Matthew Sellers here for the OCLW publicity team. Last Thursday, 13 February, I had the pleasure of listening to novelist Edward St Aubyn discuss his writing process with Hermione Lee as part of the Weinrebe Lecture Series in Life-Writing. Edward St Aubyn is the author of seven novels, five of which were collected in 2012 as The Patrick Melrose Novels. This year’s theme, ‘Voicing the Self’, is especially apt for a writer as adept as St Aubyn at revealing his characters’ inner lives.
With his witty, stylish prose, St Aubyn accesses fully realized characters and a range of human experience, from the hilarious to the truly tragic. His novels, at turns sharp, humorous, and poignant, satirize the English upper class with pointed sophistication. Yet in The Patrick Melrose Novels St Aubyn grapples with traumatic events of his own life, and his works never lose their awareness of this deep pathos. Brutally honest in his prose, St Aubyn was equally forthcoming with the large audience gathered to see him on subjects from the inexpressible to the experience of making personal trauma public in autobiographical fiction.
Lee opened the talk with a question about the plan of The Melrose Novels, which St Aubyn confessed he initially intended as a trilogy before he reconceived the series to include two additional novels, including the Man Booker Prize shortlisted Mother’s Milk. The five novels follow a protagonist, Patrick Melrose, who endures a traumatic childhood and copes in adulthood with a combination of booze and drugs.
Though all five novels center on Patrick, Lee noted that they are all written in third person. St Aubyn replied that he felt “attracted to the freedom” of third person, that third person helped avoid confession and establish distance. Establishing a core dramatic truth was more important to his autobiographical project than a faithful representation of the facts. With that, St Aubyn set the scene for a rich discussion of his authorial relationship with his fictive protagonist, the function of his pithy style and cutting irony, and influences on his writing.
St Aubyn was frank about the difficulty of writing his first novel, Never Mind, which features a graphic rape scene; he recounted how he wrote longhand before handing the leaves off to be typed, how the sound of typing took on a reassuring constancy that enabled St Aubyn to continue. Crucial to his writing experience, and indeed to the novels’ handling of trauma, are the moments when language runs up against the inexpressible. Lee noted that Patrick Melrose is a vocal, witty protagonist, but he often longs for silence, and St Aubyn noted that Patrick’s efforts to articulate cause confusion. Indeed, his drive drive as a novelist often seems an effort to evoke an unsayable moment of experience.
The redeeming qualities of silence may seem odd given St Aubyn’s elegant style—he’s been compared to Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde. Lee gave an exemplar of his epigrammatic wit from At Last: ‘As a guest, Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions’. St Aubyn replied that the compression of epigram, of wit, provides a strong structure for the inner drama of the novels, a horrifying contrast of perfect control, balance, and brevity against uncontrolled violence and uncontrollable inner emotion. And it is in that balance of polished irony and violence that St Aubyn’s novels voice a self at once dazzlingly witty and painfully troubled.