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The Patrick Melrose Novels (1992 - 2011) by Edward St Aubyn


Marvelous. Even though: nearly filled-up with resentment and self-pity. Patrick's staggering detachment from and humour about his own inner life makes the books rise far above him - most of the series is not spent in Patrick's head but instead depicts his brutal gilded circle - and, every few pages, there is a moment of beautiful lucidity or unvoiced empathy. The prose, the humour, the sadness are enough to make you glad, with Patrick, that his parents are dead.

The prose is wonderfully smooth, but I took my time, jolted out every few pages by something demanding reflection: "Evil is sickness celebrating itself";
Just as a novelist may sometimes wonder why he invents characters who do not exist and makes them do things which do not matter, so a philosopher may wonder why he invents cases that cannot occur in order to determine what must be the case.
Underneath the filth and irony, Patrick is someone for whom philosophical questions are natural and urgent.

At one point, Mary dismisses the idea that her son's anxiety and angst, so like his father's, could have a genetic component - and assumes that it has inadvertently leaked out of Patrick's behaviour. (She goes on to leave him, actually making a damage-control argument about removing the children from his helpless influence.)

Yes: For all his insight, wit, cynicism, contrarianism, St Aubyn is still stuck in a giant contemporary ideology: the nurture assumption, the culture of environment-only development and essential woundedness.

Of course, people do get wounded all the time, and being able to say so in public is a great gain, (for one thing, no one in a confessional culture has to assume that they are alone, that their defects are bizarrely theirs.

But victimhood and trauma are the centre of some people's self-concept - fetishised and incentivised (e.g. misery memoirs and high-clap Medium posts). Psychology details the risks of centreing such things: self-fulfilling prophecies, agonising rumination, and the loss of the peace and pleasure of gratitude.

Aubyn is correct about our sad path-dependence - he's just too recent in placing the start of the path. Here are genetic markers for anxiety and PTSD, against the novel's tacit, almost Freudian emphasis on environment alone.

St Aubyn is obviously somewhat detached from his own trauma - you can't write prose this fair and glowing if you're not - which is lucky. Otherwise, the seeker after truth would be bound to tell the vulnerable they're deluded about the fundamental facts of their own life. (As we all are, though not in the same ways.)


*
Serious engagement with philosophy of mind throughout:
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.
Actually wrestling with materialism, rather than using the usual writerly tricks of caricature and omission.
*
Curious whether St Aubyn got his vicious rendition of Princess Margaret at first- or second-hand.


*

The first three chapters of Mother's Milk, told from the perspective of Patrick's first child, are just perfect writing. Robert sees only the benevolence and humour of his parents, not their exhaustion, rage, and bad faith. They are anonymous to him and us, just Robert's mother and Robert's father. It is a glory and a high echelon, though it gives giving the emotional arc of the rest of the book a very long way to fall.
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.
The exaggeration of the wisdom of children is even stronger in Mother's Milk. This is no criticism because St Aubyn isn't very committed to realism, and because Robert's rich and sparkling inner life suits one of the themes: that children deserve to be treated well, taken relatively seriously, as we all do. And that purpose is not the same as result ('telos' indeed):
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.
The art of kintsugi.

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