Edward St Aubyn is another writer I’ve been meaning to get to for ages because of the many personal recommendations I’ve received about the Melrose novels and the high praise he’s received in reviews. Of course, I came to it knowing that this sequence books are roughly autobiographical but this fact doesn’t influence my reading that much. It seems to me all writing skirts around the circumference of truth for every author whether it’s directly taken from their past or psychologically real to them. This first book in the series introduces the reader to a boy named Patrick living in a privileged household with an alcoholic mother Eleanor and an abusive monstrous father David. It follows this family and the friends who come to dine with the parents over the course of a day dipping in and out of each character’s perspective. Aubyn does this with startling grace giving equal weight and sentiment to an array of characters’ points of view. He can be very funny and cruelly cutting when dissecting the laborious social banalities of the adults interacting with each other. But he can also be breathtakingly moving when describing the painful humiliations and abuse which David inflicts on his wife and son.
Aubyn has an incredible way of describing his characters physicality in relation to their emotional state of mind. In particular Eleanor’s lethargy for life is shown in the sluggish detached way she deals with the world. “She settled into her body, like a sleepwalker who climbs back into bed after a dangerous expedition.” This suggests that Eleanor is often mentally removed from the world and only returns to her body to passively observe what’s happening around her. At one point when she’s told Patrick is sitting on the stairs in distress she doesn’t go to comfort him although she considers doing so. Patrick is also described as becoming detached from his body when experiencing abuse from his father as a method of surviving the atrocious horror of his situation.
Patrick’s complex psychology is described with the most beautiful detail. The relation between his inner world and the way he perceives the world around him is described using startling figurative language: “After a while, he no longer recognized what he was thinking and, just as a shop window sometimes prevents the onlooker from seeing the objects behind the glass and folds him instead in a narcissistic embrace, his mind ignored the flow of impressions from the outside world and locked him into a daydream he could not have subsequently described.” Patrick’s sense of self is displaced from what he sees around him and even his own thoughts. In this way he is shown as protectively retreating from the world in a way he can’t control.
Even with characters who really repulsed me like the grotesque womanizer and atrocious snob Nicholas there were aspects of his personality that the author movingly describes to draw my sympathy and make me feel a connection. In one scene following Nicholas’ point of view it is asked “Why was the centre of his desire always in a place he had just deserted?” This sense of never being able to capture exactly what you want and never feeling truly satiated with what you have is something a lot of people can relate to. Great writers like Aubyn know how to illuminate the inner workings of even monstrous characters to show why they might act the way they do. In the case of David, this is a man who is so disappointed by life and diminished by the fact of being a titled person who is financially dependant on the woman he married that he can only get pleasure from inflicting torture upon others – whether that be the ants marching through his garden or his own wife and son: “what redeemed life from complete horror was the almost unlimited number of things to be nasty about.” Mired in his own self-loathing and pain David makes a game of controlling and causing suffering for others. Although it’s difficult to read about such characters and their actions, it feels important to know about this kind of conflict – not to forgive evil actions, but to understand how pain reverberates through time and is given as a sort of inheritance.
There is an air of melancholy cast over this whole novel – a sense that people can’t really be changed. This sense of futility seems to even be expressed in the very title of the novel – Never Mind. The nature of human relations and psychology is openly discussed at the Melrose’s luncheon with a number of characters. These musings are underpinned by the remark that “Perhaps people were just born one way or another and the main thing was not to interfere too much.” This novel comes down heavily on the side of nature over nurture as the characters are locked in their way of being. The circular dysfunctional actions of the adults mean they are unable to progress. A scholar named Victor remarks at one point that “the compulsion to repeat what one has experienced is like gravity, and it takes special equipment to break away from it.” The Melrose family seem particularly incapable of moving on because no one would dare disrupt them. The fact that no one steps in to intervene when Eleanor is so obviously psychologically and chemically dependent on alcohol or when Patrick appears so visibly traumatized speaks to the indifference people can have and their unwillingness to stir the waters when observing dysfunction.
One of the most distinctive things about this novel is the way it uncovers the contradiction between the highly sophisticated setting and attitudes of the characters and their vile and debased actions. At one point a rather frivolous character named Bridget observes “What a civilized life you have here” Yet Aubyn shows that the lifestyle of the privileged can just be a veneer covering the most perverse actions and poisoned relations. Too often we accept what is on the surface as reflecting how things really are, but with a little digging depths of untold conflict are evident everywhere.
Aubyn seems to playfully hint at the powerlessness he feels as a writer haunted by pain which cannot be undone. When referring to Victor he writes “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.” The act of writing or thinking about ideas deeply may feel futile at some points as it all takes place internally. However, this book proves that these fictional characters can make an impact upon the real world and how people think about it.