TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The winner of the United Kingdom's only literary prize for comic fiction was awarded yesterday to my guest Edward St. Aubyn for his new book, which is a satire about Britain's most prestigious literary award. The novel is called "Lost for Words," and it was just published in the U.S. In the New York Review of Books, Giles Harvey called St. Aubyn one of the great comic writers of our time. St. Aubyn is best known for his five semi-autobiographical novels about the character Patrick Melrose, who like St. Aubyn, is from an upper-class family that was posh but monstrous.
St. Aubyn and his character Patrick Melrose were sexually abused by their fathers. Their alcoholic mothers didn't seem to notice. The New Yorker's literary critic James Wood wrote this about the Patrick Melrose novels: The striking gap between on the one hand the elegant polish of the narration, the silver rustle of these exquisite sentences and the poised narrowness of the social satire, and on the other hand the screaming pain of the family violence inflicted on Patrick makes these books some of the strangest contemporary novels.
I recorded my interview with Edward St. Aubyn last week. Edward St. Aubyn, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your new novel is about, you know, the competition to win, you know, England's biggest literary prize. You've never won the Booker Prize, which is the U.K.'s biggest literary award. Does the novel risk being perceived as sour grapes?
EDWARD ST. AUBYN: I don't think so because if you read the novel, it doesn't have a vindictive or bitter atmosphere to it at all. I think it's very celebratory. It is quite mischievous, quite playful. I wasn't trying to set any record straight by writing this novel. I just wanted to set myself a private challenge, which was whether I could enjoy writing, which I hadn't until then done. But I succeeded in doing writing "Lost for Words."
GROSS: So you haven't enjoyed writing until writing this book? Why? What's the difference between writing this book and writing your more autobiographical novels?
AUBYN: Well, the contract under which I originally wrote "Never Mind," my first novel, was rather a drastic one. I tried writing three or four novels up to that point, and I never completed them, and I'd thrown them away. And I made a deal with myself that I would either write a novel and get it published or commit suicide.
I was very unhappy at that time. I was 28. And it worked, and I didn't disrupt that formula, you know, so I went on writing with the menace of insanity and suicide in the background.
And then when it came to my eighth novel, I asked myself, does it have to be this way? And that's - "Lost for Words" is in some sense, is the answer to that question. I tore up the old contract and thought can I write a book I enjoy writing and which people enjoy reading?
GROSS: There's a writer in your novel who is kind of going through that, whose writing is motivated by pain.
AUBYN: I think that's right. There's a character called Sam Black, who is my alter-ego for the purposes of this novel, and he thinks about this subject quite early on in the novel, you know, what the psychological contracts under which he's been writing and whether he can change them.
GROSS: So since your novel is about a fictionalized version of the Booker Prize, which is the U.K.'s biggest literary award, tell us about the prize in your novel, and talk a little bit about how you think winning a big prize like the Booker Prize changes the life of the writer who wins it.
AUBYN: Well, I'm not in a position to tell you that.
GROSS: Good point, that's right. You've never won.
AUBYN: I've never won. So I can only - I know quite a few people who have, and I know what it's like being short-listed, and it's a strange process whereby there are a couple of hundred hopeful people at the beginning of the year, and then there are 12 who are selected for a long list and then six who are selected for a short list. And then all of them are disappointed except one. So it generates a lot of unhappiness.
And then the person who wins it has to spend the next two years of their lives promoting the prize. I think the secret of literary prizes is that they're about promoting themselves, but they pretend to be about promoting literature so as to steal a few years of a writer's time. I'm talking about how wonderful the prize is.
GROSS: Well, I want you to read an excerpt from your new novel "Lost for Words," and before you read it, explain, this is from - this is about the head of the committee choosing the prizewinner. His name is Malcolm Craig. Just tell us briefly who he is before you read the passage.
AUBYN: Malcolm Craig is a back bench member of parliament, and he's typical of the sort of people who are selected by the Booker committee. It's rather a haphazard crew. You know, there are actors, academic, sort of semi-celebrities, you know, obscure members of parliament, that kind of thing, with no obvious qualification to judge literature.
And so this is the end of the first chapter, where he's been thinking about who's going to be on the committee and what he feels about them and what their special interests are.
(Reading) When it came to running a committee, Malcolm favored a collegiate approach. There was nothing like proving you were a team player to get your own way. The point was to build a consensus and come up with a vision of the sort of Britain they all wanted to project with the help of this prize - diverse, multi-cultural, devolutionary, and of course, encouraging to young writers.
(Reading) After all, young writers were the future, or at any rate, would be the future if they were still around and being published. You couldn't go wrong with the future. Even if it was infused with pessimism, until it was compromised by the inevitable cross-currents of unexpected good news and character-building opportunities, the pessimism remained perfect, unsullied by that much more insidious and dangerous quality, disappointment.
(Reading) The promise of young writers was perfect as well, until they burnt out or died, but that would be under another government and under another committee.
GROSS: You write about some of the kinds of books that are likely to be rewarded, and one of them is a historical novel called "The Whole World is a Stage," and you write according to...
AUBYN: "All the World's A Stage."
GROSS: "All the World's A Stage," sorry, "All the World's A Stage." And you write according to the blurb, it was an ambitious an original novel written by a young New Zealander from the point of view of William Shakespeare. It gave richly textured portrait of Jacobean London, as well as taking the reader inside the mind of the greatest genius in all of human history.
Are you suspect of certain historical novels?
AUBYN: I don't know. I'm not a great reader of historical novels, but I've always wondered who the witness is in a historical novel. And...
GROSS: Like how do they know?
GROSS: How do they know what William Shakespeare thought?
AUBYN: How do they know? And also, and which is a point that comes up in the chapter where you get an excerpt of that novel, they tend to be sort of cluttered with famous people in a way that one's own life never is, you know. It's - because historical research of a period like Tudor England or the Middle Ages only yields famous people. And so they're the people who get written about in a very lopsided way.
I suppose there is a kind of - in this novel, there's an implicit - it's not insisted on very much or written about at any length - but there is an implicit idea of what, of the sort of novel that I'm interested in. One of the characters who's an actor and on the committee wants to take over making the final speech, and while he's planning to do that, he thinks of Shelley's "Defence of Poetry," which he learnt when he was at school in order to impress his English master, and be given the role of Hamlet in the summer play.
And he remembers this phrase from the "Defence of Poetry," which is imagining that which we know. And I think that that's the kind of writing that I try and practice, imagining that which we know, not making up things that we know nothing about or fantasizing about things of no consequence, but reimagining our own experience in a way which makes it more vivid and more interesting and more saturated.
And he remembers this phrase from the "Defence of Poetry," which is imagining that which we know. And I think that that's the kind of writing that I try and practice, imagining that which we know, not making up things that we know nothing about or fantasizing about things of no consequences be reimagining our own experience in a way which makes it more vivid and more interesting and more saturated with meaning.
GROSS: One of the novels being considered for the award in your novel is, it's a transgressive novel, which you describe in the book as being an art based on impact rather than process, structure or insight, doomed to the jackhammer monotony of having to shock again and again.
And, you know, the transgressive novel has actually become a genre, and because of your life, because of certain facts in your life, for instance that your father raped you many times, starting when you were five, and you were a heroin addict for years, you could have easily written your earlier novels in that transgressive style.
But really your style of writing is a very, I don't know that elegant is the word, but it's a very kind of careful style where, you know, it's obvious that you've carefully selected every word to maximum effect. And so I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on, you know, that kind of like all about shock transgressive fiction and why you did not choose that for yourself, even though you very well could have, given the subject matter of your novels and the background of your life.
AUBYN: Well, it would have been so unnecessary to write it in a shocking way. The shock would be amplified, I thought, by writing it in a restrained way. And I also felt I needed a certain kind of classicism and simplicity. The Melrose novels that you're talking about, which are highly auto-biographical, are set on one day, in one place, and I suppose lucidity is the virtue that I try to infuse the novels with.
And I didn't need to make it a shocking style. On the contrary, both for me to be able to write it at all, to be able to bear to write it, and I think for the sake of the reader, there needed to be various forms of distance. That kind of restraint and also humor, which emerges rather improbably from the story of rape and addiction and near insanity and the destruction of an individual and the downfall of a family.
You wouldn't have thought there was going to be a lot of funny material coming out of that, but there is. But what's comic and what's tragic depends on distance. So I suppose the humor is also a way of keeping a distance. So there was no need for any shock tactics of the kind exemplified in the make-believe novel in "Lost for Words," which is called "wot u starin at" and is written in a kind of Glaswegian dialect and is just one shock after another, as you say.
GROSS: My guest is Edward St. Aubyn. His new novel "Lost for Words" is a satire about literary awards. We'll talk about his autobiographical series, the Patrick Melrose novels, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Edward St. Aubyn, and his new novel is called "Lost for Words." He has five previous novels, all about the character Patrick Melrose. And the first four novels have just been published in a new edition, all four novels in one book, and then the fifth novel in the series, "At Last," is also published in the United States in a separate volume.
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 is that way, too. Could you just give us a sense of what kind of historical background your family is from?
AUBYN: Well, on my father's side, I was always told, although as we were talking about earlier, the problem with historical novels is who was there to witness it, is I'm told we came over with the Norman conquest. But I don't know what - who we is in that sentence. But I was always told we came over with the Norman conquest, the chevalier (unintelligible), and was part of that invasion.
And it's 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 Doomsday 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?
AUBYN: Yeah, but I'm, you know, quite remote from all that. But that's, 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 Jamesian way and marrying into European aristocracy and 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, the raging desire to get rid of it and the raging desire to hang on to 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?
AUBYN: Well, I think if - perhaps the simplest thing, since I know where you're quoting, is to continue reading the sentence, if you're allow me.
AUBYN: Generating their characteristic disguise as the philanthropy solution, the alcoholic solution, the mask of eccentricity, the search for salvation and perfect taste, the defeated, the idle and the frivolous, and their opponents, the standard bearers, all living in 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 of the world being talked about there or 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 five, 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 then just that more, smaller thing, is like picking him up by his ears. You must have asked yourself a million times like why would a father do that to a son. Like what could he possibly be thinking? Like how deranged can he be to do that?
AUBYN: Sure, that was a prominent question in my mind for many years, that's right, and 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 rage and unhappiness to his son. And I think that is the reason why my father was so sadistic is that he had so much spare pain, and he needed to get rid of it in other people.
GROSS: I imagine as a five-year-old you had no comprehension of what was going on.
AUBYN: No, I didn't, I didn't, but I knew, 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 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: Edward St. Aubyn will be back in the second half of the show. His new satirical novel "Lost for Words" was just published in the U.S. He's also the author of the semi-autobiographical series "The Patrick Melrose Novels." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Edward St. Aubyn. Yesterday he won Britain's only award for comic fiction for his new novel "Lost for Words," which is a satire about literary awards. It's just been published in the U.S. He's also known for his series of five semi-autobiographical novels chronicling the coming of age of the main character Patrick Melrose. The first four novels are now collected together in one new edition. When we left off, we were talking about how both St. Aubyn and his character, Patrick Melrose were raped by their fathers over the course of several years starting at age five. St. Aubyn was talking about the scene where Patrick's father first rapes him.
Right after the rape, the father asks Patrick if he's hungry. And the father says well, I'm starving. You really should eat more, you know, build up your strength. And, 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 Cavalry and Guards Club one couldn't boast about homosexual, pedophiliac incest with any confidence of favorable reception. How could he tell that he had raped his five-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?
AUBYN: I think that the people who behave in ways which are very destructive, immoral and which they know to be wrong search for whatever excuses, pretext and lies 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 it does, you know, or imagined that their victims are really enjoying it or - people tell themselves the craziest stories and David Melrose is a particular character in particular circumstances who uses the stories available to him.
GROSS: Well, 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.
AUBYN: I think he's not literally imagining that he would like to sit at the bar of the Cauvery and Guards Club, he's just he's realizing in his own contemptuous and snobbish way that he's gone quite far, you know, 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 when 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.
AUBYN: My own life, you know, I remained very isolated by the 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.
GROSS: Was your father still a live?
AUBYN: My father still alive? What? When I wrote "Never Mind?"
AUBYN: Or when I made - I think he was - no, he just died. And I suppose this is a subject touched on in the second novel in "Bad News," that superficially it would look as if it was a great improvement if your chief enemy and opponent disappeared from the stage. But in fact, for Patrick the disappearance of his father produces a kind of civil war between the part of him that's identified with his father's attitudes in the partisan that's been the victim of those attitudes and it's an almost impossible conflict to bear. And it was much easier when there was an external object to hate and to fight against. And so in my case too, the suicide attempt I made was just after my father had died when the war was internalized. And the only reason I succeeded was because - didn't succeed was because of the sincerity of the attempt. I tried to overdose on heroin but I put so much in the syringe that I passed out before I could finish the injection and then was passed out for two days.
GROSS: There's another sentence I want to read. I'm not even sure there's a question that accompanies the sentence, but I just want to read it. And this is when Patrick is older, he's become a barrister. Older, I mean he's probably in his 40s. He's become a barrister and he's no longer using heroin but had become an alcoholic because as a barrister, he was reluctant to kill himself illegally so he's become an alcoholic instead. And you write (Reading) It had felt so ancestral to have delirium tremens, to bow down, after his disobedient youth as a junkie, to the shattering banality of alcohol.
I was wondering if you could talk about either writing that sentence or - like where it came from emotionally or finding the words to describe it. But I never heard a former heroin addict talk about the shattering banality of alcohol.
AUBYN: Well, it is banal, isn't it? It's available on every street and also it's banal for him because his mother was an alcoholic and his father was an alcoholic and his mother's father was an alcoholic, so he feels he's sort of caved in. It's like going into the family business when you thought you were going to be a rock star or something and, you know, so that's all it means. And he feels that he's been trapped in this very obvious way and that there is nothing glamorous or transgressive about it, which he was able to think there was about his intravenous drug addiction in his early 20s.
GROSS: My guest is Edward St. Aubyn, the author of the semi-autobiographical series, "The Patrick Melrose Novels." He also has a new satirical novel called "Lost for Words." We'll talk more after break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Edward St. Aubyn. He has a new satirical novel called "Lost for Words." The first four of his five semi-autobiographical novels, "The Patrick Melrose Novels," have just been republished collected together in one book. Both St. Aubyn and his character, Patrick Melrose were raped by their fathers over the course of several years starting at age five.
When you did reveal that you were raped as a child, what was your mother's reaction because she, she didn't know, right?
AUBYN: She said she didn't know. That's right.
GROSS: But you don't necessarily believe her?
AUBYN: Well, I do. I do. Because people have extraordinary capacities for compartmentalizing things and denying things, you know, but 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 and, you know, back in my life, I would say that I got a letter from an au pair who has looked after us as children after "Never Mind" was published saying that she had 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 did do anything about it and she had felt guilty all of her life. Well, none of the au pairs were able to bear our household for more than a few months. So if she knew, how could my mother, who was 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 but I think she must have been in a position to know to know if she were prepared to acknowledge it.
GROSS: What was her reaction when she - when you told her and she couldn't be in denial about it?
AUBYN: Oh, she said that my father had raped her as well and that she, 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: After the mother in the book, you know, has a stroke or a series of strokes and she can't really move, she can't really eat, she can't really do anything, she wants to die and she asks her son Patrick to help her die. So he has to look into the legalities of assisted suicide and so he turns to Switzerland. Did you have to do that for your mother? Did your mother asking you to do that?
AUBYN: Yes. Indeed. Yeah, she did. It was a really tiresome request. You know, it was very upsetting and complicated. But I did all the work and then she changed her mind having begged me. It always took her about a half an hour to produce her sentences. It's very harrowing listening to her anguish and her longing to be taken to Switzerland and given a fatal dose of barbiturates. So I was on the case. It was the compassionate thing to do. But then when everything was set up she dropped it after about three or four months. In which I often felt I was going mad, you know, because organizing your own mother's suicide is a tough call.
GROSS: You know, Patrick has so much to be angry at his mother about. And when she asks him for his help in assisting her suicide, he doesn't know whether he's trying to hasten her death because she wants it or because he wants it and just being in that little bubble of conflict makes him really angry.
AUBYN: Of course, he's angry about being put in that position as anyone would be, as well as being quite upset, as well as being heartbroken as well as perhaps, you know, wanting to get on with it and get it over with, all sorts of mixed emotions. But, you know, it's worth saying at this point that all of these books are about how to become free, you know, how to become free of your conditioning and how to become free of resentment and hatred and of the way to the past. And so Patrick is on the case. He may often be very unhappy or self-destructive or confused or say things that are sarcastic or whatever, but his whole direction is towards freedom which he eventually achieves at the end of the last novel. And so he's not just being angry about the possibility that he may want his mother to die as well as the actuality of not wanting to be asked for help her to die, as well as the fact that he is doing what she asked out of love. You know, it's a confusing situation. But he's also driven by a burning desire.
GROSS: You know, 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 it is so hard to achieve.
GROSS: Is that something you feel like you've worked on for a long time?
AUBYN: It's very hard to paraphrase the last chapter, the last, but there are lots of elements in it and that's what you described is 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, you know, that he hasn't really known before. And which is very, you know, natural to a lot of people. 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 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 chapter is important to me and I think it really just has to be read.
GROSS: What's an example of a book that you read when you were young that was really important to you?
AUBYN: It 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 giving. And I was very young at the time and it's about a goat who longs to escape into the hills because he can see the riot 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 browsing 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 with this phrase, which in French is (speaks French): As long as I last till the dawn.
And that book, it 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.
AUBYN: Thank you.
GROSS: Edward St. Aubyn is the author of the Patrick Melrose novels, four of which have just been republished, collected in one book. His new novel, "Lost for Words," won Britain's only award for comic fiction yesterday. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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