Edward St. Aubyn by Patrick McGrath & Maria Aitken

BOMB 85 Fall 2003
085 Fall 2003 1024X1024
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Edward St. Aubyn. Photo by Ellen Warner. Courtesy of Ellen Warner and Open City.

We first met Teddy St. Aubyn some years ago in London, after we’d read his glorious and brilliant trilogy.

Titled The Patrick Melrose Trilogy in Britain, and comprising Never Mind Bad News , andSome Hope , it will be published in the United States this fall by Open City, in one volume called Some Hope . It’s the story of Patrick Melrose, a small boy who is sexually abused by his father, an upper-class Englishman and failed composer. We then jump forward to Patrick as a young man addicted to drugs, and a weekend of extraordinary excess—and excellent black humor—in Manhattan, where he has come to pick up the ashes of the recently deceased father. Book three gives us Patrick some years later, clean now but still haunted by the nightmare of his early childhood. The very end of the trilogy holds a faint but well-earned promise of—some hope.

Teddy was in New York recently to do research for a new book, and to be feted both uptown and down. We conducted the interview over a long lunch at home on Chambers Street, and the conversation, despite its occasionally grim subject matter, should be read with the sound of laughter in the background—plus cooking, eating, the pulling of corks and the firing up of huge cigars: Churchills. Teddy is an elegant man of great warmth, great wit, great presence of mind and impeccable manners. His mode of speech is the languid drawl, often sinking to a near-inaudible murmur, but punctuated often by gusts of raucous laughter. He lives mostly in rural France with his wife and young son.

A personal note in the interest of full disclosure: we were introduced to Teddy’s work by our good friend, his American agent, the actor and raconteur Edward Hibbert. Maria’s son, Jack Davenport—currently appearing in Pirates of the Caribbean as the Commodore—has optioned the dramatic rights to Some Hope , and we have written the screen adaptation. So it’s all in the family, and this was very much a family lunch.

Patrick McGrath Are you writing at the moment? In your hotel I mean?

Edward St. Aubyn It’s very difficult, because part of the purpose of the trip is to get out and get some background for the American chapters of the current work. I’m writing a little bit, but—

Maria Aitken But you wouldn’t be writing in a hotel anyway, because it’s not your game to do anything remotely orthodox.

ESA I still spring out to cafés, but I’m more writing notes and observations, really, than continuing the novel in a fully fledged way. It’s a bit fragmented.

MA I saw your ear enlarge when we were having dinner the other night, when the waitress was doing the specials. The girl kept telling us what she liked—

ESA That’s right, you’ve reminded me. I was struck, but I’d forgotten. I don’t have a retentive memory anymore. She said she’d been eating something on the menu all day long, which put me right off. I knew I wasn’t going to have that.

PM “Squid—I’ve been eating it all day.” There’s that lovely bit in Some Hope where someone says to Patrick Melrose, “Would you care for some dessert?” And he says. “What, cherish it?”

ESA I was in Central Park the other day and I saw a woman reach a climax of anthropomorphizing her dog by saying, “Are you ready for a cappuccino?” Are you ready for a cappuccino! And I imagined the dog saying, No, I’m a Dandy Dinmont. I don’t drink cappuccino. But no, no, she dragged him away.

PM Do you still do a lot of your writing in public places?

ESA Yes. If I’m left alone it can get too dramatic. That’s why I started writing in public. It focuses my mind in a paradoxical way. Ignoring other people funnels my concentration.

PM I have this extremely labored idea about the internal voices in Some Hope. I thought Patrick Melrose’s brain was in a way like the American Constitution—

ESA Citizen McGrath! [Editor’s note: Patrick has recently become an American citizen.]

PM Citizen McGrath. But I thought of him somehow as “we the People,” a republic unto himself. This is of course when he’s doing drugs. I think he says something about never buying a drug unless you have another drug that can contradict it, and Patrick Melrose certainly has enough of those—an elaborate system of checks and balances where nothing achieves too much power at the expense of anything else. Just like the system of government here. So if you have some of that then you must have some of this, which in turn demands something to counteract those effects—there’s a wonderful delicate fragile sort of balance that’s achieved, at least ideally, in Patrick Melrose’s mind over a long hard night …

ESA Yeah.

PM I don’t know what the question is, I’m just struck by how intricate and finely wrought it was, the complex way he manipulates his brain chemistry. His pharmacological calculus—

ESA Yes, but the balance always eludes him, doesn’t it? It’s always lurching, overcompensating.

PM Yes, the plans don’t work out. There’s a plan for his last night in New York—

ESA Lots of splendid plans made.

PM —this for 2 AM, that’ll get me to 4 AM, this’ll get me onto the Concorde … Can you reread it?

ESA The trilogy? I’ve had to reread it a couple of times, because I was doing readings when it was published in France and I had to choose passages.

PM How did you imagine Patrick Melrose’s education? Because we lose him from age five to age 22.

ESA Well, I didn’t want to write about it, so I just cut it out. The sort of experience I could have written about—going to an English boarding school and going to Oxford—seemed so overexplored.

PM I understood we didn’t need to know it. I assumed it was an Eton-Balliol sort of interval, just that regardless of how fucked-up Patrick is, he is always erudite and rational, and his conversations with his friend Johnny are sophisticated on a literary and even ethical level.

ESA Pretentious junkies.

MA Is it a new genre, pretentious junkies?

ESA I hope not. Patrick’s addiction is just a way of materializing his inner state, which is one of perpetual conflict with himself, and perpetual regret. It localizes his emotional life. Drugs provide a sort of measurable insanity rather than infinite insanity.

PM And it’s attributable, that insanity.

ESA Exactly, and then you can say, If I hadn’t done this gram of coke I wouldn’t be a maniac, but it’s because you’re a maniac that you have. You can reverse the order of cause and effect and materialize your emotions. Those are very great advantages. And you commit suicide slowly instead of making the perhaps nauseating decision to do it totally. So drugs are great—drugs were great for me—in slowing down the act of suicide. In fact I think I’m alive today thanks to being an intravenous drug addict.

PM It kept you going until you were mature enough to see there was a better way than suicide.

ESA Exactly.

MA What state were you in when you wrote the trilogy?

ESA I was clean and sober, as they say. I had a five-year period of total abstinence during which I wrote it.

MA Were you nostalgic?

ESA Yes, especially while I was writing Bad News. I got very upset writing every volume of the trilogy but I was nostalgic during Bad News because I was very won over by the vividness of my descriptions, at least from my point of view, of drug taking. After a sentence I’d often have to go out and walk around the block. But at the same time as the nostalgia, I have to say that the experience of being clean and sober freed me to write. I was very groggy, and in a very altered state, for 12 years. So regret was not the dominant emotion—the dominant emotion was the dazzling expansion.

MA Of being clean. And of course being well, I imagine. You were jolly ill for the first part of it.

ESA Exactly. There’s a character called Jean-Pierre—

PM The man who spent eight years thinking he was an egg. The dealer in New York.

ESA He’s directly based on someone. I’d love to meet him again, he was an extraordinary man.

MA I suppose you could never meet a dealer again—I mean it’s not possible to have it be social, is it?

ESA No, I probably never will.

MA Has he ever read the book?

ESA I don’t know, I’m out of touch with him. He was leaving New York, going back to rural France.

MA He’s probably down the road from you.

ESA He hated Americans, which was bizarre, and he refused to have any American customers.

MA While based in New York?

ESA While based in New York.

PM But in Patrick’s life, it’s well set up: there’s the mother, who’s a drunk, and his father, David Melrose, well, we could spend all afternoon talking about him, but one aspect is that he takes opium on the afternoon of the first rape, and you have a sense that this is a world in which the taking of drugs is a fact of life, it is indigenous. So you know what David is, he’s a sort of moral monster and is the root of all evil—

ESA Are we going to use the word evil? Are we?

PM Is that bad?

MA It’s just that it’s been taken over by George Bush.

ESA Exactly.

PM Oh.

MA As long as we don’t use the word folks.

PM Well, to what extent is David a destructive entity unto himself, and to what extent does he represent the class he lives in? To me one of the grand things about the trilogy is that you are able to keep both an individual and an entire class, the British upper class, in focus at the same time.

ESA I think he’s clearly a sadistic individual, and he takes advantage of some of the props that the world has lent him in order to aestheticize his existence, and reject what Americans call a can-do spirit. Not that it’s a can’t-do spirit—I don’t think any culture admires pure incompetence—more a won’t-do spirit. It shows that you could do, but then you refuse. Why? It’s a sort of decadence, the last withered leaf of an idea of effortless brilliance. Why worship a thing that doesn’t exist anyway? There isn’t such a thing as effortless brilliance, so there’s a cunning exploitation of things like that in order to cover the fecklessness. I don’t think David is intended as a representative or token of his class. He’s fully individual but at the same time he does exploit it.

PM He exploits it rather than be a product of it.

ESA I think it’s a protective coloring. One that he’s strongly invested in. Even in his inner life. To do with pride, to do with not feeling ashamed, not participating, not making an effort. There’s been some compounding of his personal needs and the values of his world.

PM He seems a product of—what? The moment when, at age 13, after a week with the greatest music teacher of his day, his hands seized up? Had that not happened, do you think David Melrose would not have become so cruel and embittered?

ESA Yes, but I think it’s a difficult question whether his hands seized up because he was already laying the ground for failure, for a failure that was excusable, or because he was too nervous to take the risk, too frightened of measuring up to the highest standards, while constantly invoking them, because the ground had to be laid for not competing …

MA When you began the trilogy, had you any idea (a) that there would be a trilogy, and (b) that it was heading toward some kind of redemptive theme?

ESA I certainly had the idea that there’d be a trilogy, a story in three parts about cruelty, and the consequences of cruelty, and then a resolution.

MA But was the resolution redemptive?

ESA The resolution was not at all clear to me. I felt a sense of rhythm, a sense of architecture before I knew the details of the story. But I didn’t see for a long time how to redeem Patrick, to the extent that he is redeemed, which is limited. I didn’t want to introduce any new elements from outside the story. It had to be internally resolved with the material that was already there, and since the material that was already there was all about chaos and horror, it was difficult to see how I could come to any sort of resolution. And the redemption is just about telling the truth; it’s just a shift in the possibilities of how Patrick can live.

PM But people have said significant things to him the previous hour or so at the Princess Margaret party. One of them is Ann, a character who is in a way the moral center of gravity of the book, a woman deeply concerned about Patrick’s self-destructiveness. His father’s cruelty suddenly seems not to have been utterly without moments of grace.

ESA Exactly. I think, yes, various things happen in the third part that I suppose are the grounds for that shift. One is Patrick separating the image of David as his father to the image of David as a man, a person, and once he does that he can start thinking about David suffering in his own life, and not just the suffering he inflicted on Patrick. A kind of loosening up of his fascination with his father.

PM His being able to tell his friend Johnny about what his father did to him seems not entirely satisfactory—he doesn’t get the catharsis he’d been hoping for—and yet it is far from insignificant. Johnny’s taken it on and said something wise in response to it, and you assume it contributes to Patrick getting to the point where he can separate his father from the man who as a father inflicted such damage.

MA There is some hope.

ESA There is some hope.

PM I wasn’t in England when the books were published; were you gratified by the response to them? Of course they came out one at a time over there.

ESA Yes, they were praised, and Never Mind won a prize. That was very moving. I was surprised. I was very lucky critically.

MA Have you ever thought of writing a play? It’s just that you are so pitch perfect. I was doing some panicky homework this morning, despite the fact that for the last two years I’ve been poring over the book, and I’d actually never noticed that the first two chapters are written like a children’s book. They are in young Patrick’s tone, and then you shift into Ann’s, which is a detached, witty, intellectual American’s tone, looking at the vagaries of English upper-class life. And then probably more of your own tone creeps in as the cast expands—

ESA Well, I think the center of consciousness should have some rights on how the story is told, even while there’s some narrative stability. In Never Mind Patrick is five, and Never Mindis simpler, the language is simpler than in Bad News for that reason.

PM Speaking of Ann, the trilogy couldn’t exist without her, because this world is a sort of insane asylum, this little segment of the British upper classes, and it requires an outsider: Ann, who is an American and a rather sensible, intelligent, perceptive woman who sees the insanity. But then she’s married to this curious man Victor, a Jewish intellectual whose great plight is that he’s more brilliant than any of these people and yet that’s what he wants, to somehow subsume or negate his brilliance in order to be one of them.

ESA But haven’t you seen that happen in English life again and again? The lure of Savile Row, being knighted, weekend invitations and so forth. And it’s fascinating to watch as people abandon things that are real and distinguished to be on the fringes of a certain life that they’ve hopelessly glamorized. Victor is not an oddity. I think, thank God, David Melrose is an oddity, but Victor is typical of a certain sort of Oxbridge prostitution.

PM It is interesting, this English class thing. Celebrity fulfills the function here that class does over there. But I can’t put my finger on what it is about human nature—

ESA Celebrity is really part of the empire of snobbery. It’s just recently become the dominant form. I suppose the fantasy that you can acquire glamour by association—that if you’re next to someone who has achieved a lot, that’s an achievement in itself.

PM I wonder if back in the mists of time, when we were very primitive indeed, it was about power, and if you didn’t defer to power it had real consequences in terms of how much you got to eat, what sort of mating you got to do—

ESA Here we go, there’s always a Darwinian story! Always a little Darwinian just-so story—when we were walking the plains of Africa—dropping down 50,000 years from a Manhattan penthouse!

PM But what is curious about Patrick and his father is that Patrick sees and despises David but, as Ann tells him, if he’s not careful he’ll turn into David. So why would he perpetuate everything his father stands for, which he loathes?

ESA It has to do with his feelings of emptiness, which are upholstered with drugs in the second book, and then later with names and associations. It’s to do with being absolutely insignificant, and that’s the link between two ways of getting power by association: drugs and snobbery.

PM Patrick talks at one point about his father after his death, and mentions his “ancient terror and unwilling admiration.” I was curious about this admiration. What could he admire his father for?

ESA It’s unwilling admiration, unwilling because he can’t yet see through the falsity and the hollowness; he buys into his father’s elitist perspective—”Nothing but the best or go without.”

MA If you wrote it again would your perspective be any softer, about him?

ESA No, because the story is the story of Patrick’s relationship with his father, but it’s not what I now feel about my father. In a sense I have sympathy for him—I just felt he was finished, dying away.

PM Did the dying away have anything to do with you becoming a writer? Did that contribute to the dying away of some identification with him?

ESA I made my father into a fictional character and sent him downstream. I think in an odd way writing fiction has completely purged me; I didn’t set out to unburden myself, I set out to tell a story, and it’s my devotion to telling a story that brought it about, the therapeutic effect.

MA As a writer, have you finished with David and Patrick?

ESA Yes, I have.

MA So, what is your latest novel about?

ESA Well, A Clue to the Exit is about the great consciousness debate. The novel I wrote after Some Hope, called On the Edge, was about the impact of Eastern spiritual practices and fringe therapies. It was largely set in the Esalen Institute in California. In that world, all sorts of claims are made about the nature of consciousness, and I became more and more fascinated by the scientific and philosophical background to those questions. A Clue to the Exit came out of that fascination. Some of the questions are very old—the mind-body problem, panpsychism, dualism—but recent advances in neuroscience and artificial intelligence, and attempts to tie consciousness into existing scientific models—Darwinism, quantum mechanics, Chomskyan linguistics—have given the old questions a new coat of paint, or, if you believe that there have been fundamental breakthroughs, a new building site.

PM A novel of ideas, then.

ESA I suppose it is, but it’s not a Peacockian novel, with characters called Sir Cartesian Dualism and Mr. Irreducible Qualia, all spending the weekend at Consciousness Castle. The central character is dying of liver failure—a subject close to my heart—and he is desperate to understand the nature of consciousness before he dies. What has been going on? What has it meant to be alive? There seems to be a convention that most dying characters in fiction muse about some bad decision they made years ago, or a hot love scene that seems annoyingly remote now that they’re on a drip. My character is trying to find out what experience is. What is this amazing display that his mind and his senses have been putting on for him and are still putting on? To answer your question from another angle, there is a novel of ideas embedded in A Clue to the Exit, a novel being written by the dying narrator. This might easily sound like game playing, but it’s not. It’s a way of embodying the central problem of defining consciousness, namely, that there is no common language between the realm of scientific experiment, which is a third-person narrative, and the realm of experience, which is a first-person narrative. We do not experience neurons firing. The novel within the novel ends with Colin McGinn’s position that not only has the problem of consciousness not been solved, but it cannot be solved, because of our “cognitive limitations.”

MA That’s one less thing to worry about. Does the book you’re writing now follow on from those ideas?

ESA No, it’s a new start. Like most writers, I prefer not to talk in any detail about what I’m working on, but after two thoroughly researched novels, I’ve returned to something much closer to Some Hope—an attempt to organize difficult personal experience into a story.

PM So there’s been a buildup of agonizing personal material since Some Hope?

ESA That’s right. What would we do without that agonizing personal material? The great thing about being a writer is that you needn’t bother with life at all; you can go straight to “material”

MA Do you think it will be strange to see a film made of Some Hope?

ESA Up to a point, but only in relation to the book, not in relation to my life. The sublimation—or do I mean public embarrassment?—has already occurred. I think it will make a good film because the script is very strong, and also because the book has some filmic qualities built into it: terse dialogue, short dramatic scenes, images that come back at certain points suggesting connections that the narrative doesn’t spell out.

—Patrick McGrath is the author of a story collection and six novels, including Spider, which was filmed last year by David Cronenberg. His latest book, Port Mungo, will be out next summer from Bloomsbury. He has been a BOMB contributing editor for many years.

—Maria Aitken has appeared in many starring roles in London’s West End and at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. She will be directing two plays by Simon Gray on Broadway this winter.

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Originally published in

BOMB 85, Fall 2003

Featuring interviews with Sol Lewitt, Vera Lutter and Peter Wollen, Rikki Ducornet and Laura Mullen, Edward St. Aubyn and Patrick McGrath & Maria Aitken, Jon Robin Baitz and Stephen Gaghan, Gina Gershon and Dave Stewart, EL-P and Matthew Shipp, and Suzanne Farrell.

Read the issue
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