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The Patrick Melrose Novels

What is it that makes a reader become interested in a really rather unpleasant character, especially when its the central character, even sometimes the narrator, of a work of fiction? The obvious examples that spring to my mind at least are the awful Bendrix in Graham Greenes The End of the Affair, Tony Soprano, Sherlock Holmes or even Hannibal Lecter. There are of course pretty dreadful specimens with whom we connect out of pity or self-recognition, like the unspeakably self-obsessed George Costanza of Seinfeld fame, and in this case humor is his salvation. Not bad for someone with no sense of humor at all. And before you stop me, there are female counterparts aplenty, starting from Emma Bovary and Hedda Gabler, moving on to the Wicked Witch of the West, Velma in Chandlers Farewell My Lovely and Mrs. Danvers in du Mauriers Rebecca. Some of these characters exercise the kind of hypnotic fascination of a cobra, perhaps, but they all have interest. Most of them dominate the places in which they appear, though they are not the least bit admirable.I am posing this question as I try to make some sense of why I, like so many others, find Edward St. Aubyns protagonist, Patrick Melrose, so fascinating. With the recent publication of At Last, a five-novel sequence comes to an end. The first four were Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope and Mothers Milk, the last one a finalist for the Booker Prize. They tell the story of moments in Patricks life, as a small child, a befuddled heroin addict, an alcoholic and a middle-aged man struggling with his Mrs. Jellyby-style mother giving away his inheritance to a shady New Age Irishman named Seamus. They take place in a world of social privilege and snobbery, and now in At Last his mothers funeral provides the context for the faint stirrings of a possible resolution.

Some things about these novels are matchless. The gift for capturing the self-involved chattering of the entirely contingent aristocratic hangers-on is remarkable, though why we should care about them any more than they would care about us is hard to say. Nevertheless, we do, perhaps because St. Aubyn makes them funny, usually despite themselves. Hes also rediscovered the Homeric simile as a stylistic device and works it just short of the point at which it would become tiresome though, of its nature, it is always noticeable. And he is witty in a way that reminds all his commentators of Evelyn Waugh. One suspects, too, that he is as caustic in real life as was Waugh. No reason, except that so much of these novels, including some of the most sordid and distasteful parts, are more autobiographical than we might want to believe.St. Aubyn gets us into the position where we stay with Patrick through the nightmare of Bad News, by the simple expedient of having first shown us the boy who became this man and the reasons why. Bad News is hard to finish and I cannot imagine anyone picking it up and reading it out of sequence. [Warning: Do NOT read any of these books out of sequence.] But once you are rooting for the hapless child victim of a pedophile, sadistic father you are hooked enough to watch the twenty-year old dope himself to the brink of death. I think I prayed my way through this second book, though not as hard as I might have done if I had bought it when it appeared and not known that there were three to follow. Foreknowledge takes the edge off the drama but keeps you going beyond what is reasonable. No wonder that the earlier books didnt initially sell well and have been read more since the appearance of Mothers Milk.Patrick doesnt have many friends, but maybe it is befriending him that keeps us going, though we will surely suspect that for most of the novels our outstretched hand would be ignored or abused. The fragility in Patrick that goes back to a childhood of unspeakable brutality makes it easier to like him, though he is not on the whole likeable. The reader is a bit like Johnny, the psychiatrist who is the only real friend Patrick has and has had from childhood. It is to Johnny that he reveals the abuse he suffered at his fathers hands, and Johnny is there at the mothers funeral, as unjudgmental and genuinely warm as ever. Maybe we even like Patrick a little bit because if Johnny likes him, well, there must be something about him. We also see him through the eyes of his eerily precocious children and we glimpse the capacity for greater humanity in the way he responds to them. But Im not sure we ever relax with him and Im pretty sure he wouldnt like us. Or me at least. On the other hand, perhaps his failure to find or give unconditional love is being turned on the reader. Everyone who stays with him through the five books, something I heartily recommend, is another Johnny.

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What is it that makes a reader become interested in a really rather unpleasant character, especially when its the central character, even sometimes the narrator, of a work of fiction? The obvious examples that spring to my mind at least are the awful Bendrix in Graham Greenes The End of the Affair, Tony Soprano, Sherlock Holmes or even Hannibal Lecter.

It has to be the writing, no? You're listening to the narrator, not to the unpleasant character. Ross Thomas, an author I've mentioned before, writes about quite a few unpleasant characters, but his narrator's not unpleasant, nor are the protagonists. The world's a dicey place. It seems perfectly normal, if not necessary, that novelists, most of whom, in my experience, try to describe the world, will assume the task of describing unpleasant people along the way.Also, there's a wide variety of unpleasant characters. From the tiny sample I read just now describing Melrose at the very beginning of the first novel, he's nasty unpleasant. Shrelock Holmes is not nasty. I doubt I'd care to read even one, let alone five, novels centered on that kind of unpleasant character. But, unlike you, I read strictly for pleasure.

David, I suspect the Melrose you found nasty and unpleasant was David Melrose, the sadistic father of the young Patrick.

Right. Sorry. Patrick's still a child at that point in the story.The three Melroses that populate the first part of the first chapter of the first novel are the nasty father, the drunken mother, and the child who will grow into the unpleasant Patrick. Excellent writing, but depressing reading. I imagine that two answers to your question

What is it that makes a reader become interested in a really rather unpleasant character, especially when its the central character, even sometimes the narrator, of a work of fiction?

are that a student and teacher of literature is likely to be drawn to the skill of the portraitist and a student of human nature may find the clinical dissection absorbing. I wonder how many other readers would want to persevere, and why.

I suspect that we stay interested in nasty characters because we enjoy their nastiness for one reason or another. Everyone loved the Countess Violet on Downton Abbey, though sometimes we would like to have seen her swatted a good one. We all want to be nasty at times, but in ordinary circumstances have to restrain ourselves. We identify with the nasty more than we like to admit.

[...] commonwealmagazine.org - Today, 9:53 PM [...]

Maybe, Ann. But when you say

Everyone loved the Countess Violet on Downton Abbey

remember, please, that not everyone is even aware of what you're talking about and that, surely, not everyone who watched that television program "loved" that character. I think it likely that I, for one, would not have. I find that as I grow older, I'm increasingly aware of the crying need in our society for reducing the nastiness that seems to have crept into and practically absorbed it in recent decades.From skimming a fair amount of the first chapter of Never Mind, I have the sense that the author is practically a practitioner of the art of being unpleasant. In a way, that's very English. As something of an Anglophile, that makes me sad, but there it is. Perhaps it's a necessary element of the whole. But perhaps not, too. I don't know.

David --For you novels seem to exist to make you feel good, a purely a subjective reaction.Since you seem to have an aversion to subjectivity as a value, why should we be interested in what you like in novels? Why should you even talk about them? Historically most people have taken a much broader view and found many different values in novels: novels describe, they make us aware of new possibilities, they exhort, they do X, Y, and Z. I say the more they do the better the novel. There's even a new theory of "medical humanities" that asserts that the humanities should exploit our knowledge of medicine and its practice to make us more "resilient", and that includes novels. (Now there's a thesis that can be argued!P Sounds like Patrick's relationship with his father is a natural for consideration by psychiatry. The novels were largely autobiographical.http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/reviewofbooks_article/12299/St. Aubyn says that it was the *writing* of the novels that was therapeutic for him. Doesn't this suggest that novels can also be a means of sharing effecting different sorts of psychological healings? Some descriptive novels might cure -- Freud says that to understand is to cure. And novels can make us understand human nature even at its ugliest and most wicked which can be a useful moral lesson. They can be a sort fo grace, and like some other graces, they are not always pleasant.

Ann, not everyone is bound by some sort of higher law to aspire to the same goals, to use the same criteria throughout life. Literary theory is fine for a small segment of intellectuals, but for most of the world, it's not even on the radar. Are the only considerations we're permitted to respect here those of academics? I thought not. But if so, I apologize for intruding.You write:

For you novels seem to exist to make you feel good, a purely a subjective reaction.Since you seem to have an aversion to subjectivity as a value, why should we be interested in what you like in novels? Why should you even talk about them?

Ann, this isn't about me. Or, rather, it is only in the sense that I'm trying in my clumsy way to speak for a not insignificant part of the human race who live outside the academy. I'm hardly the only not entirely stupid and unlettered reader who looks for literature that's not deliberately unpleasant, or not deliberately politically correct, or not deliberately in sync with fashionable theories of how the world should be viewed.Accept it or not, there are perfectly valid criteria for literature that are not those of the academy. To dismiss them as unimportant is, I think, narrow minded in the extreme.

David -- I don't knock reading for pleasure. My point was that there are MANY values to be found in literature and other sorts of books as well, and they aren't there because some academic *said* they're there. The values come first, the critics reflect on them.You seem to think that non-academic people are not touched by academe and don't need it. Not so. The thoughts of the people in academe live in our institutions and in our languages, and the ideas become part of people's mind-sets that way. The ideas are often reflections of what the academics found in non-academic people. And, No, you don't have to read all the great books to have a bunch of useful ideas. A college education which includes both basic humanities and science isn't the only way to get an education. But, on the other hand, it is the easiest most efficient way.True, some people do better on their own (though not usually when they don't have labs to help learn science.) And it also seems to be the case that very often novelists and poets begin college but drop out. The question is: do thy really write more valuable works because they discovered the world on their own? I'd say, in some case Yes, in most cases No. It's too easy to think that one knows more of what's valuable and knows it better than everyone else put together.The issue is: can we learn from others and find value in other people's thoughts?

Without wishing to enter the fray here, may I say that there is a rich tradition of writing about evil in a seemingly sympathetic way going back at least to Milton's Lucifer?I think that in reading about characters who fall into sin and evil, one recognizes that these urges are not limited to "bad other people," but that we are all prey to those evil tendencies. Moreover, I think the point of the novel is to tell us what it means to be human, and to deliver the news, good and bad.However, there have been valid critical theories that would implicitly reject books like St. Aubyn's. If I recall from the dear dim past, philosopher C.E.M. Joad wrote "Decadence" in 1946 in which he raised concerns and made judgments about literature that was not sufficiently uplifting, and was, instead, told from the point of view of individuals who were damaged mentally or morally. (He made some thinly veiled allusions to Faulkner's work, particularly "The Sound and the Fury.")I was quite taken with Joad when I was in grad school, whom I encountered when our crit prof directed us to articulate our own critical theories. Joad was so persuasive that I felt that if I could satisfactorily respond to his ideas, I would be a better reader for it.

Without wishing to enter the fray here, may I say that there is a rich tradition of writing about evil in a seemingly sympathetic way going back at least to Miltons Lucifer?I think that in reading about characters who fall into sin and evil, one recognizes that these urges are not limited to bad other people, but that we are all prey to those evil tendencies. Moreover, I think the point of the novel is to tell us what it means to be human, and to deliver the news, good and bad.

Makes sense. But I'd like at least a dispassionate narrator as a guide.

Oops. Should have thought a little further before tapping send. Apparently St. Aubyn's is a dispassionate narrator, at least for the most part. So maybe better would be a narrator who looks on the evil critically, thoughtfully, even compassionately - not just one who simply tells the story, uncritically, dispassionately.

"So maybe better would be a narrator who looks on the evil critically, thoughtfully, even compassionately not just one who simply tells the story, uncritically, dispassionately."I think coming up with a critical theory that tries to incorporate a moral dimension is an interesting project, and if you ever flesh it out, I would be interested in reading about it. Certainly, feminists, marxists, and other -ists have tried to develop critical theories using a variety of moral viewpoints as the main criteria with very mixed results. Paul, thanks for the review. I always get good rec's from you, and have the Melrose novels on my wishlist.

Jean and David --I think the question involves the difference between truth and goodness. Sure, a novel can be a sermon, but it can also be valuable simply because it tells us the truth about human possibilities, both good and bad. We need to know both.There's a big problem with writing a novel about goodness -- if it's going to be true to life its happy ending is not likely to be thoroughly happy. (Pride and Prejudice is the exception, of course. And who knows -- their marriage probably had its storms :-)

Ann, I agree completely.But I'm interested in trying to understand David's overarching criteria for judging books because he is almost always the first commenter on the Verdict threads and most often rejects the books under consideration out of turn, often without having read them, as too highbrow, too lowbrow, too depressing, too immoral. He must forgive me if I seem dense, but I don't get a sense of what his critical underpinnings are. I doubt he's pushing for some sort of formula whereby the villain, however alluring the writer makes him, has to "get his" in the penultimate chapter every time. But perhaps some hint of Divine Justice is necessary for David to have a pleasurable reading experience.Speaking of pleasurable reading experiences, a colleague has lent me David McCullough's "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris" between 1830 and 1900. I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but McCullough is such a good story teller, I don't mind that the book is all true!

Jean --David's criterion of what a good novel is seems to be that he finds it pleasant to read. But that is entirely subjective. One can't *argue* such a criterion -- we like what we like, period. But why should anyone else care? And why does that amount to a valid criticism of *other people's* criteria? Surely there must be something more to his position. *Why* does he find them pleasant?(So you too think that Lizzy and Mr. D. might have had some rough patches later? Hmm.)

Reading fiction is for pleasure and although there are a few unfortunate people who do it for professional purposes alone, I am certainly not one of them. I read fiction to escape theology. But it is certainly true that we all should read what we like and perhaps not dismiss what we think we will not like before at least tasting it. I, for example, have a visceral dislike of books about animals that I should probably overcome but can't. So I am not going to trash Watership Down or anything about dogs saving the world because I haven't read them (and probably won't). The Wind in the Willows is of course an exception allowed anyone who grew up in England. The first criterion for any book whatever the subject, for me, is that it be well-written. Any poorly constructed sentence or bad choice of words announces that I am reading a book rather than entering a world. It's a bit like what happens when you're reading along and hit on a typographical error. Suddenly you are out of the story and back in the physicality of the book, which is not at all what you want to be doing. But that kind of thing aside, fiction is our way into a world not our own, whether a fantasy of past or future (ugh!) or the world as constructed by author or narrator. This is one of the beauties of St. Aubyn, by the way, because despite the distasteful side of some of the events and some of the central character's follies, you find yourself making a sort of act of faith in the fundamental integrity that Patrick seems to be reaching for but not quite grasping. This is an experience with which most of us can sympathize. And God save us from fiction about noble souls anyway. The only interesting things about people in books and maybe in life--saints or sinners--are the trials they have had to undergo and the imperfections they have struggled with to reach any kind of moral plateau or any resolution. The resolution or the plateau had better come on the last page or I for one will not be interested in reading on.

In graduate school, several of us females started our "literature as gossip" school of criticism. After all, what is Austen or Atwood or von Arnim. but gossip about the neighbors that feeds that human desire to get into other people's personal business to learn more about the human condition? To be sure, what I read is wittier, sharper, and more instructive than the gossip I get at the fish fry on Friday ... but that's only b/c professional writers have editors to get rid of the boring stuff and to make everybody talk properly--or at least according to type and character.Ann, I think that whatever rough patches Lizzy and Mr. Darcy might have had would have been nicely smoothed out by money, comfy surroundings, nurses and nannies, and, when things got boring, travel to Italy. My guess is that Mr. Darcy, who is not a great confider in anyone, wouldn't be above having a mistress stashed away somewhere very occasionally, but he would be so discreet that nobody would ever know. And he would feel very guilty about it afterward and make up for it with extravagant presents.

"I read fiction to escape theology."Ha! Funny, Paul. I don't know why, but it is -- very :-)I haven't been reading novels since the hurricane (except mysteries), but my brand new neighborhood library just opened, so I hope to start again. St. Aubyn is on my list. Thanks. Yes, lots of fiction is about other worlds, but this world is pretty interesting too. It's a question of the transcendentals again: we want it all, and that includes the infinitely varied gratuitous things and gratuitous combinations of things.My preference is for works with extremely well-constructed sentences too. Hemingway is, of course, great with short sentences, but Updike is the champion in that area, I think. Beats Henry James who trips over his own clauses. I once stopped while reading an Updike work just to count the number of words in a perfectly constructed sentence. It was cram-packed with information, 80 words long, but crystal clear. How did he do it? Poetry critics talk about the structuring of the sounds of the words, but I think that the structuring of the info-bits in prose is just as important. Compare, for instance, a narrative by, say, C. S. Lewis and one by J. K. Rowling. Both tell great stories, but Lewis *writes* better.

Saul McNeil, the "world's funniest atheist," had to be a stinker to make the story work. And he was nasty.You can read more about the novel ("The World's Funniest Atheist") here:http://www.amazon.com/The-Worlds-Funniest-Atheist-ebook/dp/B006TLHPKW/re...

But it is certainly true that we all should read what we like and perhaps not dismiss what we think we will not like before at least tasting it.

Yes, if course. But I find it takes only a sip to tell me that the brew is pleasant or bitter. A paragraph or two is usually enough, though when the writing's good, as it is in Never Mind, it's not at all hard to browse through several pages.I've never before been challenged to come up with a rationale for my reading preferences beyond instinct and intuition. Part of it's certainly good writing, but that makes only the first cut. Beyond that, there are felicity, the voice of someone whose company I like and trust, and, possibly, topics and milieux of interest, though I'm not sure about that. Intelligence, of course. I'm probably pickier than any of you because I'm such a slow reader. You could read five or six books in the time it takes me to finish one. A book has to be exceptional, therefore, not just good. That's a real segregator. One thing that implies is that flaws loom larger for me than for you, and I'm likely to find fault where you see none. It must look thoroughly negative, but I'd like to think it's mainly just hyper-selective.The reason I almost certainly won't read St Aubyn whereas you all probably will has less to do, perhaps, with what feels like his pathological unpleasantness than with the fact that I'd have to be immersed in it for far longer than you would. A long bath versus a quick dip.Sorry to be so focused on me here, but Jean and Ann more or less asked for an explanation. I hope this will do.Quick last thought. Paul's admonishment to at least taste before deciding - or, worse, condemning - is much more easily followed these days because of the option Amazon provides to sample online. That's a wonderful gift.

Bill D. --Yes, it does sound hilarious. Is the father at the end Sam's actual father -- or God? Wouldn't that be a switch -- caring for God the Father!

David --LIke you I'm a slow reader, so I too don't bother with the second-rate. The problem is to find them these days. There are so many authors, and most of them seem to have attended the same writing program.

David, thanks for your response. You may be a slow reader, but you are certainly quick at reading those two paragraphs and getting on here ASAP to dismiss the books discussed as worthless on that basis. Knowing how you reach your conclusions helps me find this habit a little less aggravating.Like Dr. Johnson, I'm a curmudgeon who struggles to be more easily pleased. As someone who freelances a lot and whose talents cannot sustain anything of interest much beyond a couple thousand words, I appreciate the effort of concentration it takes to produce even something of middling worth. I'm not sure that those of us who plow through a book or two a week are necessarily undiscriminating readers. I read a lot of things because I feel I "should": i.e., my students or son are reading them, and it gives me a better bead on what's going on in their world(even if it's the overrated Narnia Chronicles, the dreadful Twilight saga, or the very worst of all, "Winnie the Pooh"); or I want to "keep up" with fictional trends (I'm not sure how Gary Shteyngart has become so celebrated, but maybe I'm just too old to get it).FWIW, April is poetry month, so one of the faculty sends around a poem a day through the e-mail, and he has an extremely good eye/ear. I confess I read poetry at almost no other time unless you count the daily Psalm.

Personally, my preference is for works with characters who are unpleasant. Or perhaps unpleasant isn't the right word for it: maybe nuance requires me to say that a character that is unlikable (maybe just most of the time), and yet whose failings make sense in light of my experience of people and the human condition, seems richer and even more "real" to me.I can't say that I purposefully look for these works, but when I think back over some of my favorite books I can see it. I can also see that they tend to share the feature of a first-person narrator: Malaparte's Kaputt, Von Rezorri's Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (Von Rezorri himself, it seems), Murakami's 69, good ol' Humbert Humbert, etc., etc. I suspect that I prefer the 1st-person perspective because it means that whatever irony or disdain the narrator shows for the protagonist simply adds another layer to the character (almost certainly why I think books like Lolita and Pale Fire outstrip ones like Ada or Despair--the cleverness of Nabokov fades somewhat into the background in favor of the pathology of the character).I like to be uplifted and transformed by art (and a lot of what I've referenced above can do that), but I also accept that art that does not teach, serve as catharsis, or helps advance the spirit--and that perhaps crushes our spirits or reduces our spirits to despair in the face of meaninglessness and absurdity--also has its fair places. It may even undermine itself by teaching truths.

"It may even undermine itself by teaching truths."Abe --I don't think I understand this.

Ann, I suspect Abe may have been saying that even a bad or an unpleasant book may, in spite of itself, lead the reader, in thinking about the issues raised in it, to come to a conclusion that the author didn't intend.

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About the Author

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.