By David Sexton
Edward St Aubyn has never denied that Patrick Melrose, the protagonist of his masterful sequence of five novels – on which the new series starring Benedict Cumberbatch is based – is his alter ego. There wouldn’t be much point. Patrick’s trajectory, from a traumatised five-year-old, through misery and addiction in his 20s, towards some reconciliation with his past in his early 40s, is so evidently St Aubyn’s own.
Moreover, these novels don’t just tell the story of how he survived such an upbringing; the very act of writing them was itself patently part of how he made it through.
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Edward St Aubyn was born in 1960, the son of an alcoholic American heiress and a tyrannical, abusive father, descended from a landed Cornish family. From infancy, he suffered horribly from his father’s cruelties, until he somehow found the strength to confront him when he was eight.
St Aubyn dismisses the idea that trauma leads to repression. “It leads to splitting and fragmentation. I never had any trouble remembering what were the most outstandingly violent and life-threatening events in my childhood. Why would you?” he has said, always speaking with stinging clarity about the darkest of subjects.
By the age of 16, as a schoolboy at Westminster, St Aubyn was a heroin addict. “I do think heroin saved my life,” he once told me. “It was the perfect halfway house between living and suicide. It enabled me not to make either choice.”
When he was 18, he inherited a fortune from his grandmother and blew most of it on drugs and dissipation. Although he read English at Oxford, he left with no more than a pass degree, having taken heroin but not a pen into his finals. Throughout his 20s, he thought about suicide. Once, when he tried to take a deliberate overdose, he passed out before fully pressing the plunger, and woke up a day and a half later.
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St Aubyn was 25 when his ogre of a father died – the point at which David Nicholls’s TV adaptation of the Melrose series begins, as Patrick flies to New York, completely off his head, to collect his father’s ashes.
It was around this time that St Aubyn entered psychotherapy. In 1988, he stopped taking heroin and started writing the novel about his early childhood that became his debut, Never Mind. He found working on it so painful that for a year he couldn’t get past the first chapter. But he had made a deal with himself: “Either I write a novel that I finish and get published, and is authentic, or I’ll kill myself.”
Never Mind and its successor, Bad News, were both published in 1992. Some Hope, in which a newly clean Patrick attends a grotesque society party and seems to arrive at some resolution in his life, followed in 1994.
There the trilogy seemed complete, much admired but not achieving great sales. Then, a dozen years later, StAubyn published another, longer novel about the Melrose family, Mother’s Milk, updating the story: Patrick, now married, with two charming boys, is drunken, miserable and unfaithful, learning moreover that his addled mother plans to give away the family’s treasured château in Provence to new-age charlatans. Mother’s Milk was shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize but did not win, although by now it was becoming clear that the Melrose books are one of the great achievements in contemporary British fiction.
By the time that St Aubyn published a final, scintillating addition to the sequence, At Last, in 2011, the scale of his achievement had become clear and his work has only grown in stature since.
At his mother’s funeral, Patrick Melrose comes to a new understanding of just how extensive his father’s violence had been and the ways in which his late mother was complicit in it.
St Aubyn was living through these stories, as the novels were written – and he has spoken about how, in the course of working on them, he discovered his own fate as he composed Patrick Melrose’s. “The revelation was in the process of writing,” he has said, “happening in real time.”
For TV, the order of the first two novels has been flipped, so we first meet Patrick as an adult in a terrible state, prompting us to wonder how he became so damaged, a mystery that’s withheld until the second episode. It’s a deft piece of dramatisation – a little plot manipulation that St Aubyn himself, working his way so agonisingly in sequence, could never have contrived.
But then the Melrose novels are not only St Aubyn’s own story any more. When I interviewed him just before the publication of At Last, he stated quite precisely how he had approached turning his own plight into fiction.
“I’m not for a second pretending that the emotional concerns of the novels aren’t my emotional concerns,” he said. “But they are not autobiography. I wanted the freedom to blend, to compress, to conflate, to reframe, to do all the things a novel can do. I’m interested in the transformative power of doing that, of taking things that were very chaotic and making them lucid… taking things that were very disturbing and making them funny.”
The novels are indeed transformative: excruciatingly lucid, horrifically funny (as indeed is the TV adaptation). Outrageous they may be – but what they reveal about how difficult it can be for any of us to escape our pasts, to take control of our lives, could not be more universal.