Frogs, toads and despots

Some months ago we were gifted a book of FROG AND TOAD stories, pitched as helping emergent readers. I had never encountered this series before. I was very struck by how the author, Arnold Lobel, working within the constraints of very simple vocabulary, short sentences and sentence repetition, and using simple but evocative illustrations, created a surprising depth of characterisation and feeling. His stories are brief but highly memorable portraits of two distinctive individuals with differing outlooks but a deeply complementary friendship. (I am, for the record, Toad.)

Recently I looked Lobel up and discovered that he was a gay USAmerican man who had lived most of his life in the closet, coming out to his wife and children after a long time, eventually dying of AIDS. The beautiful snapshots of connection found in his fiction were, it’s been speculated, testimonials to his experiences of homosexual tenderness. His feelings were denied ordinary expression and sublimated into extraordinary work.

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Lately I’ve been absorbed in Peter Pomerantsev’s NOTHING IS TRUE AND EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE, an account of the contortions and confusions of media and political thought under Putin. It is both horribly, fascinatingly weird and also (for Singapore’s liberals and democrats) a little familiar.

It feels good to be reading again. I’ve done exceptionally poorly on the books front this year so far, largely because I find it hard to have more than one book going at a time, and for ages I’d been stuck on Marlon James’ A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS. I finally gave up somewhere around 150 pages in. I can sort of see why it’s reckoned good, but I just didn’t want to deal any longer with the reptition, the lack of forward momentum and the numbing brutality – which kept putting me in mind, perhaps unfairly, of the ‘wot u starin at’ send-up Edward St Aubyn created in LOST FOR WORDS. I’m sure some unflattering inferences can be drawn from the fact that I went from struggling with James’ mode of violence to finding delicious relief in revisiting the sterile bitchiness of the world of Patrick Melrose, but it is what it is.

Quick thoughts on the Patrick Melrose trilogy

Cover of Some Hope by Edward St Aubyn I’ve been working on a piece for The F Word about the fiction I’ve most enjoyed in 2013. The process reminded me of some thoughts I’d posted to Facebook in 2011, about my encounter in that year with the darkly comic and deeply affecting Patrick Melrose trilogy by Edward St Aubyn.  I thought I’d reproduce some of it here.

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Anyway, the Patrick Melrose books. I suppose you could say they’re part social satire on the British upper classes, and part misery memoir, but that seems far too glib. In some ways they seem like perfect candidates for the next tedious incarnation of the indefatiguable Fond Memories of Vagina (henceforth “FMV”), centring as they do on a rich, straight, British upper-class, middle-aged (in the second and third books), self-absorbed and relentlessly self-destructive misanthrope with a small philosophical bent. But these books don’t fall into that shuffling zombie trap because they are not only keenly aware of, but actually about, the reality and significance of human cruelty and human kindness. Patrick Melrose is not presented smugly; his detachment and selfishness are not given the subtle glamour or tint of tragic superiority so central to FMV (see also: every book, ever, by Michel Houellebecq). Melrose – and the books about him – have the humility to long for hope.

The specific hope (and fear) at the heart of this trilogy is that of family. I see the text as working through the terror that Philip Larkin is somehow unavoidably right: “Man hands on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf.” Patrick Melrose, for all his social privilege, endures an appalling childhood, and battles the lifelong possibility that his self will always orbit his parents’ personalities, unable ever to escape the deforming gravitational pull of their abuse. When his father dies he thinks:

The thought that had obsessed him the night before cut into his trance. It was intolerable: his father had cheated him again. The bastard had deprived him of the chance to transform his ancient terror and his unwilling admiration into contemputuous pity for the boring and toothless old man he had become. And yet Patrick found himself sucked towards his father’s death by a stronger habit of emulation than he could reasonably bear. Death was always, of course, a temptation; but now it seemed like a temptation to obey. On top of its power to strike a decadent or defiant posture in the endless vaudeville of youth, on top of the familiar lure of raw violence and self-destruction, it had taken on the aspect of conformity, like going into the family business. Really, it had all the options covered.

It is in his relationship with his own children that Melrose finds the stakes raised – will his “habit of emulation” lead him, not to the particular sadism and neglect evinced by his own parents, but to pass on some of their effects anyway? – and also glimpses the possibility of genuine escape. The books chart his journey towards that possibility.

The trilogy is also – despite my long-faced blather – extremely funny. St Aubyn revels in, and demonstrates, the pleasures of arch cynicism, at the same time as he warns of its dangers. This enlarged consciousness – the playing with impulses and ideas and their opposites – makes the text both comedic and rich, something shown off particularly well in the deft dinner party juggling of multiple, clashing personalities and perspectives:

‘Why do you think it’s superior to be amoral?’ Anne asked Nicholas.

‘It’s not a question of being superior,’ he said, exposing his cavernous nostrils to Anne. ‘It just springs from a desire not to be a bore or a prig.’

‘Everything about Nicholas is superior,’ said David, ‘and even if he were a bore or a prig, I’m sure he would be a superior one.’

‘Thank you, David,’ said Nicholas with determined complacency.

‘Only in the English language,’ said Victor, ‘can one be “a bore”, like being a lawyer or a cook, making boredom into a profession – in other languages a person is simply boring, a temporary state of affairs. The question is, I suppose, whether this points to a greater intolerance towards boring people, or an especially intense quality of boredom among the English.’

It’s because you’re such a bunch of boring old farts, thought Bridget.

From my first reading of them, the books hit a really clunky note only once: in an extended passage in Mother’s Milk which goes off on one, for several pages, about ha ha, isn’t it funny, American people are so fat, doesn’t that demonstrate something profoundly problematic about them?, fat fat fat. It’s a jarringly small-minded and pedestrian offering which would be standard fare in FMV but seems utterly out of place in a series otherwise written with such grace.