03 June 2013

Murky Sauce

Some Hope, by Edward St Aubyn: I've seen mentions of St Aubyn over the last several years as some Great One of Literature.  Some Hope contains the first three of his five Patrick Melrose novels, which are apparently based on St Aubyn's own miserable life, a sordid saga of depraved dysfunction within the British *upper-class.*  The trilogy of blue blood rakishness is a jarring patchwork of social comedy and domestic degeneracy detailing the St Aubyn alter-ego Patrick Melrose's abused childhood, narcotized youth and existential angst-ridden adulthood.  

St Aubyn is not without literary talent. . .however, he is not equally blessed as both a witness of the profligate lives of the idle rich and a chronicler of the abused.  By far the best parts of Some Hope are St Aubyn's renderings of aristocratic cattiness.  The dinner party scenes of the dissolute gentry desperately trying to amuse themselves with anecdotes about the failings and misfortunes of others are high snide fun.  But when St Aubyn tries to recreate his own coke-and-heroin Sturm und Drang though Patrick Melrose, the result is often tedious vein-and-syringe minutia that prompts skimming, instead of reading.  Even less effective are the sections that deal with the Great Trauma: St Aubyn being sodomized by his father.  As channeled through Melrose, the reflections on buggery hardly rise above the level of a teen girl blathering about bulimia or wrist cutting on Facebook.  Here is the climatic scene of Some Hope, in which Melrose reveals his dark secret to his best friend Johnny:          

'So, what can one say about a man who rapes his own child?'

'I suppose it might help if you could see him as sick rather than evil,' Johnny suggested limply.  'I can't get over this,' he added, 'it's really awful.'

'I've tried what you suggest,' said Patrick, 'but then, what is evil if not sickness celebrating itself?  While my father had any power he showed no remorse or restraint, and when he was poor and abandoned he only showed contempt and morbidity.'

'Maybe you can see his actions as evil, but see him as sick.  Maybe one can't condemn another person, only their actions. . .'  Johnny hesitated, reluctant to take on the role of the defence. 'Maybe he couldn't stop himself anymore than you could stop yourself taking drugs.'

'Maybe, maybe, maybe,' said Patrick, 'but I didn't harm anyone else by taking drugs.'  (p. 384)  

Compare this rather tepid meditation on incest to the following biting dining table comedy and you will note St Aubyn's uneven talents: 

'Do you have any politics?' Princess Margaret asked Sonny.

'Conservative, ma'am,' said Sonny proudly.

'So I assumed.  But are you involved in politics?  For myself I don't mind who's in government so long as they're good at governing.  What we must avoid at all costs is these windscreen wipers: left, right, left, right.'

Sonny laughed immoderately at the thought of political windscreen wipers.

'I'm afraid I'm only involved at a very local level, ma'am,' he replied.  'The Little Soddington bypass, that sort of thing.  Trying to make sure that footpaths don't spring up all over the place.  People seem to think that the countryside is just an enormous park for factory workers to drop their sweet papers in.  Well, those of us who live here feel rather differently about it.'

'One needs someone responsible keeping an eye on things at a local level,' said Princess Margaret reassuringly.  'So many of the things that get ruined are little out-of-the-way places that one only notices once they've already been ruined.  One drives past thinking how nice they must have once been.'

'You're absolutely right, ma'am,' agreed Sonny.

'Is it venison?' asked the Princess.  'It's hard to tell under this murky sauce.'

'Yes, it is venison,' said Sonny nervously.  'I'm awfully sorry about the sauce.  As you say, it's perfectly disgusting.'  He could remember checking with her private secretary that the Princess liked venison.

She pushed her plate away and picked up her cigarette lighter.  'I get sent fallow deer from Richmond Park,' she said smugly.  'You have to be on the list.  The Queen said to me, "put yourself on the list," so I did.'

'How very sensible, ma'am," simpered Sonny.

'Do you like it?  It's venison,' said Princess Margaret leaning over slightly toward Monsieur d'Alantour, who was sitting on her right.

'Really, it is something absolutely mar-vellous, ma'am,' said the ambassador.  'I did not know one could find such cooking in your country.  The sauce is extremely subtle.'  He narrowed his eyes to give an impression of subtlety.

The Princess allowed her views about the sauce to be eclipsed by the gratification of hearing England described as 'your country,' which she took to be an acknowledgment of her own feeling that it belonged, if not legally, then in some much more profound sense, to her own family.

In his anxiety to show his love for the venison of merry old England, the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening globules over the front of the Princess's blue tulle dress.

'I am prostrated with horr-rror!' he exclaimed, feeling that he was on the verge of a diplomatic incident.

The Princess compressed her lips and turned down the corners of her mouth, but said nothing.  Putting down the cigarette holder into which she had been screwing a cigarette, she pinched her napkin between her fingers and handed it over to Monsier d'Alantour.

'Wipe!' she said with terrifying simplicity.

The ambassador pushed back his chair and sank to his knees obediently, first dipping the corner of the napkin in a glass of water.  While he rubbed at the spots of sauce on her dress, the Princess lit her cigarette and turned to Sonny.

'I thought I couldn't dislike the sauce more when it was on my plate,' she said archly.  (p. 391 - 393)

Such keen portraits of the privileged class make up for Some Hope's less successful drug and buggery sketches.  St Aubyn's not a Great One of Literature, but he's pretty good at skewering the nobility.

No comments:

Post a Comment