Edward St. Aubyn, Never Mind (The Patrick Melrose Novels) (2003)
If you want to talk about books with great puff quotes, it’s pretty hard to ignore this new edition of the Patrick Melrose novels; here are a few samples:
“Rich, acerbic comedy … philosophical density” -Zadie Smith
“A masterwork for the twenty-first century, written by one of the great prose stylists in England” -Alice Sebold
“Acidic humour, stiletto-sharp” -Francine Prose
“The most brilliant English novelist of his generation” -Alan Hollinghurst
“Perversely funny” –People magazine
With accolades from everyone from Zadie Smith to People magazine, you know you’re in the presence of greatness, or at least a reasonable facsimile.
This edition of the first four novels in the series, released to coincide with the hardcover publication of the fifth book, At Last, seems to indicate St. Aubyn’s star is rising in North America – he’s certainly trendy, appearing in The Millions Hall of Fame (scroll down to December 2012) and in a recent NYT Book Review interview (his response to the “literary dinner party” question is hilariously pretentious). He was even interviewed recently by Eleanor Wachtel on Canada’s own CBC. (Alas, the subject of his attitude toward Canada is not raised, but it’s worth listening just to hear his drowsy, aristocratic drawl.)
Never Mind, the first novel in the original Patrick Melrose trilogy, takes place at a country house in Lacoste, France and covers a single day – the day 5-year-old Patrick is raped by his father for the first time, and his parents host a dinner party. The characters are drawn from the very upper reaches of English society, and they mainly fall into two categories: ciphers of cruelty (Patrick’s father David being the main example) or self-loathing victims (his mother, Eleanor, is the central type here). The others either follow David in attempting to humiliate people, or follow Eleanor in enduring the humiliations piled on them.
The writing is exquisite: richly metaphorical, and with subtle shifts in tone and diction as the omniscient third-person narration moves between characters. There is a particular flavour to the chapters dealing with Patrick that captures something of the nature of childhood perception without going to the extent of, say, the opening paragraphs of Joyce’s Portrait. (St. Aubyn uses a more extreme version of this technique again, to remarkable effect, in the opening pages of Mother’s Milk, told from the perspective of Patrick’s son Robert, also five at the beginning of that novel.)
So in the case of Never Mind, the accolades quoted above are certainly deserved. But why does all St. Aubyn’s subtlety, all his command of metaphor and psychological insight, desert him when it comes to the subject of Canada? Does our nation bring out the worst in even the best writers? Here is the relevant passage, dialogue between Anne, an American, and her lover, the English philosopher and academic Victor Eisen as they prepare to go to the dinner party at the Melrose’s house:
Anne came out of the house carrying two glasses of orange juice. She gave one to Victor.
“What were you thinking?” she asked.
“Whether you would be the same person in another body,” lied Victor.
“Well, ask yourself, would you be nibbling my toes if I looked like a Canadian lumberjack?”
“If I knew it was you inside,” said Victor loyally.
“Inside the steel-capped boots?”
I don’t know if one could come up with a more trite and clichéd view of Canada if one set out to do so. Lumberjacks – really? We aren’t all lumberjacks in (steel-toed, by the way, not steel-capped – that sounds so high fashion, somehow) boots.
And how Canadian are lumberjacks, anyway? Here’s the relevant entry from the Oxford Canadian Dictionary:
lumberjack n. N. Amer. esp. hist. = LOGGER.
The entry immediately following, however, is this:
lumberjack jacket n. Cdn (also lumberjacket) a jacket, usu. of warm, red and black checked material, originally worn by loggers.
So lumberjack is a North American word; there’s nothing intrinsically Canadian about it – though we can, apparently, take credit for lumberjack jackets, a.k.a. “lumberjackets”. (Just as an aside, here’s Canadian Ryan Gosling fulfilling his birthright by making the lumberjacket look good. Wow Canada!) But Anne takes the trouble to specify a “Canadian lumberjack” when teasing Victor about nibbling her toes. Why? Are Canadian lumberjacks considered particularly unattractive?
And how, finally, to interpret this rather pathetic slide into cultural obliviousness? The kindest view to take is that St. Aubyn is aware of the cliché, and uses it to characterize Anne as an American who trades in casual stereotypes about her fellow North Americans. (Perhaps she does think Canadian lumberjacks are less attractive than their American brethren.) And yet Anne is one of the few remotely likeable characters in the book, and it seems a shame to give up on her so easily.
The alternative is to attribute the cliché to St. Aubyn himself; as a member of the British aristocracy, perhaps this is how he thinks of Canada – good enough for an occasional lumberjack joke, but that’s about it.
He’s certainly not the only Englishman to view Canada this way:
From colonial times through Monty Python to Edward St. Aubyn, it appears the British view of Canada hasn’t changed much. Sad to think that, despite all our efforts, we’ve made so little progress in the minds of our former overlords. To them, we’re still – and perhaps will always be – literally the “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”