Edward St. Aubyn: A Writer’s Suicide Pact
Truth, Fiction, and Surviving One's Life
The complete Patrick Melrose novels were released earlier this month, in one volume, by Picador. This conversation took place last summer, and originally appeared in Morgenbladet (in Norwegian).
Some writers lock themselves in country houses. Others go to cafes and write in public, scribbling until a draft is complete. Twenty-five years ago, with several aborted “clever novels” in the trash, the English novelist Edward St. Aubyn chose a more extreme method. “I decided I would either finish a novel or finish myself,” St. Aubyn says quietly, sitting at an Italian restaurant in London’s Holland Park neighborhood. St. Aubyn is tall, handsome, and wearing a dark blue suit. He fills the silence that follows this statement with an explanation: “I had nothing to be proud of, my life was a sort of sea of shame. I had just blown a lot of money being miserable on drugs, and hadn’t yet finished a novel, the only thing I cared about doing. I had no children, I thought, ‘I’ll either write this novel or commit suicide, because my life is worthless if I can’t finish a novel.’ Now it sounds slightly melodramatic, but I promise you it was sincere. I’d so often overdosed, and tried before to kill myself. And it worked.”
This is putting it mildly. In the last quarter-century, no writer in English has raided his experience and talent quiet so ferociously as St. Aubyn. His eight novels, five of which form an epic tragedy about the Melroses, a clan of low-level aristocrats in baroque decline, are feats of radical style and will. They are harrowing and hilarious, perfectly constructed and yet roomy in the way all grand epics ought to be. And still they seethe with rage at the violence they contain. Their fans have grown in numbers in recent years to include Zadie Smith, Alan Hollinghurst, and the rather-difficult-to-please James Wood, who wrote: “The striking gap between, on the one hand, the elegant polish of the narration, the silver rustle of these exquisite sentences, the poised narrowness of the social satire and, on the other hand, the screaming pain of the family violence inflicted on Patrick makes these books some of the strangest of contemporary novels.”
To meet St. Aubyn in person is a profoundly unstrange experience. It is as if Proust were reborn in the life and time of a 21st-century 55-year-old aristocrat, a man entirely at home in this part of West London, with its maze of gleaming white limestone townhouses. St. Aubyn lives in one of them. Only this writer has all the problems that Proust never had to face: book tours, promotions, and talking to journalists about, well, how much of it all is true. When we meet, St. Aubyn has just returned from California, where he was on tour for his latest novel, Lost for Words, a comedy about happiness and literary envy. It is a breezily intelligent, enjoyable novel: and very funny. To wit, it won the annual PG Wodehouse Award for comic writing.
On most tour stops, however, St. Aubyn fielded questions about the Melrose books, in particular Never Mind, which kicked off the saga in 1992. The novel takes place over a weekend in Lacoste where Patrick Melrose’s family hosts a series of wealthy visitors for a summer party. During the weekend, Patrick is savagely raped by his father, David. Patrick responds to the attack by exiling himself from his body—like so many survivals of sexual assault, he seems to watch from above. Meanwhile, his mother gets drunk, the guests fight for David’s attention and affection, and the weekend goes by as if nothing out of the ordinary has occurred.
The Melrose saga is many things. It can be read as a warts and all glimpse of the decline of the English aristocracy. One could also inhale the books as a five-part tragedy: there are certainly enough bodies on stage by the end. But it is most dazzlingly an epic study in the long, poisonous aftermath of that one incident, as Patrick cycles from terrible drug use (Bad News) to partying and society-mongering (Some Hope) to a parenthood for which he is not prepared (Mother’s Milk) and finally to a kind of separate peace with the past (At Last). They are, as St. Aubyn tells me, “broadly based on experience.” St. Aubyn was raped by his father, a sadistic Eton-educated physician; St. Aubyn did become a drug addict; he had a close brush with dissolution. These are not truths St. Aubyn shies away from, but the books are not the experience. They are what he has made of it, and there’s a difference.
But over the course of the tour, as St. Aubyn has sat down to talk to one journalist after another, he has often been questioned as if the two are one in the same. As if, through reverse engineering of the similarities and the gaps between the two, a greater, truer meaning can be puzzled out. St. Aubyn has had a hard time saying no to all manner of questions directed in this vein. “I felt it was part of the syndrome of being a rape survivor not to be able to say no,” he says now. “In other words, if someone asks you a question that is completely outrageous and wildly intrusive, feeling always under the obligation to give an honest and thorough answer.” He quickly switches into a pitch-perfect American accent and gives me an example of one famous radio host: “’And when you were five and you were raped by your father, how did that feel?!’ I mean, ‘How did that feeeel?’ Not: in Never Mind Patrick Melrose is raped by his father and becomes split, exiles part of himself to survive, but he pays a high price, let’s discuss the psychology of disembodiment, reefication, trauma… fine, no problem. But ‘how did it feel?’ as if to abolish the Melrose saga and reduce everything that happens within them as a fact, and then to interrogate me in a sort of Jerry Springer way? Almost in the hope that I burst into tears?”
St. Aubyn gives a black chuckle and orders another Negroni.
* * * *
In truth, no matter how much tabloid fodder has been made from St. Aubyn’s life, he seems extremely capable of dealing with it. In person he is jocular, good-natured, and polite. And yet his sentences have a glass-cut precision. You can almost hear him counting out syllabic beats, sculpting perfectly witty parenthetical comments. He takes his time. We don’t begin talking about the books and his life properly until a double-espresso, a bottle of Pelegrino, and a Negroni—all delivered together—have been dispatched and lunch has been ordered. The man has spent five months talking about a traumatic childhood, and it’s easy to forgive him a need for some stimulation before becoming Edward St. Aubyn.
The facts are pretty straightforward. St. Aubyn was born in Cornwall and raised largely on an 80-acre property in the south of France by Roger St. Aubyn, a retired physician with some musical talent, and his mother, Lorna. They divorced in 1968, when St. Aubyn was eight, after which he was schooled and taught more often in London. In the books they become David and Eleanor Melrose, a heartbreakingly mismatched couple, she masking her terror of her husband with copious amounts of alcohol.
The central incident around which Never Mind revolves is drawn largely from St. Aubyn’s experience. From ages five to eight, Roger raped and assaulted and tortured his son. The incident is so graphically described in the book, there is no need to ask St. Aubyn about it, or how it made him feel. For a long time, St. Aubyn didn’t tell anyone. “I was isolated for the first quarter of a century of my life because nobody knew the truth about my childhood until I famously made a suicide attempt and told an analyst, because I knew I would try again unless I told someone.” St. Aubyn skates over these details and returns to himself like a subject. “So basically for those first 25 years I had a false self surrounding this swirling chaos. I had no real sense of self at all, which gave a sort of sinister plasticity to my mimicry. It was easier for me to be someone else than myself at any given point, so mimicry was a pathologically based necessity, because I had to say something.”
In real life, he eventually found help, got sober, and started writing—not before nearly killing himself with large amounts of heroin and cocaine, and spending down an inheritance from a grandmother—partly because it was the only thing he ever wanted to do. He still struggled, though, badly, with the voices inside himself. In Bad News, St. Aubyn shows what this strategy of dissembling costs Patrick. The book unfolds over a day-long trip to New York that Patrick takes to pick up the body of his father, who has died on a visit to the city. Patrick relapses into heroin use, and a cacophony of voices threatens to overwhelm his sanity. In one terrifying chapter, Patrick conducts a kind of miniature symphony of these internal voices. “Patrick is basically someone who is a millimetre away from schizophrenia,” St. Aubyn says.
It is an experience he knows well. There was a time when, in his twenties, St. Aubyn would sit in his drawing room and conduct a 20-person play, jumping from seat to seat, performing all the different voices. I mention that this sounds a lot like an extremely acted out version of what a novelist does on the page and he replies thoughtfully. “I think a lot of my abilities as a novelist, such as they are, are the result of transformed pathologies. First of all my father did tell me ‘to observe everything,’ [just as Patrick’s father instructs him in the first book, shortly before he rapes him], and I did it in a state of extremely anxious hypervigilance, as an appeasement towards someone who might hurt me if I failed. When that was no longer a threat, I still went on observing things, which is a useful thing for a novelist to do. I took what was hideous fragmentation and plasticity that comes from having no sense of self whatever and turned it into Lost for Words.”
In other words, the coping skills that nearly drove him mad have been sublimated into supremely sharp tools for crafting fiction. As St. Aubyn talks, it becomes clear that this skill cuts both ways: That he continued writing to figure out what he knew. “When I started Bad News, I’m 30 and I’m writing about Patrick when he is 22, so we have an eight-year-gap,” St. Aubyn says, “and the story roughly goes on in that way. The gap closes—with Some Hope I’m looking back on partygoing, which really stopped when I was 28 when I became a writer. By the time I was writing about my mum’s funeral [in Mother’s Milk], it was probably three years before. So you have an author and alter ego who are converging temporarily, and who are also converging in their level of understanding. And then we get to the last chapter of At Last and there was nothing to look back on, there was no cherished epiphany, which I was longing to communicate to my readers, there was no experience to look back on.”
If completing Never Mind was the first breakthrough, the second biggest barrier was the final chapter of At Last. St. Aubyn had no experience left to raid, nothing to burnish. “So at that point you could say at last, Patrick Melrose and Edward St. Aubyn became one entity,” St. Aubyn says. “I discovered the solution at the same time as Patrick, I discovered it by writing it. And I wrote with tears streaming down my face, tears of relief, not of self-pity or anything of that sort, I wasn’t sobbing at the sorrow of it all, I was relieved that in fact the solution had turned up, and it has something to do with no longer searching for consolation. Not to be consoled, or inconsolable, but something different.”
We talk for a bit about what this means, and the closest definition sounds like a kind of emotional negative capability, the poetic concept John Keats described in his letters. “The ability to dwell in mysteries and doubts without an irritable reaching out after fact and reason,” St. Aubyn quotes perfectly, and then politely plays down the facility of his memory—“We both were forced to learn this”—before continuing. “Negative capability is so beautiful isn’t it? It’s the opposite of anxiety. So Patrick can place his attention where he wants to, rather than having it usurped, he can be present rather than being so dominated by the past that he can’t see what’s in front of him. He can exist in mystery.”
And this means he can stop searching for a meaning to the mystery of his suffering. This is partly why St. Aubyn insists these books are about far more than trauma, or rape, or even the aristocracy. “I had to put my particular suffering in a particular form, because all novels have to have a particular setting and a particular form, but in fact is there any more universal story than people suffering, wondering why they’re suffering, how they become as they are, and whether they have any choice in the matter? Isn’t that in some form what we’re doing a lot of the time if we ever have enough gap in the emailing to sort of think at all, aren’t we thinking about that?”
* * * *
Edward St. Aubyn spent 25 years writing the Melrose saga. Along the way he won some small awards, but he wrote enough of it in obscurity that he has emerged with a tremendously solid and well-articulated idea of what makes novels work. To put it in craft terms, he has come down firmly on the side of third person narration, which he feels is the most intimate way of telling a story. But to put it in even broader terms, he feels like the novel’s strength comes from what he calls “inclusiveness.”
We begin talking about contemporary novels, and St. Aubyn gently slides away from the conversation toward a far more ancient dialectic in human drama. “Voltaire thought that Shakespeare showed a lot of promise,” he says, “but that Shakespeare had shown a lot of vulgar mistakes, you know, by having clowns and fools and drunken porters in his tragedies, that they needed tidying up, and that’s because he thought that purity was a higher value than inclusiveness, and I don’t. I think inclusiveness is of a higher value than purity, and god knows I’ve placed a high value on purity.”
Indeed, St. Aubyn’s first two books were written and edited in a state of feverish self-loathing and revision. Sweating so much with the pressure of it all he wrapped towels around himself. Phoning his first publisher in such horror that they’d eventually be published and hanging up when a voice answered. The later books were written the same way, but with less self-doubt. He spent five years in his study writing At Last, a book that is barely 200 pages long. Each page was written out in long hand and retyped, and then edited up to 50 times. The book which was eventually published differed from what he turned in by just six ways—four of punctuation, and two in word choices. “But basically what you have in your hand is what I turned in,” St. Aubyn says. This is not boast, simply a fact. And always standing over him was, as he describes it, the punishing superego with the samurai sword ready to decapitate him in the event that what he wrote didn’t measure up.
“I was isolated for the first quarter of a century of my life because nobody knew the truth about my childhood until I famously made a suicide attempt and told an analyst, because I knew I would try again unless I told someone.”
Which makes St. Aubyn’s idea of inclusiveness all the rarer, and stranger. The Melrose books are certainly among the closest glimpse any reader will get of the contemporary English classes in contemporary fiction. They are novels about the upper classes, but they are narrated democratically. The narrative darts into all members of Patrick’s family, his lover’s, the house cleaner, his wife, his friends, even the poor lizard into which Patrick exiles himself while under assault from his father. St. Aubyn explains that this prismatic narrative approach is necessary, “you need not only Patrick’s quite understandable loathing of his father, but you need someone to come up to him at the party in Some Hope and say, ‘you know, your father saved my life.’ You need not only Patrick’s sense of sort of terrible hereditary despair about these poisonous passions which reiterate themselves through the generations, but you also need Annette, who thinks Patrick’s mother is a saint.”
Hearing St. Aubyn describe writing the last page of At Last is genuinely, terrifyingly moving. In the ultimate pages of the book, which takes place during Patrick’s mother’s funeral, one watches as St. Aubyn’s hero does not necessarily forgive the trespasses that have caused him such agony, but rather exercises this sense of inclusiveness on a long-scale. Could Eleanor, who was also raped by David, be blamed for hoarding her own pain? Could David be understood without being seen in the long, mysterious shape of his life? Freedom, and a stable sense of self, would come from embracing that not everything would be explained. “Identity is made up of what you know and what you don’t know,” St Aubyn says. “All the failures of knowledge are there.”
* * * *
With the Melrose saga done in 2012, St. Aubyn felt like he had reached not just the limit of that tale, but also of self-knowledge and its perils. He wanted to explore a new vein. “After spending 40 percent of my life excavating a depression, it wouldn’t have made any sense to write a quite long, quite serious book. I felt I needed to go in another direction.” One of the chief questions on his mind was, “do you have to be singing your way out of hell in order to sing beautifully?”
In order to answer this question, he had to lift the sword over his head. He would no longer write under the threat of suicide. “I thought, do I dare disrupt this contract, it worked, it produces novels.” But he tore it up. “I thought,” he says now, “I will not work with such a harsh punitive superego that is standing behind me with a samurai sword, waiting to decapitate me if I stop writing, it’s just too unpleasant. So I burnt the contract.”
Each one of St. Aubyn’s novels has been provoked by what he describes as a kind of impossible question. Can he break the incest taboo? Can he bring back from the edges of delirium and amnesia experiences worth writing about? Can he make his mother a sympathetic character? With his latest project, the impossible question was a seemingly far more innocuous one. Could he enjoy writing? “That seemed to me just as daring, how could that be possible?”
He began by completely changing his method. He gave himself no more than a year to write the new book, and there would be no obsessive revising. “I tore out the rearview mirror and only allowed myself to go forward.” As a result of this sustained attack on the control-freak side of his creative self he turned the manuscript in after a year and asked his agent and his editors in New York and London for feedback. They suggested changes, including the removal of one character and adding back story on two others. How did it go? “I was in heaven!” St. Aubyn says with real happiness, and relief.
Not surprisingly, given the conditions under which it was written, Lost for Words is the first book of St. Aubyn’s to touch on the idea of happiness, as if it were a real or attainable thing. Not perpetual joy, but contentment. The book tells the story of four novelists and one cookbook writer who are in contention for something that sounds a lot like the Booker Prize. Five judges who sweat and battle and scheme to get their favorite books onto the list neatly mirror them. It seems unlikely to be popular with the Booker judges. “I won’t have to be biting my fingernails in July, wondering if I’ll be on the list,” St. Aubyn says.
The book is about far more than literary London, though. All of the characters in Lost for Words struggle with what St. Aubyn sees as the disease of constant comparison. “We could sit here thinking, ooh, I had better risotto the last time I was in Edera, we can basically evacuate our lives of any meaning at all by remaining in this state of anxious comparison… are they richer, are they poorer, are they more important, is his girlfriend prettier?—it’s a disease. It’s an acid bath in which people live, perhaps live with less chance of getting out than before because there’s such a vacuum of values, and because there is such a relentless advertising culture. Everything is promotional.”
I mention social media and St. Aubyn launches into another riff. “We’re self-commodifying and then promoting the self-commodification! What a miserable life! And then ranking ourselves with other people who self-commodify. Can that really be what we’re here for? It’s like arriving in front of San Marco or Notre Dame, again and again, you see someone who gets out of a coach and immediately interrupts their view of the building with a camera, so that they are stopping themselves from having the experience, as well as promising themselves they’ll have it later because they have the photograph, even though the photograph has become an object of envy, to make your neighbors wish they’d been to Venice. It’s all become something else, what it’s not is what it’s like to stand in front of San Marco for the first time.”
In Lost for Words, no one is exempt from this instinct, but on the other hand, no one wallows in it. Of all St. Aubyn’s books, this is one with the happiest ending. Characters confront their demons and are given the chance to step out of the cycle of comparison, of envy, of not being where they are.
St Aubyn enjoys his success, and that he has been able to let go of the samurai sword of self control. The part that is not heaven, however, is traveling and reading and promoting his books. St. Aubyn has been publishing since 1992 but his first reading wasn’t until 2006. “I was too shy,” he said. “There were 14 people there,” he remembers now. Still, he was terrified. And then he runs through the levels of stress that he feels, beginning with one-on-one occasions such as this interview, on to recorded radio, readings, and then, worst of all, television, “because they have my words and my body and my voice and it’s not going to go away tomorrow, it’ll probably be in some kind of fucking archive.”
St. Aubyn is not ungrateful. For every comment he makes about the difficulties of being a public figure, he makes three more about how lucky he is. “People came up to me in queues in America and said, ‘I had similar problems, and I tried a thousand different therapies, and the thing that helped me most was reading your books’—that makes me want to cry.”
Still, St. Aubyn is a natural skeptic. “The whole business of having a reputation is very inconvenient because it’s a more ghostly version of the very thing you’re trying to destroy in its primary form,” he says… He has survived not just by writing, but by deconstructing the defenses he built up so that the only defense he had was complete and utter honesty. That honesty, however, is best expressed in print, in the particular form and shape fiction allows it to take.
“My readers are projecting on me the author of the books, they think the author of the books is going to come on stage. To some extent that’s true, but in a very significant way it’s not true, because my books are written by the best part of me, and then they’re rewritten many times by the most ruthless part of me, and the result is the books, and I’m not able to do that fast enough in real time, so the person who walks on, is possibly, if I’m lucky, there’s the best of me there as well, but it’s all the rest, that’s been carefully incinerated before being buried in the book without that editorial time lag that might turn a vague or injudicial remark into a precise or judicious remark.”
Yes, this is in fact how Edward St. Aubyn speaks. He appears to be doing fine, after two Negronis and lunch, and also five months of explaining himself. He worries he’s doing too well. “I tell you the warning sign I got. The canary in the mine is I got an email from my agent from someone who said, you know, ‘I just heard you on NPR and was so fascinated by your story I went online and listened to all of your interviews.’ And then the last paragraph was, ‘I’m sure I’ll get around to the books one day. But I’m moving house at the moment, I don’t know where I’d put them.’” He laughs. “There’s now a new fan base, the fanbase for the PR. Things have gone seriously wrong when the PR is promoting itself instead of the books. It’s like literary prizes promoting themselves instead of literature.”
And then cackles as if such a thing had never happened.