Edward St Aubyn: A boy called Teddy

Edward St Aubyn's novels about the dysfunctional, upper-crust Melrose family made his name, but turned the spotlight on his own troubled childhood and history of drug abuse. Suzi Feay finds out why he's resurrected his difficult anti-hero, Patrick Melrose
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The Independent Culture

The cloud looming over an impending interview with Edward St Aubyn is the fear that you might really be meeting his most famous character, the mad, posh, arrogant, suicidal junkie Patrick Melrose, whose fictional life seems to run parallel to that of his creator. As Patrick Melrose would be about as safe to lunch with as Bret Easton Ellis's Patrick Bateman, it's hard not to feel nervous.

Patrick first appeared as a five-year-old boy in St Aubyn's debut, Never Mind, published in 1992. Two further instalments, Bad News and Some Hope, taking him to the ages of 22 and 30, formed the Patrick Melrose trilogy, now republished in one volume (under the title Some Hope). The rough trajectory of the story goes like this: boy is abused by his satanically evil father; young man, father now dead, is a helpless drug addict; lastly, having beaten drugs and drink, he attains a measure of peace, or at least "some hope", by telling a close friend about the abuse he suffered as a child. That sounds glib, and these books are anything but. They are hilarious and terrifying, shot through with pain and wisdom and written in the most extraordinary cold, pure style: rockets of wit exploding like flares to highlight the bleakness of the terrain.

It's terrain that's rather difficult to negotiate, given that St Aubyn chose to produce fiction, rather than to write A Boy Called Teddy and anticipate the Dave Pelzer publishing phenomenon by 15 years. After two intervening St Aubyn novels, the Melroses are back in his latest, Mother's Milk. Middle-aged Patrick, unhappily married with two small sons, is funnier than ever, caustic humour his only defence against a hostile world. But of course, the world is not only out there but inside him. And, as always in St Aubyn, there are serious moral choices to be faced.

The author, already seated at the table, is thin and pale, with rather beautiful skin, translucent and freckled, and eyes like shiny little brown buttons. He is friendly but guarded at first. St Aubyn can sound like a tetchy don ("How I felt about a fictional character? How I felt and what I wrote are the same thing") and there are some bizarre flashes of reticence ("I don't think I want to tell you the names of my novelist friends"), but overall he is surprisingly warm.

The Melroses are rich and upper-class; the St Aubyns seem to own Cornwall. So has he ever had to hold down a job?

"You think I should have a real job as well as writing six novels do you? You're a hard taskmaster."

I think all writers should have some experience of the world of work, I explain, doing a Ted Hughes voice: First ah were a gravedigger... then ah were a poastman...

"I did read manuscripts for a publisher when I left Oxford. I wrote sketches for an arts programme on Radio 3. They asked me to write a comic sketch about Derrida. I didn't have to do any work because Derrida wrote it for me. I went to see his lecture at the ICA: 'The ideal text is... euh... comment on dit vagin?' (Vagina!) '... like a vagina. Eeet ees infolding... and outfolding... at ze same time.' Well, I'll just copy that down, then! A little bit harder was the comic sketch about the new edition of Ulysses which had six differences to the old edition. Mostly punctuation. Is that a real job? I don't know. Then I started writing novels and I didn't look back. There's only ever been a two- or three-week gap between books because I'm very driven, then suddenly I had a blank phase. I'm determined to start again, but I don't really know what I'm going to write from now on. Maybe I should be a gravedigger. What was the other one?"

A postman.

"Right! I dunno, I'm torn."

I was struck throughout the four books by an intense quality of hatred for the human race, which I could only admire. So is that St Aubyn, or is it Patrick?

"Well, what's your impression? I seem to be full of warmth and affection. I dunno. Um. I'm lost for words. It's clear, yes, that Patrick's state of mind is very acerbic and very aggressive. He feels under constant threat, for reasons that are made clear through the books. I suppose at a certain point you attack something else in order to stop attacking yourself. He's changed to some extent in Mother's Milk, hasn't he?"

As he talks, St Aubyn puts away three courses with maximum efficiency and dispatch. Soup is drunk, fish is neatly filleted, wine is not taken, or even suggested. And he waves away the perfectly delicious breadrolls. Are you on a non-wheat-eating kick or what?

He looks startled. "I'll own up to that. I just found that I was feeling very tired after eating wheat." And this is the man who wrote about heroin addiction in Bad News ("he shook from the violence of his own heartbeat, like a man cowering under the spinning blades of a helicopter... he imagined his veins, as thin and brittle as the stems of champagne glasses, snapping").

Patrick is such fun to read about, especially when he's behaving badly. Surely he must also be fun to write?

"I don't associate writing with fun at all. It sounds slightly depressing but writing is horrible... and not writing is even more horrible. That's my position!" He starts laughing. "Some people say to me, 'do you enjoy your work?' I really don't know what they mean but, having said that, there are moments of release, and they come from two things. One of them is when I can surprise myself. And the other thing is when it's funny. The rest is just a hard slog. I have laughed out loud. Not very often. I hope readers are laughing more than I am. It's hard work, you change it 20 times and it's difficult to keep howling with laughter."

Writing is a long, slow, laborious process for St Aubyn. "I write a page longhand, because there are all sorts of things you can only do on a page with a pen - you can see the archaeology of your thinking - then I transcribe it and then I print it out then I correct it, then I print it out again, then I correct it then I print it out and put it on a pile and that's the first draft, already probably the fifth or sixth version. But the advantage of that is that at the end there isn't as much work to do. I can't knowingly put something on the first-draft pile that I know is bad." A small team of friends and professionals make "very good suggestions, but small suggestions! Not 'chuck out chapter four, make Patrick a woman' type of thing."

After all that agony, it isn't surprising that he doesn't read reviews, or often give interviews."I was almost too extreme at the beginning, because I refused to do any publicity at all with the first two novels, because they were so personal. I didn't even want to hear about the reviews, they were tucked into a bag. It's not because I'm so aloof but the reverse. 'I've got to be savage now. I'm said to be savage.' I don't want to be haunted by other people's judgements when I'm writing, because it's quite hard enough dealing with my vicious, punitive superego."

At the same time, he says, "I do love it when people say to me, face to face, that they like my work. It's a rather lonely profession, spending three years in a room, with no feedback at all. I have one crisis of confidence after another, so it really helps."

Yet his narrative voice, particularly in the trilogy, is so confident and assured...

"I read it recently for the first time since I proof-read the individual novels, and that struck me as well. Because it's so different from how I feel." I'm going to start crying in a minute, especially when he then says that he lives alone in a nearby bedsit.

"I'm not sure that Patrick doesn't muse gloomily somewhere in Mother's Milk that he's going to end up living alone in a bedsit. Well, guess what - it's all come true." Though he does "divide his time", as they say on the blurbs, between Kensington and the south of France.

I was glad to see that Patrick is to some extent up to his old tricks. At the end of Some Hope, a reformed character, he was feeding on "grilled food and mineral water".

"You saw a wheat-free diet on the horizon..."

But in a marvellously toe-curling scene in Mother's Milk, he goes on a bender while staying with some rich American relatives, drink-drives and nearly crashes their car.

"So, you're delighted now he's draining a bottle of Maker's Mark."

Why did he bring back the Melroses after such a long gap?

"Mother's Milk is a completely independent book, there are no back references to Some Hope. If you've read Some Hope it's probably a richer experience but it is a free-standing novel. But why go to the pseudo-inventiveness of creating a simulacrum with the Melroses in order to tell the story I wanted to tell? It would have been silly."

In Some Hope, Patrick's ghastly father loomed large, dead or alive; now his elderly mother comes to the fore. One of the threads is the reversal of roles, the need to parent one's parents in old age. "Although in a sense the magic of Eleanor's mothering is that she always needed more looking after than she was prepared to give! At one point in my life I was very dominated by having an infant who couldn't yet speak and a mother who could no longer speak. There were two wordless figures in my life who were very powerful forces. All serious writing is attracted to places which aren't already filled up with words. It's always going to be some kind of raid on the inarticulate; either something has to be taboo, as is the case with Never Mind, or on the fringes of unconsciousness, as with Bad News. It has to be on the edge of what's sayable, or it's not worth saying. If it's already covered with words like weevils on a biscuit, there is no point, is there?"

Just before leaving, he excuses himself and heads off fairly smartly in the direction of the gents. I can't help thinking about the scene in Bad News, where Patrick, lunching in a patrician New York club, races to the gents, vomits in the sink, and starts sniffing heroin in one of the stalls.

But St Aubyn's back in no time. He looks at me and hisses: "I know what you're thinking - I had to rush off and take some wheat."

'Mother's Milk' (£12.99) and 'Some Hope' (£7.99) are published by Picador