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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Dying Aristocracy - and the horrors of an abusive father - the Patrick Melrose novels

As we get deeper into Edward St Aubyn's At Last, the concluding volume of the Patrick Melrose series, the question becomes not why has Patrick pretty much destroyed his life?, but rather how has me managed to live at all? As we move away from his mother - bad and self-centered as she may be - and learn more about his father, the novel becomes increasingly horrifying. If you thought the abuse scene in volume 1 set the tone for the portrait of an evil father, the abuse in volume 5 is more than a tone, it's an entire symphony - and the abuse involved other children as well. This portrait of the wasted lives of the fading British aristocracy is so brutal and extreme that by this point it becomes not an indictment of a class but a case history. In other words, the father is so evil that it's beyond class and in the realm of psychosis. The mother, thereby, becomes the more interesting character - guilty not because of what she did do but because of what she did not do: she failed to protect her child from the ravages of her own husband. Was she that desperate and needy that she as afraid to jeopardize her marriage, pathetic as it might have been? Or so impaired that she didn't see or know anything? Or just checked out - a metaphor, in a way, for a world in which the so-called upper classes are insulated from the suffering of others. We get much of this info in back story - the entire first third of the novel at least is set in the few minutes as the funeral service for Patrick's mother is about to begin - some of it from the POV of P's estranged wife: he has apparently abandoned his family (and his profession) but there she is, quiet and loyal, at the funeral. Not clear where the children are at this point. St. Aubyn's acid wit and unusual, analytic, precise syntax make the novel a both a challenge and a reward, especially when you come on such gems as Patrick noting that his much-ignored wife is reading a dense philosophy tract by a family friend, says that the only reason she might be reading that tome is if she were having an affair with the author, to which she says: Believe me, it's almost impossible even then. Touche!

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