Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Edward St. Aubyn, _At Last_

BEFORE WE PROCEED to what is now St. Aubyn's next-to-most-recent novel--I found the normally reliable John Banville annoying when reviewing the most recent (Lost for Words) in NYRB.  Banville keeps his distance, for instance, from the praise St. Aubyn has won from his fellow novelists:

Edward St. Aubyn is a fine writer, much respected by his contemporaries. The five Patrick Melrose novels—the first of which, Never Mind, was published in 1992, and the last, appropriately titled At Last, in 2012—have received remarkable praise within the guild and without.

Calling St. Aubyn "lavishly gifted" at one point, he complains about "an impatient and unfinished quality" and "a not quite satisfactory mélange of styles and artistic attitudes," and so on. 

The new one is about a Booker-like novel prize, so perhaps they asked Banville  to write about it because he won a Booker…? (Cf. Anne Enright getting the invitation to review from the New York Times.)  Whatever it was, it's too bad. St. Aubyn deserves better.

Banville mentions Waugh, an almost inevitable touchstone for St. Aubyn's reviewers, only in order to get in a cheap shot:

St. Aubyn is regarded by many, including himself, perhaps, as the direct heir of Evelyn Waugh, and indeed, the Patrick Melrose series has many extended bravura passages of heartless comedy worthy of the master. But if St. Aubyn is no Proust, he is no Waugh, either.

Even though the Waugh comparison immediately suggest itself, At Last reminded me most of a different English novelist--Christopher Isherwood. First of all, there is the poise and control of the prose; Isherwood does not have quite the reputation in that department that Waugh does, but he deserves to, and he is just as witty as Waugh, too, when he chooses.

More crucially, Isherwood and Waugh are both insightful in their satire of the class in which they were raised, but Isherwood is more honest and intelligent about the way it fucked him up than Waugh is, and it is here--that insight into one's own fucked-up-ness--that St. Aubyn rivals Isherwood and surpasses Waugh. Again as in Isherwood, the intelligence that permits the insight into one's own fucked-up-ness cuts both ways, as it also slices and dices whatever suggests itself as a remedy to the fucked-up-ness; having seen through one's own problems, one also sees through whatever is sham or hypocritical about religion, or therapy, or philosophy…but then, in both Isherwood and St. Aubyn (and, I think, e.g., in Infinite Jest) the intelligence is also keen enough to understand its own limitations, self-justifications, subterfuges, and  the like.  Waugh almost got there once, in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, but not the way Isherwood does in A Meeting at the River or St. Aubyn does in the final chapter of At Last, which is a strong conclusion to an amazing series of novels.

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