First, two short poems:
The Melrose novels
are a masterwork
for the twenty-first century, written by
one of the gre-
at prose stylists in England.
— Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones
Extraordinary. . .
— Francine Prose
I wanted to write here about Englishmen— the literary ones like Edward St. Aubyn, the pursed, small-eyed author of the hyperhyped autobiographical Melrose novels — but I can’t stop thinking about American women. The literary ones, like Alice Sebold and Francine Prose.
What’s there to say about literary Englishmen, after all? They’re the ones who, year after year, define style with their extraordinary masterworks that ram us with stilettos and lace the wound with humorous acid.
American women are the ones who keep saying so.
But why do we keep saying so? Edward St. Aubyn’s “Patrick Melrose novels” (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last) are indeed awesomely seamy, like “Requiem for a Dream,” and of course Bright Lights, Big City. They squirm with scenes of a rich person trying to gouge a beat vein with a bent wide-gauge needle, or calculate which mix of Turkish cigarettes, date rape, meanness, Corton Charlemagne and street speed will keep him in the game another day.
But if it’s drugs and sadism you want, there’s American Psycho. If it’s a true-life story of child-molestation you’re after, Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso is a genuine masterpiece. Sicko subject matter is not what wins the Melrose cycle critical hyperventilation; neither is it the prose, which makes for a page-turner but not a literary work, something like David Nicholls’s One Day or Curtis Sittenfeld’s fantastic American Wife.
Instead, Prose and Sebold rave about St. Aubyn because they can’t but rave about him. I’d argue that it is their — our! — duty as American women. It’s like Simon Cowell says in his cartoonish casting of the S&M non-romance between American women and English men. We American women are smarmy and earnest; we make sure everyone gets a prize; and we coddle the hell of our kids. We’re trophy-givers. We give trophies till it hurts, even or especially to people who hurt us.
The trophy for English novelists is always for rapiers and stilettos and acid, and for total dominion in the field of English prose.
I can attest: If you read St. Aubyn’s books, with their Danielle Steele covers, you throw in with the douchebag protagonists. You can’t help but root for them to score their pleasures, just as the reader of Nabokov roots for cosmopolite Humbert to rape that American girl. He’s the literary one, after all, who has been to France; the sycophantic reader swoons for him as a depressed teen swoons for a high school English teacher who quotes Byron.
In St. Aubyn’s novels the reader’s vanity as a reader is implicated with the French phrases, the sneering at overeaters, the pinky-teacup crap about the right gestures with a cigar and where to hang your Caravaggio. If she gets past the first few pages, she likes to see herself as worldly enough to get it, alert to the subtle non-fruit of Corton Charlemagne and aligned — eventually — with the polyglot sadism of the suave protagonists.
Sadly those protagonists, as often as not, are aligned against her. Which brings us to another pleasure of this Caravaggio-owning hophead crowd: hating American women. Think frowsy Charlotte Haze, the preposterous mother of Lolita whom Humbert must lower himself to marry in order to rape her 12-year-old daughter. There’s an American mother like that in the Melrose novels: Patrick’s own mother, the druggy Eleanor. Eleanor, who comes from American money, is so impressed by David Melrose, her brutal English husband, that she eats on all fours, like a dog, to please him. He also violently rapes her to conceive Patrick, whom he violently rapes in turn.
Eleanor is left for dead, more or less, by St. Aubyn’s narrative. Of his own mother, Lorna, on whom Eleanor is closely based, St. Aubyn told The New Yorker recently, she “really was a person of good intentions, but if ever it was clear that good intentions were not enough.” He bitterly resents that she responded to his account of his rape by mentioning hers.
If this sounds flat and bleak, it is. Wrested out of St. Aubyn’s arch, Swiftian idiom, his stories of sadism and incest and domestic violence and humiliating people and addiction and rape have a monotonous basement-lit A&E quality to them. “Hoarders,” “Intervention,” “Obsessed.” There’s not much lift.
In St. Aubyn’s fiction and life the lift comes from money, and the money — for rooms at the Pierre and country parties — arrives via the American women who inherited it from vulgar stateside industrialists (who’ve always manufactured something comical, like chamber-pots, in comical places, like Ohio). David Melrose — like St. Aubyn’s dad Roger — married into American money, and then affected contempt for the source of it. “Effort is vulgar,” believes David Melrose. The effort of making chamber pots or iPhones or any widget at all is vulgarissimo and thus never mentioned.
In a profile of St. Aubyn in The New Yorker, Ian Parker says that St. Aubyn himself, though the victim of a father who liked to make people and animals feel stupid (also raped and dead), loves to lay an ingénue to waste. “A not terribly bright girl might say, ‘Ooh, that’s fun,’ and he would play with her use of language in a way that humiliated her,” says a friend of St. Aubyn.
“It was like a wolf savaging a sheep.”
Another woman describes the same experience with St. Aubyn: “I said something about a book I didn’t really know. He made me feel very young, and very stupid.”
Ooh, that’s fun. And not surprising. St. Aubyn, then a heroin addict, barely got through college, so now he likes to lord his good grammar or whatever over people younger than he is. It’s only odd that St. Aubyn would choose to savage the unbright girls for illiteracy, when Aubyn in the same profile cops to dyslexia. Evidently he barely reads. No matter: his own illiteracy becomes a virtue in his telling. “I think that’s affected my prose style,” St. Aubyn tells Ian Parker. “I became very interested in the sound of words, and the rhythm of sentences, because it took me so long to get to the end of them.”
That’s it! That’s why Englishmen, especially the snobs, especially the intellectual snobs, need our American trophies so desperately, even though they hate us, and it’s also why we must never stop giving them. Every single person alive is interested in the sounds of words, and the rhythms of sentences!
These men say such obvious, self-satisfied things with so much passion that if you don’t consider them quotable insights they might perish of their own sophistry. We have to keep the myth of the stiletto-sharp English novelist alive!
And if one of those novelists — say, Edward St. Aubyn — doesn’t happen to win the Booker Prize, which is something that magically matters like Eton or Quidditch, we go through another round of mommy-clapping praise for St. Aubyn’s most recent dreary resentment showpiece, Lost for Words, which came out this year and satirizes the. . .Booker Prize committee. In fact, in St. Aubyn’s ever-acid revenge prose, the prize-deniers look like a bunch of know-nothing LOSERS.
The chief learning disability of St. Aubyn is not dyslexia. It’s his need to imagine himself as a wolf wielding an acid-tipped stiletto because he bullies American sophomores (and people who pass him over for prizes) while shoring up his confidence with platitudes about his own genius for rhythm (of all things)! LDD. Lupiletto Delusion Disorder.
Yes, St. Aubyn’s social scene includes Nigella Lawson, Antonia Fraser and Anthony Powell’s son, and a men-only club called White’s, but he has the emotional life of a sixth-grader. And now I realize why, even though all he seems to want to do is humiliate my hayseed countrywomen, I would never, ever want to humiliate him back — or Piers Morgan or Martin Amis or all those snippy English people we import to push Americans around in reality-TV competitions. In their clichés and desire to disgrace vulnerable people they seem so fragile themselves, somehow, so affronted and stung by their trillion minute and ordinary social failures, which they take so suicidally seriously, as if they were the first people ever to fail.
So let me join Alice Sebold and Francine Prose in awarding the Melrose cycle blue ribbons, gold stars and big whoops of pained merriment. Those jabs to my liver are hilarious. I would have done exactly the same as they did, had I blurbed St. Aubyn’s novels: praised the daylights out of them.
Back to the kabuki of the blurbs. In The New York Times, Leo Carey did not actually call the Melrose books, “Tantalizing. . .a memorable tour de force.” But never mind. That’s what it says on the back of my copy, under “Praise for the Patrick Melrose Cycle.”
The blurb is a fake excerpt from Carey’s review, and the cheapness of that old PR trick says something about the nature of all of the praise for Melrose. Everyone must conspire to make fragile, formidable Edward St. Aubyn, and the rest of the English would-be literary class, believe that they tantalize and slay us.
We die to the English style, and, there you go, that’s their trophy.