:: Article

The Consolations of Derision

By Max Dunbar.


At Last, Edward St Aubyn, Picador 2011

At a family gathering at his Lacoste villa, the aristocrat, killer and sadist David Melrose takes time out from the socialising to rape his five year old son, Patrick. Afterwards, he decides that ‘he had perhaps pushed his disdain for middle-class prudery a little too far. Even at the bar of the Cavalry and Guards Club one couldn’t boast about homosexual, paedophiliac incest with any confidence of favourable reception.’ This line, taken out of context, looks like shock mining. In the flow of Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope it fits exactly.

The novel is a misery memoir, a three-act play of abuse, breakdown and redemption, but told in the detached satirical tone of Wilde or Wodehouse or Saki. The comparison is not hyperbolic. Edward St Aubyn is the last of the great satirists of the upper class, and his lines have the same quality you find in Dorian Gray or ‘Mrs Packletide’s Tiger’: true wit, no matter how poisonous, always makes us double take, and see the world with fresh eyes. 

St Aubyn’s narrative tone is defined by a contempt so strong it’s almost rage, and his story is populated by characters who believe themselves to be great wits and provocateurs. Certainly he gives his devil the best tunes. With terrifying eloquence, and a scorched-earth misanthropy, David Melrose dominates every scene he’s in. Friends struggle to emulate his sophistication, and terrified family members dance to his commands.  Yet, like many bullies, David is also a loser and victim. Despite being from a family ‘which, although it had done nothing since, had at least seen the Norman invasion from the winning side’ his life is a tale of wasted promise and unlived dreams. Having failed as a doctor and a musician, inventive cruelty is David’s last remaining interest. A key scene has David forcing his wife onto hands and knees to eat figs, rotted and crawling with insects, from the Lacoste orchard.

Patrick Melrose inherits his father’s fury and hate, and supplements it with druggy excess. The middle passage of Some Hope is a marvellous comic set piece where Patrick has to fly to NYC to collect David’s remains, and ends up on a legendary coke and smack bender, heading from the Bronx to Manhattan, shooting up in hotel bathrooms and carrying his father’s ashes in a paper bag. (‘I must tell Ogilvy we’ll be one more for dinner.’) By the end of the book he has burned up his capital and is now forced by the necessity of survival into a therapy and NA culture whose platitudes he despises.

The last thing Patrick wants to do is forgive David – ‘the repulsive superstition that I should turn the other cheek’ – but a conversation with family friend Anne Eisen makes him realise he can have reconciliation without surrender. Anne is a guardian angel and a voice of compassion and common sense (‘No pain is too small if it hurts, but any pain is too small if it’s cherished’) and, tellingly, she’s an American, and outside the British caste system. Patrick comes to understand the deep unhappiness and fear behind his father’s cruelty: not with sympathy, but a knowledge that being evil can be punishment in itself. The best revenge is living well.

At Last revisits Patrick in middle age. His mother Eleanor has just died, and the book is one long novella based around her memorial service. We first meet Eleanor as a booze and tranquiliser addict stuck in a loveless marriage. (‘At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.’) Later, she divorces David and searches for fulfillment in a range of New Age quackery, charity work and Eastern myticism, and St Aubyn emphasises the view that she cared more for stranger children in the developing world than she did for her own son: Patrick’s ex-wife believes that ‘Eleanor’s betrayal of the maternal instinct that ruled Mary’s own life formed an absolute barrier to the liking she could feel for her.’

By the time of St Aubyn’s last Melrose novel, Mother’s Milk, Patrick himself appeared to have found some stability in marriage, fatherhood and a career as a barrister. In At Last he’s fallen back into the embrace of his demons; on suicide watch at the Priory, and chasing twenty-year-old self-harm victims. Finally free of both his parents – the father who destroyed him and the mother who failed to protect him – Patrick figures on a chance of resolution: ‘the past was a corpse waiting to be cremated.’

But closure is a myth. This coda is full of the same aristo faces that dominated the first Melrose book, and who don’t seem to be greatly affected by recent events (‘When the Crash came, lawyers flew in from America to ask the Craigs to rack their brains for something they could do without. They thought and thought. They obviously couldn’t sell Sunninghill Park’). Veteran sycophant Nicholas Pratt returns, still trying to emulate David Melrose: cruelty and laughter, he says, have always been close neighbours. His servant has ‘the merry laugh of a man who is used to being exotically insulted by his employer several times a day.’

But Pratt dies, felled by a heart attack while trying to insult a disinterested therapist. (‘This is what happens when people don’t ask for help,’ the psyche says.) He is the last of the Lacoste set, and his fate seems symbolic, the passing of an old order and the possibility of something better. Patrick reflects, too, on the changes in burial practice. Once upon a time the Melroses of the world entombed themselves in pyramids with a few hundred unfortunate slaves. Now they are reduced to ashes like the rest of us.

Like the closing chapters of Some Hope, the new novel introduces a note of hope and compassion into a cynical universe with such style and skill it takes your breath away. St Aubyn understands that life’s horrors are best dealt with, not with endless meetings and self-help books, but by furious laughter. And yet, at the same time, there is more to life than the consolations of derision.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 8th, 2011.