Saturday, August 26, 2006

Mother's Milk - Edward St Aubyn

Edward St Aubyn's Mother's Milk, one of the longlisted 19 for Booker 2006, while being an extension of a trilogy is also capable of being read as a standalone book states its author.

Edward St Aubyn,part of the creamy English class, writes about the dark interiors behind the polished exterior of his class (the peerage stuff here)
St Aubyn's metier is the upper-class in all their waspishness, detailing their traumatic childhoods, peroccupation with drugs and sex with an acid wit reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Hamilton, and more recently Julian Fellowes. His earlier books are broadly autobiographical, detailing the sexual abuse he suffered from his father as a child and his addiction to heroin. Mother's Milk is a loose sequel to the Patrick Melrose/Some Hope trilogy, and also includes elements of satire on New Age establishments, like his non-Melrose novels On the Edge and A Clue to the Exit.

Articles about him uniformly acclaim his striking prose and the lucid portrayal of the 'nasty rich'.

An extract of this book here whets the appetite for the whole thing.
Yesterday he had thought he was dying. Perhaps he was right and this was what happened. Everything was open to question, except the fact that he was separated from his mother. Now that he realized there was a difference between them, he loved his mother with a new sharpness. He used to be close to her. Now he longed to be close to her. The first taste of longing was the saddest thing in the world.

The review at the Independent says:
He particularly excels in the depiction of characters on the cusp of consciousness. The novel opens with a virtuosic portrayal of birth and the first weeks of life from the baby's point of view. At the opposite end of the scale, the description of Eleanor grappling for words after suffering a stroke is both measured and moving.

Mother's Milk is not perfect. The over-articulacy of some of its exchanges belongs more to the world of Ivy Compton-Burnett than to today's moneyed classes. Likewise, the trip to New York, while offering a welcome corrective to the "rain of American images" in which the rest of the world now drowns, dissipates the novel's focus. These, however, are minor quibbles. For once, the hype is justified. This is indeed the re-emergence of a major literary talent.

This piece in the Guardian reviews Mother's Milk and also provides details on the man who took pieces from his life and shaped them into the fictional world of Patrick Melrose.
I suspect that he is far too clever - not to mention too much of an outsider himself - to be a truly devout snob. He was, however, born in 1960 in a part of Cornwall that has been inhabited by St Aubyns since the Norman conquest and, as a young man, was in possession of a fortune sizeable enough that he did not have to work (this is almost certainly no longer the case). The Daily Mail's profile writers always like to mention that he is a cousin of Lord St Levan, whose home is St Michael's Mount, and that he is godfather to Earl Spencer's son, Louis.

His father did everything and nothing, and dragged his family around the south of France. It was there that the abuse began. 'It splits you in half,' he once said of it. 'You can't accept that your father is doing this shameful thing to you and you take on the shame yourself.' It did not stop until Edward was eight, when he confronted his father. Soon after, his parents divorced (the two events were not connected; his mother did not find out what had happened until her son was grown up) and he was sent to Westminster School. He began taking drugs while he was there, a habit he continued at Oxford (best friend: Will Self). He turned up for his finals immaculately attired, but with heroin secreted about his person and the empty tube of a Bic biro through which to snort it (no pen with which to scribble, though). Four years later, he was a mess. He desperately wanted to write, but his story was painful and elusive. So he began seeing a therapist and, in talking about what was on his mind, won himself a kind of freedom. His father died in 1986.

'Once I started writing, I decided to stop the analysis. I didn't need it any more. But I knew it was good because I went to see my analyst after making a suicide attempt. I was very, very precarious and then I felt a lot better. I stopped feeling mad; there was some sense of order.' Is writing its own kind of therapy? 'If it does have any therapeutic value, the only way to get access to it is to write without any therapeutic intent. You transform experience into, for want of a better word, art. I'm interested in structure and character. Otherwise it would be very boring for everyone else.' But its therapeutic value may also lie simply in the fact that it is work. 'That's what Freud says: work and love. They help convert the extraordinarily depressed into the ordinarily depressed.'

Snippets of various reviews compiled here.

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