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.
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.
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.