Who is Edward St. Aubyn?

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I’m embarrassed to say I did not know the answer to this question until today, when I read a recent New York Times article about Benedict Cumberbatch playing his dream role: Patrick Melrose. Never heard of him? Me neither. He is the hero of a quintet of novels “Never Mind,” “Bad News,” “Some Hope,” “Mother’s Milk” and “At Last.” The author of these works? A British writer named Edward St. Aubyn.

The New York Times calls the novels ‘brilliant” and “exceptional.” The Guardian called St Aubyn “our purest living prose stylist.”

“The books are written with an utterly idiosyncratic combination of emotional precision, crystalline observation and black humor, as if one of Evelyn Waugh’s wicked satires about British aristos had been mashed up with a searing memoir of abuse and addiction, and injected with Proustian meditations on the workings of memory and time,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in 2012.

Wow! First thought – I have to read this guy. Second thought: his books are only going to irritate me. The’ll be full of highbrow rubbish about privileged English toffs and such. When I read, in a Times profile, “something about Patrick kept speaking to him, as Rabbit Angstrom did to John Updike and Nathan Zuckerman does to Philip Roth,” I was about ready to give up.

But then I did a little research. St Aubyn, it turns out, does have a privileged background – on the face of it. But there was a horrifying amount of pain behind the facade. This from the New Yorker:

he went for a walk with his mother in the English countryside and told her that his father had repeatedly raped him as a young boy. Her response “wasn’t totally satisfactory,” St. Aubyn said, several weeks ago. “She said, ‘Me, too’ ”—meaning that his father had raped her as well. “She was very, very keen to jump the queue and say how awful it was for her.”

There’s an old trope about writers having to reach the age of 30 before they can write anything of interest. It’s bollocks, of course. There are plenty of people younger than that who’ve lived through more of life’s extremes than I have in my whole life. St Aubyn was one: he wrote his first novel when he was 28, during his recovery from a 12-year addiction to heroin. The character of Patrick Melrose is apparently loosely based on St Aubyn, which I would think would make him interesting, but what has really hooked me is this, from Stephen Moss in the Guardian, “The upper class into which he was born and which failed to protect him is mercilessly skewered.” NO doubt about it. I have to give him a go.

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