Bath Literature Festival: Edward St Aubyn

At first it may have seemed incongruous to put Edward St Aubyn – described as ‘our purest living prose stylist’ by the Guardian – on the same billing as Tessa Hadley, a competent, if slightly clockwork graduate of the Bath University creative writing MA. However, given St Aubyn’s notorious reticence, perhaps the organizers of this year’s Bath Literature Festival thought it was a good idea to have someone else on stage to fill out the time. They needn’t have worried. Both authors spoke articulately and passionately, covering the common ground – family – in their respective books, ‘Mother’s Milk’ and ‘Master Bedroom.’

But it was St Aubyn that I ventured to the festival for. Not only am I in awe of his beautiful, elliptical prose, I’ve always been fascinated by the desire for catharsis that’s evident in his writing. In ‘Some Hope,’ Patrick Melrose says that ‘if the talk cure is our modern religion then narrative fatigue must be its apotheosis’. St Aubyn admits that ‘in Some Hope, there was some closure.’ Yet he returns to the Melrose family in ‘Mother’s Milk’ for another slice of familial strife. Why?

Well, ‘Mother’s Milk’ didn’t start out as a Melrose novel, ‘but it was [always] a Melrose story,’ St Aubyn admits: he simply substituted ‘Patrick’ for ‘Mark’. When the novel was finished, he changed the name back. Gone, though, is the drug addled twenty-something of ‘Bad News,’ replaced with a bitter, cynical middle-aged Patrick who is ‘jealous and miserable’ of his wife’s relationship with their children. ‘Babies destroy sex and romance and monopolise their mother,’ St Aubyn explains. This signposts the shift away from the earlier focus of the Melrose stories on paternal relations to the maternal. ‘Mother’s Milk’ is still a book ‘about dependency’ though this time more explicitly dependence on the family, rather than on drugs – as well as being about the sins of the parents revisited upon the children. In disinheriting her offspring, Patrick’s mother ‘is compulsively doing to her children what she least liked having done to her,’ just as Patrick fears he is passing on his father’s disdain and contempt for the world on to his own children.

St Aubyn read from his book with the typical bored monotone the English upper classes are fated to speak in. Coupled with a taciturn demeanour that’s been mistaken for aloofness in the past, it’s easy to see why he has such a fearsome reputation, and why it’s easy to confuse him with Patrick Melrose. At 48, he could still pass for the 30 year old Patrick of ‘Some Hope’. But scratch beneath his waspish veneer and you’ll find he’s as insightful and sympathetic in real life as his prose would suggest. He understands his subjects intimately, but has gone far beyond the mere autobiography he was initially accused of.

He admits that ‘there is always a starting point [for his ideas] in reality, nonetheless it has to be hidden… there has to be something for [him] to discover’. Therein lies the key to understanding his writing. St Aubyn writes to better understand himself and in doing so, to better understand the human condition. He believes that even if he wrote ‘a novel on Mars in the twenty fifth century, it would be infused with [his] own sensibilities’. It is impossible to separate St Aubyn’s preoccupations from his characters. He takes his own experiences as ‘a starting point’ but doesn’t know where that point will lead him to. His writing is an exploration of the psyche and that, perhaps, is what makes it so addictive. The truth, the cut and thrust, the intellectual argument that St Aubyn makes in his books only becomes apparent to him as he writes them. His stories are mysteries of human nature that are only solved – or at least salved – as he writes, and as we read.

St Aubyn’s reputation as a perceptive, intelligent author is well deserved. He is also utterly unpretentious. It remains to be seen if the completion of ‘Mother’s Milk’ has finally imbued him with the kind of ‘narrative fatigue’ that his alter-ego, Patrick Melrose, once sought. I can’t help but suspect if he reaches that narrative fatigue, he’ll stop writing. But for now, it seems like this supposedly reticent author still has a lot to say.

Richard Allday

More from the Bath Literature Festival to come later in the week… same time, same bat channel. Stay tuned.