DESIRE FOR FREEDOM. Edward St Aubyn is a British novelist. Five of his books – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last – form the semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose Novels. In 2018 Benedict Cumberbatch starred in the title role of the five-part drama Patrick Melrose. Edward’s more recent work includes Dunbar – which retells King Lear – and Double Blind, which has been described as ‘a book of big ideas, in which the characters experiment with medicine, psychology, narcotics, religion and meditation to understand themselves and find peace. But as cerebral as the book is, it is also deeply felt, because St Aubyn has been thinking about these issues for decades.’
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Edward St Aubyn, why did you tell the secrets of your childhood life in the Patrick Melrose novels?
I always wanted to be a novelist and started when I was 12 years old, but reaching page 40 seemed to be the ceiling of every novel I was able to write until I wrote Never Mind. I knew that I was evading the central subject, the thing that I had not told any other human being until I was 25, when I went into psychoanalysis after a suicide attempt and told my analyst that I would try and kill myself again unless I told him the truth about my childhood. Writing Never Mind was an expansion of that process, but distinct from it because the purpose of writing is to interest the reader not alleviate the author.
How come in your youth you drank and took drugs excessively yet fortunately survived?
16 was a disastrous year in my life in which I discovered drugs in a serious way. My descent was vertical. By the time I got to my A-Levels I was unable to get the results that were required by Oxford, which had already offered me a place. I went into exile and pursued my drug addiction, living in hotels in Paris and New York. I inherited some money from my grandmother, so there was no practical limit on the amount of drugs that I could take. Luckily, all my appetites were alive at the same time and so I also ate lots of very good food. What saved my life was eating in good restaurants.
“I spoke in every voice except my own.”
Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a powerhouse performance as English aristocrat Patrick Melrose in the “devastating and brilliant adaptation” (The Economist) of the novels by Edward St Aubyn. Chronicling the hilarious highs and devastating lows of his tumultuous life, this blackly humorous drama follows Patrick from his childhood trauma at the hands of an abusive father and neglectful mother, to the peak of his heroin addiction, and his attempts to stay sober and support his family.
Photo credit: SKY
Edward St Aubyn, how did you manage to have a normal life despite your addiction?
I did not. Between 17 and 22 I was obsessively solitary, completely fluid in my identity and insanely empathic. There was no apparent limit to my sensitivity. I could imagine the heartbeat of the robin sitting on the windowsill. I spoke in every voice except my own. I felt so invaded by other people’s presence that during those years the whole point was to not see anybody who knew anything about me, so my identity could not be pinned down. I felt as if everyone was invading me, so I imagined that if I became like them they wouldn’t want to attack me. It was very exhausting. If I walked down Fifth Avenue I’d have to do the voice of everyone I passed for just a few seconds in order to deal with their potential takeover. Quite mad. The only difference between me and a schizophrenic was that I was making the voices rather than hearing the voices. But I had to speak in those voices, I had no choice. I was in an unending state of mimicry, with the last voice provoking the next one.
In Never Mind you disclosed that as a young child you were repeatedly raped by your father who you believed would kill you if you told anyone?
He was fond of telling a story, which was clearly – given our relationship – a veiled menace to me, about his regiment, the 4th Hussars, being sent on a tour of India in the 1920s. He went on a pig-sticking expedition with lots of very grand people in the Raj. They were out in the Indian wilderness and one of the party developed rabies. They trussed him up in a net which they tied to a tree. The rest of the party were having dinner – lots of silver on the table, turbaned servants bringing food, and this man, at some distance from the table, was screaming and writhing. My father got up, went into his tent and got his pistol, and walked over to the man and shot him in the head in front of everyone else at the dinner. The dinner party fell silent, and my father sat down and said, “Much the kindest thing to do.”
Later your father became a doctor?
Yes, he turned out to have a sinister kind of medical vocation. He was only interested in people who were mad or dying.
When your father died, you flew to New York and when you had to go to see his body you bought drugs from the dealers around the park. Is what you describe invention or did it happen?
It’s a combination. A lot of the incidents were true to that journey, but at the same time there was a compression of the whole history of my addiction into a single day. Each of those five Melrose novels, except for Mother’s Milk, is set in one day in one place. The subject matter was so explosive that I needed the containment of that kind of classicism.
Your creativity won out over your self-destruction by 51>49 and you started publishing your books. Did you feel relieved?
I don’t associate writing Never Mind with relief at all, but with extreme, almost unbearable tension. I had to lie on the floor while I had panic attacks. I wasn’t taking any drugs or drinking at all. I had given up cigarettes, which I used to smoke very heavily. I didn’t even drink coffee. Writing Never Mind the sweat splashed onto the loose pages which I then posted over my shoulder to my girlfriend who very generously typed them out.
Do you write longhand?
I still write everything longhand first. Then I transfer it to a computer, print it out and correct by hand.
Do you do your editing by yourself?
I do my editing alone to begin with, because my first draft is not a first draft at all, apart from with Never Mind. Because it was so emotionally unbearable to write I didn’t edit it at all. I could barely write it. It was very much on the edge of what I was capable of. But my method since my second novel, Bad News, and my current method is to rewrite at the time, so that my first draft is in fact already a 20th or 30th draft.
“I had the double relief of having turned myself into Patrick Melrose, and then Benedict Cumberbatch taking over the burden of being Patrick”
Edward St Aubyn, the language you use and your descriptive power and attention to detail are very precise?
I have a strong visual imagination. I write what I see in my mind’s eye, but I don’t try to describe things exhaustively. I’m interested in the minimum amount that you can say which tells you everything else about a room or about a person. It may be the way they speak or the way they dress. There’s always a selection, and my descriptions of, for example, the house in France are very compressed, but I hope that the readers build for themselves a picture of the place in their imaginations.
Are you in love with the English language?
If I could speak more languages, I’m sure I’d be in love with them as well. I’m in love with precision, with beauty, with elegance, with wit. The trouble with being a writer as opposed to being a composer or a painter is that people don’t get up in the morning and talk to each other in symphonies or paint an oil painting of what they want for lunch. We use words all the time. It’s a very tarnished medium, and to try and turn it into art is a particular kind of effort which is unlike the efforts of making art out of music or painting.
One of your books is a satirical look at the English upper class.
Some Hope, the third volume, is set at a party in a country house and to some extent is about my disappointment at what happens when you penetrate the inner sanctum of high society. Glamour is another kind of false consolation, similar to narcotics but less poisonous.
Coming from an upper class family yourself, were you criticised for the subjects of your writing?
With Never Mind, I thought that people would cross the street to avoid me because I was so contaminated, but in fact people were kind to me and said “what an awful thing to have happened, I’m so sorry.” They responded in a way which my paranoia had not prepared me for at all. With Some Hope, I thought, well, that’s it, I’ll never be invited to a party again, but in fact people were queuing up to claim that they were included in the book, saying “I feel I’ve been portrayed” when they weren’t in it; they had nothing to do with it at all. (laughs) There was lots of speculation about who a character was based on, when in many cases I simply made them up.
How long did it take to write the Patrick Melrose series?
The first sentence in the first chapter of Never Mind was October 1988, and the last sentence of the last chapter of At Last was 2010. So 22 years, five novels, but with other novels in between. I thought I was writing a trilogy, and finished the trilogy. Then I made excursions into other fields and other subjects, producing two non-Melrose novels. After ten years, I was drawn back to the Melroses, and wrote two more volumes. I now feel I have completed the series and since then I have written three more non-Melrose novels.
Were you pleased with the TV series when Benedict Cumberbatch played Patrick Melrose?
Benedict had tweeted that the two roles he most wanted to play in the world were Hamlet and Patrick Melrose. The power of the tweet is not always benign, but in this case it was very helpful and very benign. The series won four BAFTAs and got lots of Emmy nominations. It was a great success. Benedict did a brilliant job, and I had the double relief of having turned myself into Patrick Melrose, and then Benedict Cumberbatch taking over the burden of being Patrick, so the story moved further and further away from me, and now plays no part in my inner life. I was very lucky with the whole team who worked on the series, Edward Berger, the director, David Nicholls who adapted it, and the producers, Michael Jackson and Rachel Horowitz. It was a magical experience, very unlike the loneliness of writing.
“The common driving force of all my work is a desire for freedom”
Edward St Aubyn, what kind of writer are you?
Similes and metaphors play a big part in my writing and come to me unprompted. My imagination gives me these things, which is very generous of it, and my troubled personality does what it can with what my imagination gives me. Dialogue also comes relatively easily because of my history of mimicry and impersonation, and it sometimes feels just like eavesdropping. Describing things in detail, or making elusive ideas clear is very, very hard and takes a lot of work, but the hard work needs to be hidden and not passed on to the reader.
Because even to say little things you need to know so much more?
That was one of the challenges of writing Double Blind. I’m now perhaps 60% of the way through the sequel to Double Blind, and there will be a third novel. To write a few pages about genetics or ecology, I may have to read a dozen books, and I’m a very slow reader. And then I throw away 99.9% of what I’ve read. Distilling the research is one of the things a reader is owed in a novel of ideas or a historical novel, and has to be a fairly ruthless process.
Do you continue to write about family matters?
Double Blind is not particularly focused on family, nor was Lost for Words, my satire about literary prizes. Dunbar certainly is, but that’s because it’s based on King Lear. The engine under the bonnet, the common driving force of all my work, is a desire for freedom. It’s a jailbreak, an attempt at liberation of some sort or another. In the case of Patrick Melrose it’s very clear that I wanted to be liberated from my conditioning, from my class, from my trauma, from my personal past. That was the prison that I needed to break out of. Double Blind and its intended sequels are about materialism and its discontents: dualism, fragmentation, a kind of schizoid mentality in which we claim to believe one thing and in fact believe quite different things but you don’t want to admit to them because they sound unscientific. It’s much more of a cultural and educational prison that I’m trying to break out of. From my point of view, these two projects are like the lower lid and the upper lid of the same eye, with the same gaze, which is: how the hell do I get out of here?
Double Blind didn’t appear out of nowhere; it originates in the other major thread in my work, apart from the Melrose novels, which is about the nature of consciousness. I went to a conference in 1996 called “Towards the Science of Consciousness”, and I was very intrigued to find that consciousness, which is the only thing we know we have, and the basis of everything else that we think we know, is not successfully included in science’s majestic description of the world. So how good a description can it be if it can’t tell us what is actually going on? The first-person narrative of experience and the third person narrative of experiment refuse to be reduced to each other. This is the problem that I’m obsessed with and started writing about in a book called A Clue to the Exit in the late 90s, and which I picked up again in Double Blind. That’s the other kind of prison I’m preoccupied by. A much more impersonal prison than the Melroses, but one in which I think we’re all trapped.
Are you currently trapped in your personal life?
No, writing the Melrose novels has left me much more detached. It’s a luxury to have lost interest in my personal life and to be much more fascinated by the questions that I’m now writing about.
Double Blind is a very different kind of book?
In some ways yes, but there are also continuities. Along with there having to be a jailbreak, for me to do something as difficult and anxious-making as write a novel there has also to be the feeling that whatever I’m doing, the subject is almost impossible or audacious or ill-advised to take on. And I have to be finding out something I don’t already know, otherwise I might as well be telling someone over a cup of coffee. I suppose Double Blind is more of a novel of ideas than I have written previously, although the ideas are fully integrated into the fictional lives of the characters. A novel of ideas not a strong English tradition. It is a much stronger European tradition, Mann, Kafka, Camus, Goethe, Diderot, etc.
Are you saying in Double Blind that the double-blind scientific approach does not hold?
The method is not applicable across the board, even within science, let alone within life. The ‘merely anecdotal’ is one of the favourite targets of scientific contempt, and yet If you are an astronomer looking at a quasar through a telescope, you can’t have a second quasar that’s not being looked at so as to form a ‘control group’. The resulting evidence is a celestial anecdote. Science is a subset of experience, not the other way around.
This problem of not being able to describe consciousness, and not being able to describe identity within science, and yet science claiming to be the most authoritative description we have of reality, seems to me a very serious one. It disturbs me. That’s what my current work is looking into, and if it takes a while for people to get interested in it, well, that’s happened to me before. Never Mind was published was in 1992 and Mother’s Milk was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for 2006. I had at least 14 years of total obscurity. I hope people will come around to the Double Blind series as they eventually did to the Melroses.
When you can do you read other contemporary writers?
I don’t read contemporary fiction because it often either intimidates me or annoys me and neither response is useful. I read novels written by my friends, because they’re my friends. I’ve read a lot of science books because of Double Blind and its sequel, and I sometimes read or re-read writers who are safely dead and incontrovertibly great. The writers who have had a big influence on me is a very obvious list of great stylists: Joyce, Proust, Flaubert, Beckett, Henry James, Nabokov, etc Some of them I haven’t read for a very long time, but they remain my guiding stars.
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