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
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The Independent Culture
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