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In Life And Fiction, Edward St. Aubyn Sheds The Weight Of His Past


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Our next guest is Edward St. Aubyn, best known for his quintet of semi-autobiographical novels known collectively as the Patrick Melrose Books, books that have just been made into a Showtime miniseries. The title character and the author share many key traits. Both hail from an upper-class British family that was posh but monstrous, and both as boys were sexually abused by their fathers.

In the Showtime version of "Patrick Melrose" - Part 2 is televised Saturday night - Benedict Cumberbatch plays the title character now in his 20s. He's a drug addict haunted by memories of his childhood and his father. Here's a clip from the opening episode in the miniseries. Patrick's father has just died, and after a particularly emotional and destructive stay at a New York hotel, Patrick phones overseas to check in with a friend.


BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) Johnny. Johnny. Can you help me?

PRASANNA PUWANARAJAH: (As Johnny Hall) Patrick, how are you?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) Oh, fine. I tried to kill myself last night.

PUWANARAJAH: (As Johnny Hall) Where are you calling from?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) The bottom.

PUWANARAJAH: (As Johnny Hall) Christ. You were right. Patrick, tell me when you land. I'll come and meet you.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) Look. I haven't got long. Can you hear me?

PUWANARAJAH: (As Johnny Hall) Yes.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) I've decided I'm going to take control of my life. I'm going to get clean. Hello, Johnny. Can you hear me?

PUWANARAJAH: (As Johnny Hall) Yes, I can. That's wonderful. But are you sure this time?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) Of course. People always make such a fuss about these things.

PUWANARAJAH: (As Johnny Hall) So what do you want to do, Patrick? Patrick, what are you going to do instead?

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Edward St. Aubyn, author of the semi-autobiographical "Patrick Melrose" novels, in 2014.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Let's talk about the "Patrick Melrose" novels. First of all, the character is from a family that has money passed on over the generations. It's a family that has, you know, a historic past. And I imagine your family was that way, too. Could you just give us a sense of what kind of historical background your family is from?

EDWARD ST. AUBYN: Well, on my father's side, I'm told we came over with the Norman Conquest and was part of that invasion. It's a family that's been in the same place for a long time. I don't know why that's considered a virtue, but in England, it is. And they still own land, which they were recorded as owning in the Domesday Book in 1087. The head of the family lives in a castle and has a title, all that kind of stuff.

GROSS: The head of your family - is someone - there's still a castle?

ST. AUBYN: Yeah. But I'm, you know, quite remote from all that. But that's the kind of family that it is. And I should say - sorry - I should add, on my mother's side, there's a different story, which is a story of American money made in the middle of the 19th century coming over to Europe in a very Henry James-ian way and marrying into European aristocracy. That kind of story. So those are the two types of background that I'm from.

GROSS: One of your characters in the first novel in the Patrick Melrose series, "Never Mind," the character Nancy, is thinking about the psychological impact of inherited wealth. (Reading) the raging desire to get rid of it and the raging desire to hang onto it, the demoralizing effect of already having what almost everyone else was sacrificing their precious lives to acquire, the more or less secret superiority and the more or less secret shame of being rich. Can you talk about the downside of that kind of legacy of money?

ST. AUBYN: Well, I think if - probably the simplest thing, since I know where you're equating from, is to continue reading the sentence, if you'll allow me.

GROSS: Sure.

ST. AUBYN: (Reading) Generating their characteristic disguises - the philanthropy solution, the alcoholic solution, the mask of eccentricity, the search for salvation in perfect taste, the defeated, the idle and the frivolous and their opponents, the standard bearers, all living in a world that the dense glitter of alternatives made it hard for love and work to penetrate.

And as we know, Freud famously said that love and work is what keeps us sane. So the downside side of the world being talked about, though, being thought about by Nancy is that it's very difficult for love and work to penetrate it.

GROSS: Love was very difficult in your family. The character of Patrick Melrose is raped by his father when he's 5, and that continues for several years. And my understanding is that that happened to you, too.


GROSS: I'm not going to ask you to read that scene, but there is also a scene that's very upsetting. It's not rape. But there's a scene where the father picks up Patrick by his ears and basically - and Patrick hates it when his father does that. But the father says, I'm going to drop you right away. Don't worry about it. It's going to be fine. And he doesn't. And Patrick feels like his ears are going to fall off, and it's just such a kind of petty act of sadism to do that to a child when you know the child's hurting. So you've got, like, the incredibly horrible thing - the act of rape. And just that more smaller thing - there's, like, picking him up by his ears. You must have asked yourself a million times. Why would a father do that to his son? Like, what could he possibly be thinking? Like, how deranged can he be to do that?

ST. AUBYN: So that was a prominent question in my mind for many years. That's right. Yes, that's in the build-up towards the rape. We just get a little foretaste of David Melrose's sadism, his trickery and his desire to transfer his immense, raging unhappiness to his son. I think that is the reason why my father was so sadistic - is that he had so much spare pain, you know, that he needed to get rid of it in other people.

GROSS: I imagine, as a 5-year-old, you had no comprehension of what was going on.

ST. AUBYN: No, I didn't. I didn't. But I knew that it was wrong. And I knew that it was bewildering and horrible. So, I mean, I understood some aspects of it very well. And I knew that I was desperate to not to remain in a body that was being treated like that. And during the rape scene, Patrick imagines himself leaving the bed and taking refuge in the body of a gecko, which then scuttles away over the tiles. And part of him, some fragment of him, is unviolated, but the rest of him is destroyed.

GROSS: Right after the rape, the father ask Patrick if he's hungry. And the father says, well, I'm starving. You really should eat more. You know, build up your strength. You know, then the father goes out to lunch. And at lunch, the father is thinking that perhaps he pushed his disdain for middle-class prudery a little too far.

(Reading) Even at the bar of the Calvary and Guards Club, one couldn't boast about homosexual-pedophiliac incest with any confidence of a favorable reception. Who could he tell that he had raped his 5-year-old son?

Do you think, first of all, that your father's raping of you had anything to do with his disdain for middle-class prudery?

ST. AUBYN: I think that the people who behave in ways which are very destructive, immoral, which they they know to be wrong, search for whatever excuses, pretexts and lies that are available to them. And someone like David Melrose will naturally choose to regard the disapproval that most people would feel about what he does as middle-class prudery. That's the defense available to him. Other people would use other defenses, other explanations, you know, about character formation or Ancient Greece or, you know, whatever. You know, or imagine that the victims are really enjoying it all. People tell themselves the craziest stories.

GROSS: He seems to, instead of feeling shame and horror at his own actions, to just be wishing that he could, like, talk about it with somebody, share the experience.

ST. AUBYN: I think he did. He's not literally imagining that he would like to sit at the bar of the Cavalry and Guards Club, He's just - he's realizing in his own contemptuous and snobbish way that he's gone quite far in it, that there is actually no one who he can tell about this. And David Melrose is a very isolated figure. And he turns - one of his successful transfusions is that he turns his son into a hugely isolated figure. And, you know, at the end of the chapter, you're talking about what you were talking about earlier where he's picked up by his ears. Patrick runs away and hides. And the chapter ends with the sentence - nobody can find me here, he thought. And then he thought, what if nobody can find me here?

GROSS: And apply that to your life.

ST. AUBYN: My own life. You know, I remained very isolated by similar experiences that I had and, you know, never told another human being the truth about my childhood until I was 25, when I made a suicide attempt and realized that I would succeed the next time if I didn't tell the truth.

BIANCULLI: Edward St. Aubyn, author of the Patrick Melrose novels, speaking to Terry Gross in 2014. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2014 interview with Edward St. Aubyn, author of the semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels. Both St. Aubyn and his character, Patrick Melrose, were raped by their fathers over the course of several years, starting at the age of 5.

GROSS: When you did reveal that you were raped as a child, what was your mother's reaction? Because she didn't know, right?

ST. AUBYN: She said she didn't know, that's right.

GROSS: But you don't necessarily believe her?

ST. AUBYN: Well, I do. I do because people have extraordinary capacities for compartmentalizing things and denying things, you know. And to some extent, this is the subject of the last book in the volume. It's one of the subjects. At last, Patrick has thought of his mother as a fellow victim of David Melrose's tyranny and violence, but he begins to wonder whether there was a collaborative element, perhaps not consciously but between her masochism and his sadism.

I think, you know, back in my life, I would say that I got a letter from an au pair who had looked after us as children after "Never Mind" was published saying that she'd heard me screaming down the corridor, and she knew something terrible was happening. But she was 19, and she was frightened of my father. And she never dared do anything about it. And she'd felt guilty all of our life. Well, none of the au pairs were able to to bear our household for more than a few months.

So if she knew, how could my mother, who there the whole time, not have known? There must have been, you know, some kind of split in her mind. But I don't deny that people can split their minds in that way. I don't mean that she really knew and was approving of it. I think she must have been in a position to know if she was prepared to acknowledge it.

GROSS: What was their reaction when she - when you told her she couldn't be in denial about it?

ST. AUBYN: She said that my father raped her as well and that she'd, you know, refused to go to bed with him after the birth of my sister. And then he'd raped her and that she was going to leave him but had become pregnant. And I was that pregnancy.

GROSS: You said that your novels, the Patrick Melrose novels, are really about how to become free and free of anger and resentment. And what Patrick Melrose learns at the end of the fifth novel I think I would describe as compassion for yourself, which sounds like a cliche but that is so hard to achieve. Is that something you feel like you've worked on for a long time?

ST. AUBYN: It's very hard to paraphrase the last chapter. And - but there are lots of elements in it. And that's what you described as one of them, yes. He renounces the search for consolation. So there's an element of stoicism and austerity in it. But he also discovers that, you know, as he's become less and less obstructed by hatred and resentment, that there is this kind of spontaneous generosity which is compared with, you know, with your hand going out to rub your knee if you just banged into something. It's just a spontaneous reassurance or comforting in it that he hasn't really known before, which is very, you know, natural to a lot of people.

But it - so there are all sorts of discoveries in the last novel. And they weren't discoveries that I'd made until I wrote the last chapter of the last novel. I wasn't looking back on some sort of, you know, little epiphanies, which I was going to share with the reader. I discovered what the resolution was in the act of writing it. And the - I wasn't looking back on anything. So the gap between, you know, the description of experience and the experience closed, and the gap between the author and the alter ego closed. I was discovering what Patrick was discovering in real time by writing it. So that up chapter is important to me, and I think it really just has to be read (laughing).

GROSS: Mm-hmm. What's an example of a book that you read when you were young that was really important to you?

ST. AUBYN: There was a book which I was given as a prize at the Lycee Francais, the French school in London, which I went to only for a year. And everyone got a prize, by the way, so it wasn't very distinguished. But there was one on your chair when you went to the prize (unintelligible). And I was very young at the time. It's about a goat who longs to escape into the hills because he can see the rot of alpine flowers that he longs to run around in. But his owner locks him in a woodshed because he knows there's a wolf up in the mountains. But he escapes from the woodshed and has an ecstatic day playing and rising in the high grass.

And then at the end of the day, he sees the shadow of the wolf on the ground, and he knows that he's going to die. But he turns towards the wolf and charges and decides to fight him with this phrase, which in French is (speaking French), but - as long as I last until the dawn. And that book just made me burst into tears every evening for a year or two of my life. So books always had this very powerful effect on me because of some communication, somebody seeming, even in a very symbolic or displaced way, to understand what I was feeling. And I think that's the miracle of literature - is this private communication between one intelligence and another.

GROSS: Edward St. Aubyn, thank you so much for talking with us.

ST. AUBYN: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Edward St. Aubyn, author of "The Patrick Melrose Novels," speaking to Terry Gross in 2014. The second episode of the "Patrick Melrose" miniseries premieres tomorrow night on Showtime. Coming up, I review HBO's new TV movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.