be mocking him with its brilliant inversion of glory and suffering, making the thing it was natural to be disgusted by into the central meaning of life...

Why had he said that? He seemed to be full of zoological misogyny today. If anyone was whining it was him. It certainly wasn’t true of Mary. He was the one who suffered from a seething distrust of women. His sons had no reason to share it. He must try to pull himself together. The least he could do was contain his depression.

Some languages kept the ideas of desire and privation apart, but English forced them into the naked intimacy of a single syllable: want. Wanting love to ease the want of love. The war on want which made one want more.

When you get back to the nursing home, you can stop eating if you want to,’ said Patrick. ‘You’ll have more control over your fate.’ ‘Yes,’ she whispered, smiling. She seemed to relax for the first time. And so did Patrick. He was going to guard his mother from having more horrible life imposed on her. Here at last was a filial role he could throw himself into.