At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.

Never Mind, by Edward St Aubyn

Never Mind is the first of Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels. It’s superbly well written; I’ll be reading the rest.

Never Mind

Here’s how it opens:

At half-past seven in the morning, carrying the laundry she had ironed the night before, Yvette came down the drive on her way to the house. Her sandal made a faint slapping sound as she clenched her toes to prevent it from falling off, and its broken strap made her walk unsteadily over the stony, rutted ground. Over the wall, below the line of cypresses that ran along the edge of the drive, she saw the doctor standing in the garden.

The doctor is busy tormenting and killing ants, prolonging their small agonies as much as he can.

Yvette had only to pass the fig tree and she could slip into the house without Dr Melrose knowing she had arrived. His habit, though, was to call her without looking up from the ground just when she thought she was screened by the tree. Yesterday he had talked to her for long enough to exhaust her arms, but not for so long that she might drop the linen. He gauged such things very precisely.

We’re still on the first page, and already Doctor David Melrose is established as a petty sadist of the first order. Five year old Patrick is his only son, an unfortunate thing to be.

Completing the family (if that’s the word) is Eleanor, David’s wife and Patrick’s mother. She’s American, rich, married for her money and long since regretting it but too crushed to escape. It’s no surprise she’s an alcoholic.

Never Mind is a slim and exquisitely well written novel. It focuses on one weekend when David and Eleanor have guests over: insecure academic Victor Eisen and his bored wife Anne Moore; David’s old friend Nicholas Pratt and Nicholas’ much younger current lover Bridget. It’s a collision of age, money and class.

Victor is middle class and successful in his career, but can’t resist cosying up to the aristocracy which David and Nicholas firmly belong to (Nicholas is a baronet). Eleanor was a successful reporter before marrying Victor, attracted by his intelligence and with no warning of his dully conservative nature and slightly obsequious social climbing. Bridget has vague dreams of marrying Nicholas for his money, but she’s getting tired of him faster than he is of her and increasingly finds him dull and middle-aged.

St Aubyn is brilliant at capturing character in small asides. Victor wants to be what David and Nicholas already are, but he never can be. You have to be born to that class, you can’t achieve it and while they find him amusing they also slightly despise him for trying. Anne understands what Victor can’t, and by not trying to fit in manages to do so better than he ever will. I loved this description of Victor’s hairbrushes, which whatever he does never quite manage his unruly hair:

His pair of ivory hairbrushes had no handles. They were quite inconvenient, but very traditional, like the wooden bowl of shaving soap, which never thickened as satisfactorily as foam from a can.

There’s something so horribly aspirational in that paragraph (possibly the most British sentence I shall ever write). It quietly damns Victor, though the book isn’t entirely without some sympathy to him.

In another scene David plays a game with Patrick where he pretends to suspend him by his ears but actually supports his weight with his arms. On this occasion, having gained Patrick’s trust, David takes his support away so that Patrick’s entire weight is suspended by his ears. It manages both to hurt Patrick physically and emotionally – a double win for David.

After hanging Patrick from his ears and watching him escape from the library, David shrugged, sat down at the piano, and started to improvise a fugue.

That sentence says everything that needs to be said about David really, though by the time it arrives we already know the kind of man he is. At least, we think we do, he gets worse.

The men here are truly awful. At one point Nicholas tells Bridget that Patrick only exists because David violently raped Eleanor one night. For Nicholas the story is an anecdote – a piece of idle gossip. He isn’t particularly concerned by his friend being a rapist, merely dryling noting that marital rape isn’t a concept recognised by law (it wasn’t a crime in the UK until 1991). He explains that David was a brilliant pianist as a boy, briefly joined the army and qualified but never practiced as a doctor. Despite his many talents David has never done anything of note; he has Eleanor’s money so doesn’t have to and prefers not to.

Casual cruelty is endemic here. Eleanor is drunk and cowed. Patrick looks for little from her and doesn’t even get that. At one point during a dreadful dinner party he sits on the stairs, and seeing Anne walking past asks her to send his mother to him. Anne passes on the message, but as soon as David sees Eleanor getting up to go to Patrick he tells her to sit down again. She does. Anne isn’t happy at Patrick being left ignored outside, but she doesn’t say anything. David cows her too. He cows everyone, save possibly Bridget who simply doesn’t care.

By the end of this novel we’ve seen almost every character verbally assassinate every other. These are the kind of people who laugh behind the backs of anyone who leaves the room, and when they reenter laugh behind the backs of whoever else happens not to be present. Patrick’s treatment escalates from cruelty and neglect to outright abuse. If it weren’t for the writing we’d be dangerously close to misery memoir territory. That writing though…

This is a lean novel with not a word wasted. Simon Savidge in his review here calls the writing understated and economical and he’s spot on. It’s darkly funny (often extremely dark), vicious and precise. It is, quite simply, brilliant. I’ll end with one final quote, chosen not because of its relevance to story or character but just because I thought it so good:

A glass of pastis, like a trapped cloud, stood on top of the piano.

A glass of pastis, like a trapped cloud. It’s a pretty much perfect description. It’s an example of why despite its subject matter being so very uncomfortable Never Mind is still so very readable.

Other reviews

On the blogosphere only Simon Savidge’s that I know of and which I linked to above. Please feel free as ever though to let me know of more in the comments.

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14 Comments

Filed under St Aubyn, Edward

14 responses to “At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.

  1. Great review, Max. I’ve heard of these books but didn’t really know anything about them; they sound excellent reading, despite the awfulness of the characters. I’ll definitely look out for them.

  2. I have the set on the shelf but have yet to read it. If I remember correctly, Kevin from Canada reviewed a few books from this author.

  3. This series has been on my radar for some time now, ever since one of the books (Mother’s Milk?) was nominated for the Booker some years ago. The writing and characterisation sound absolutely top notch. To be honest, the only thing that’s been holding me back is the casual cruelty (I think I’d already formed the impression that Melrose senior was a sadist, and you’ve mentioned it here in your review). I’m fine with thoroughly unlikeable, nasty characters who tear each other apart, but when it comes to abuse against children (and animals for that matter) then I’m a bit more sensitive. Does this form a big part of the novel or is it there in the background/off-camera so to speak?

  4. That’s pretty much spot on Kaggsy. The characters are awful, but the writing is so excellent that you want to read on anyway (not that sympathetic characters are remotely necessary to good fiction).

    Guy, you’re right. I thought it was John Self but I was confusing the two. Explains why I couldn’t find a review at John’s. Kevin reviewed the first three novels (originally this was a trilogy) here: https://kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/some-hope-a-trilogy-by-edward-st-aubyn/

    Jacqui, the cruelty here is (with one key exception) largely verbal, though no less vicious for that. The only animals tortured are ants. Mercifully Patrick doesn’t have a pet. Incidents such as Eleanor’s rape are mentioned in conversation, not as part of the narrative itself. There is one exception in the book where there’s a scene of actual abuse, but it’s not dwelt upon gratuitously. Even so, it packs a hefty punch precisely because St Aubyn is such a good writer.

    I understand your reservations, but I think you’d enjoy it.

  5. Okay, that’s very helpful – thanks, Max. It’s useful to know what to expect (forewarned is forearmed as they say). I trust your judgement – on the list it goes.

  6. Great review. I love lean and mean books, I’d enjoy this one.

  7. I have only heard of these books in passing and did not know if I would want to read them (for the characters, that is) but lean writing always appeals and what a handsome collection. Unfortunately here it is an ugly 880 page single volume affair. 😦

  8. I’ve never read anything by St Aubyn, and the vague book covers never really appealed – now I’m unsure if I’m more tempted by what you say about the writing or put off by the characters….

  9. I think you would Emma, and I’d love to see your thoughts.

    Rough, yes, much more tempting as slim individual volumes. I don’t see this as a bulk read.

    Shoshi, I don’t think anybody likes these characters, but the writing is superb and the observation acute, so it’s worth trying. Besides, it’s on the short side so if you do hate it at least you won’t have to hate it for long…

  10. I’m with Emma and Roughghosts, I’m rather drawn to the lean and mean, and unlike shoshi, I think the covers – at least particularly the one you’ve shown properly is gorgeous Its understatedness would appeal to me immediately.

    St Aubyn is another writer who’s been on my radar. Oh dear …

  11. I think they’re great covers, and their understatedness fits the style of the book. Lean and mean is right here, both apply.

    He was on mine too for many years. The good news at least if you take a while to get to him is it doesn’t really date.

  12. Which is the sign of a true classic – do you think these books would head that way?

  13. I think they have a fair shot at it and merit it, but both are true for many books that somehow never do so who knows?

  14. Pingback: 2016 end of year roundup | Pechorin's Journal

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