Arts: The pen is mightier than the needle

Edward St Aubyn's novels are the only therapy he needs. So what's this about New Age cures? By Clare Garner

EDWARD ST Aubyn stretched himself out on the sofa and stared at the ceiling, a habitual pose, I imagine, for someone who has undergone four and a half years of psychoanalysis, five days a week.

Psychoanalysis is not the only therapy this novelist has sampled. Besides attending numerous sessions at Narcotics Anonymous to recover from a 12- year-old long heroin addiction, St Aubyn has toured New Age outposts from the Findhorn Institute in Scotland to the Esalen Foundation in North California, via psychedelic psychosis in Canyonlands, Utah. And all in the name of research.

For the best therapy of all, he insists, has been writing. St Aubyn knew from an early age the power of words. When he was nine, he was reading a page of the dictionary every night.

St Aubyn was dyslexic as a child. "I could hardly read and spelt very badly. My father decided to help me learn to spell, but he only used words I couldn't have heard of. He said, `We'll do spelling every day.' I was expecting him to say `car' or `policeman' and then it was `iridescent'. That was the first word."

By the age of 12, he had already started writing his first novel, but it was not until 1992, when St Aubyn was 32, that he had a book published. Never Mind, the first in a semi-autobiographical trilogy, is a harrowing account of his tortured childhood and tells the story of a boy who is buggered by his father at the age of five. St Aubyn acknowledges that the power of his writing stems directly from his relationship with his sadistic father.

At the age of four, St Aubyn asked his father what the most important thing in the world was, to which came the reply: "Observe anything". Critics have praised St Aubyn's merciless power of observation, but his father's advice was, says St Aubyn, "a tainted instruction".

"I observed everything with hysterical anxiety. If we went for a drive, I would memorise every number plate we passed and recite them. If we went to a friend's house, I would describe every object in the house and reproduce precisely what everyone had said. This question of observing things and having some mastery of language is associated with placating a murderous and abusive father."

His father is now dead. Indeed, St Aubyn's second novel, Bad News, begins with Melrose flying to New York to collect his father's corpse. The novel is about the heroin years and was described by Peter Cook as the best portrait of drug addiction he had ever read. The concluding volume, Some Hope, was a devastating satire of the unpleasantly rich.

And now, there is On The Edge, his first non-autobiographical novel, published last month. This time St Aubyn is widely perceived to have surpassed himself. Beyond his brilliant characterisation and finely tuned satire, this book is "pierced with goodwill, tenderness and a new kind of thoughtfulness," wrote Andrew Barrow in The Spectator.

St Aubyn says the world of alternative therapy appealed to him as a novelist: "The most fundamental questions could be approached through the most absurd territory." But, after all the confessional sessions, the Chinese medicine and herbal tea, the shiatsu, the feng shui, the narcotics and healing hands, is he dismissing the whole lot as "absurd"?

Apparently not. When I put it to him that he was taking a cheap shot at vulnerable people, demolishing them with his remorselessly precise use of language, he rebounded. "God, no. There isn't any contempt in the humour of On the Edge, whereas there is something quite chilly about The Trilogy - and quite contemptuous. It comes quite close to its subject matter, which is cruelty. I think the tone of On the Edge is much more lenient."

St Aubyn set out to establish whether there was any persuasive rationale behind the mishmash of therapies and mumbo jumbo of jargon which amount to the New Age. "I noticed a kind of New Age wash tinting people's lives, including my own, without anyone really thinking what model of reality lay behind it." He added that he was as guilty as the next man of leading "a slightly schizoid life in which you drink the camomile tea, put calming aromatherapy drops in the bath and then take the sleeping pill".

Researching On the Edge, St Aubyn participated fully. "There was a tremendous pressure to come up with a good trauma. To begin with, I would present the facts of my life in The Trilogy, and it would be clear that this was worthy material, but at the same time, my relationship with it was by then completely inert. I'd get sucked into the group and think I was cheating them unless I was prepared to talk about something contemporary, which was genuinely troubling me. Any attempt to keep an aloof position, a position of observer, seemed to falsify the evidence I was examining."

He first went to Esalen in 1994, but kept going back "again and again." "It's so beautiful and it's full of charming people. I have rather a weakness for Californian hippy chicks, so that drew me back... You can say that the last chapter was thoroughly researched," he said, referring to On The Edge's climax. "It's a comic ending. Instead of a dance at the end of the comedy, it's Tantric Sex."

`On the Edge' by Edward St Aubyn is published by Chatto & Windus at pounds 10.99

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system