Saturday, May 15

Edward St Aubyn: ‘I never read things about myself because they easily crush me’ | Books


Most of the interviews in the lockdown era are done by video, but novelist Edward St Aubyn and I are talking on the old phone because, his publicist warns me beforehand, “Teddy doesn’t Zoom.” Of course not. It’s really a surprise that Teddy makes telephones, because it often seems that his presence in prosaic 21st century London, as opposed to early 20th century Russia alongside his great-uncle, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich , or the Great Britain of the 19th century. with his great-grandfather, the Liberal MP Sir John St Aubyn, 1st Baron of St Levan, is a clerical error that will soon be rectified.

His novels satirize the weaknesses of the world around him with the savagery of a true connoisseur, as when faced with the petty snobberies of social climbers and the bewilderment of someone who finds in the modern world a frequent source of frustration. Breast milk – the fourth book in his Patrick Melrose series – was nominated for a Booker Prize in 2006; did not win, but metabolized the experience in 2014 Speechless, in which he described the literary award ceremony with the horrified amusement of an alien contemplating strange human rituals. (Unfortunately, not even mockery could save him from being subjected to such indignities again: Speechless won the Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction).

His accent exceeds that of the royal family: “home” is “I did”, “no” is “huffn’t”, as in “I huffn’t have a second I did to escape”, which tells me, twice, when talks about his confinement experience. He says this with the nostalgia of someone living in an environment where multiple households are the norm, but also with the mockery of a man loaded with the kind of painful self-awareness not usually associated with his class. Judging solely by her origin (aristocratic) and schooling (Westminster, Oxford), St Aubyn should be a model of privilege. But appearances can be deceiving. He has a habit of hesitation that I initially mistook for nonchalance, but it turns out to be anxiety: “I’m always so nervous in interviews because I guess I’m going to make a fool of myself. It’s strange, it hasn’t improved since we last spoke. Yah! You would have thought my paranoia would erode over time, but it’s still challenging, ”he says with an embarrassed laugh.

This is the second time I have interviewed St. Aubyn, and although he gently pretends to remember our meeting 14 years ago (“But of course!”), He did not read the interview. “I never read things about myself. Not because it is so high, on the contrary, it is because they crush me so easily ”, he says, and I believe him. Behind the prestige of plaster there is a brittle core that works very hard to stabilize. He used to do this by injecting speed and heroin alternately, but he’s clean since 1988 and now relies on coffee “to try to be smart” followed by beta-blockers “which then make me feel stupid,” he sighs.

Benedict Cumberbatch in a scene from Patrick Melrose.



Benedict Cumberbatch in a scene from
Patrick Melrose. Photograph: Ollie Upton / AP

His novels have a similar tug-of-war dynamic. Along with outward-directed satire, writing dives inward and burns wounds, especially in Melrose’s books, in which he recounts his own life, from being sexually abused by his father to extreme addiction to drugs. drugs in his 20s, to anxious but loving parenthood (St Aubyn has two children from previous relationships). But his books don’t look at the navel and perspective often rushes between the characters, creating a mosaic of voices.

“It’s probably due to the disastrous plasticity of my personality, which was once completely shattered,” he says. He describes this break in Bad news, Melrose’s second book, in which Patrick, hung up on drugs, is tormented by dozens of internal voices. “I hit myself again, but some of that plasticity is still there, and I slip between the characters and I feel like I’m listening to what they’re saying. There are levels of emotion in that: I can melt. “

St Aubyn speaks to me from his home in West London, hidden in the smallest room in the house, “because the tree surgeons are cutting off the beautiful branches that I look at from my room. So instead of being caught drowning in tears, I have climbed the stairs to avoid the chainsaws, ”he says. Even apart from the truncation of his tree, today he is especially nervous because he is promoting (“defending”, as he himself puts it) his new novel, Double blind, on which I sweat for seven years. “There is a danger that my other books will be ignored because the five Melros have such a large gravitational field. I knew Speechless Y Dunbar it would not reach the escape velocity of the planet Melrose, ”he says, referring to the books he has written since publishing the final part of the Melrose series. At last, in 2012. “But I hope Double blind will be.”

I hope so too. Writing about his past helped liberate St Aubyn from him emotionally, but he did it so well that he was doomed to be asked by journalists and fans forever, especially since 2018, when Melrose’s books became a series for Sky Atlantic. . starring Benedict Cumberbatch and written by David Nicholls. When I ask him too many questions about the planet Melrose and his connections to his past, St Aubyn kindly reminds me that he has been talking about all of this since 1994, so I would be very grateful if people asked him from time to time about something else. “But I totally understand that Melrose needs to be recognized, so please don’t delete his next five questions,” he says, as I delete the next five questions.

However, the uncomfortable truth is that his non-autobiographical and non-Melrose books, and Double Blind is the fifth, have not found as much favor with readers and critics, and despite avoiding criticism, St Aubyn knows it. When I mention that I have read On the border Y A clue for the exit, her first two non-Melrose books, she almost screamed in shock, “Oh my God! Well now I know four people who have read them. “

Double blind is 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 also feels deeply, because St Aubyn has been thinking about these issues for decades. He tells me several times that Double blind It is very different from the Melrose books, and it is, but all of St Aubyn’s books are ultimately about the desire to break beyond the prison of one’s own subjectivity. He once described his mind as “a nest of scorpions” and the only drugs he is nostalgic for, and writes about them fondly in Double blind – they are “those of the psychedelic realm, because they are the fastest way to dissolve the subject / object division: you imagine the racing heart of the bird on the branch and you flow towards the bird and the bird flows towards you”, it turns off with nostalgia. These days, instead, he flows into the characters in his novels and the characters flow into him.

The desire to escape from oneself begins with the desire to escape from unhappiness. “Obviously, if you think, ‘It’s absolutely great to be me and there’s no room for improvement,’” he laughs at the thought, “then there’s little incentive. But that has not been my problem. “His books stare at his deepest fears and dearest longings:” A novel is not worth writing unless you are saying what you think is impossible to express, “he says.

St Aubyn grew up in London and France. His mother, Lorna, was an American heiress whose maternal abilities he describes as “incompetent”, and his father, Roger, was a frustrated musician and rapist. The first time she raped her son, St Aubyn was five years old. He describes this in It does not matter, Melrose’s first book, and young Patrick imagines himself to be a gecko climbing the wall, “indifferently watching the punishment inflicted by the stranger on a small child.” Patrick’s sense of self is shattered, and in Double blind St Aubyn discusses the connection between child abuse and schizophrenia. His father continued to abuse him for years.

As a child, St Aubyn dreamed of being prime minister, “now a rather discredited ambition”, because he wanted to deliver speeches that would change the world. “I suppose it has an obvious psychological origin, in the sense that I wanted to persuade everyone around me to behave radically differently,” he says. When she realized she had “a deadly terror of public speaking,” she focused instead on writing. But he made a monumental speech: When he was eight, he told his father to stop assaulting him, and he did. “It was a short speech. But the world changed, ”he says.

It has long been rumored that St. Aubyn wrote another momentous speech – the eulogy read by his friend Charles Spencer at the funeral of his sister, Princess Diana.

“Absolutely not, and I’m really bored on behalf of Charlie that rumor got around. He’s an excellent writer, he didn’t need me to write that speech, ”says St Aubyn, and for the first time I get a glimpse of something close to the empire of his class.

Most of St Aubyn’s books include a thank you to the writer Francis Wyndham, who died in 2017 and was one of the many quasi-father figures in her life. “I think inevitably someone like me, who had an unsatisfactory relationship with their father, will look for benign adults who do the things that normal parents do,” he says. Other father figures included director Mike Nichols and artist Lucian Freud, and the quality that brought them together was their “unconditional support and enthusiasm” for St Aubyn (his own father, of course, gave him none). “Being admiring is always a sign of strength, while other people feel like they are losing something if they admire someone else,” he says.

One person who perhaps demonstrates this latter trend is St Aubyn’s old friend, Will Self. The two knew each other in college and shared a similar taste for drugs, but they grew apart. In Self’s memoir of 2018, Will be, writes about a man named “Caius” who bears an unmistakable resemblance to St Aubyn. When Caius finally tells him that his father sexually abused him, Self’s response is to sulk: “[Caius] he got everything, be it material things and even these extreme experiences, which, self-annihilating or not, would undoubtedly be a good copy. “

Did St Aubyn read the book?

“No, but there was a very mysterious period in my life when people made dark allusions to Will Self and raised their eyebrows at me, and I had no idea why,” he says with a mischievous laugh. “Then someone told me the fuller story. He wrote something nasty about me in … it’s an autobiography, right?

I tell you it was the most strangely bitter thing I had ever read.

“Too bad. He’s a strange person. I think he’s very unhappy and I’m sorry, but he certainly doesn’t bother to disguise it,” he says.

St Aubyn is currently enduring the unnerving effects of the long Covid, “which has certainly lasted long enough for me,” yet our conversation continues well beyond our allotted time, and the more we talk, the less anxious he sounds. Before leaving him to heal, I ask him why his parents gave him the cuddly nickname “Teddy,” given how disgusting they were. “It came about because the ancestor who gave me my name was known as Teddy, so there it was. That is A cute name, but no guarantee of affection: Teddy Roosevelt used to shoot elephants! But I hope I’m okay, ”he says, and makes another mocking laugh at himself, but this time it’s filled with something that sounds almost optimistic.

Double Blind is a Harvill Secker publication (£ 18.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply,


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