What is it about British rich people that’s so fascinating to us? Not just “I’ve got platinum rims on my Bentley” rich, but “My family has had more money than God since God was young” rich. We’re talking capital-A Aristocracy. There is no “proper” aristocracy in America. The wealthiest Americans are self-made tech tycoons or business geniuses who work for their money–which, if you’re a true aristocrat, embodies the very depths of bad taste. Lifestyle-wise, it’s “Cribs” vs. “Downton Abbey”; when it comes to hobbies, it’s bankrolling the Tea Party and nannying New Yorkers vs. fox hunting and holidays in the south of France. The Aristocrats have class, in ways we admire, despise and obsess over.
The aristocratic family at the center of Edward St. Aubyn’s brilliant, scathing, hilarious, emotionally annihilating and–scariest of all, autobiographical–series, “The Patrick Melrose Novels,” are deliciously horrible: The patriarch, David Melrose, is addicted to the romance of his fading promise–a gifted pianist and doctor who refuses to record his compositions or practice medicine because that would display “vulgar ambition.” David is a snob even about snobbery: “To break even the smallest rules by which others convinced themselves that they were behaving correctly gave him great pleasure. His disdain for vulgarity included the vulgarity of wanting to avoid the appearance of being vulgar.”
David’s cruelty toward his family–rendered with deadly precision by St. Aubyn–drives his wife, Eleanor, to self-medicate into oblivion with drink and pills, and his son, Patrick, to a fall into a decade-long heroin addiction. These descents are hard to watch and impossible to look away from. Take this exquisite depiction of a hangover:
“She felt defiantly sick in a way she dared not challenge with food and had already aggravated with a cigarette. She had brushed her teeth after vomiting but the bilious taste was still in her mouth. She had brushed her teeth before vomiting as well, never able to utterly crush the optimistic streak in her nature…. She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth.”
You can feel the sweet relief of the cold vodka and the crack of the ice, but it’s already couched in the inevitable misery of the aftermath. As for Patrick, here’s David’s theory of education:
“Childhood was a romantic myth which he was too clear-sighted to encourage. Children were weak and ignorant miniature adults who should be given every incentive to correct their weakness and their ignorance. Like King Chaka, the great Zulu warrior, who made his troops stamp thorn bushes into the ground in order to harden their feet… he was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son. After all, what else did he have to offer him?”
I can’t say that the experience of reading “The Patrick Melrose Novels” is…. Read the rest on Bookish