Gotham Diary:
Disturbed
3 February 2012

It’s wintry cold outside again today, but on Wednesday we had our first taste of spring. I was too old and experienced to take it seriously; I knew that it wouldn’t — and shouldn’t — last. But I wasn’t too old to be quickened. The coming of spring occasions so much bosh that I’m almost as frozen as today’s air by the determination not to spout nonsense, but it really did feel, walking my Wednesday rounds, as if I was appreciably more alive that I’d been. I suppose the balmy afternoon was simply reminding me that this would be true anyway: this week, I finally felt that I had emerged, once and for all, from the mineshaft of grief and rhinovirus in which I’d been immured since November.

Exultation didn’t last. Yesterday, there came a dreadful phone call from the bank. I referred the clerk to Kathleen at the office; Kathleen is our banker. I tried to get hold of her myself, but couldn’t; it was lunchtime, and no one answered. For nearly two hours, I simmered in a miserable anxiety that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Then came the call from Kathleen, back from lunch. She had sorted the whole business out in two strokes when she received the redirected call and then gone off to lunch. Unaware that the call was redirected — that I knew anything about what did indeed turn out to be 100% clerical error — she never thought to call me beforehand to say that all was well.

I was still pretty rattled at bedtime. You may be asking if Kathleen possesses a mobile phone. The answer is, Sometimes.

To beguile myself during this agony, I turned to a book, to a series of novels in fact, that I’ve been avoiding since I first heard about it a decade or so ago. Every few years, I would read an enthusiastic review of the latest installment in Edward St Aubyn’s sequence of novels about Patrick Melrose, who it seemed was an even more alter-egoish creation than most. I would read that St Aubyn is darkly funny but also just plain dark about his not-so-fictional world of rude and dissolute epigones of the English aristocracy. No reviewer failed to mention child- and drug-abuse. Not for me, I would think, and another few years would go around before the excitement would bubble up again in the otherwise quiet patch of literary life that’s devoted to beautiful English prose.

For some reason, I imagined the writer to be a weedy neurasthenic, a small and petulant person. Perhaps it was the author photograph that ran with the latest round of reviews — the fifth and final novel, At Last, has just been published, and the previous four have been bound up into a convenient omnibus — that changed my mind about these books. I think that the real Edward St Aubyn looks something like Orson Welles, and I’ve found that he writes with something like Welles’s heroic gusto. There is a wealth of polished detail, but no small-mindedness. Opening the book at random, I come upon this passage from Never Mind, the first of the Melrose books. Eleanor is Patrick’s disorganized and deeply unhappy mother, her mind drifting from her own dinner party.

Eleanor thought about her stepfather barking at her mother across the wastes of English silver, French furniture, and Chinese vases that helped to prevent him from becoming physically violent. This dwarfish and impotent French duke had dedicated his life to the idea that civilization had died in 1789. He nevertheless accepted a ten per cent cut from the dealers who sold pre-revolutionary antiques to his wife. He had forced Mary to seell her mother’s Monets and Bonnards on the ground that they were examples of a decadent art that would never really matter. To him, Mary was the least valuable object in the fastidious museums they inhabited, and when eventually he bullied her to death he felt that he had eliminated the last trace of modernity from his life, except, of course, for the enormous income that now came to him from the sales of a dry-cleaning fluid made in Ohio.

It’s almost as though Hemingway had taken up Waugh. Unthinkable, but there it is. Never Mind goes on in this breezy but infernal way right up to the end. By that point, I’d been put out of my ninety minutes of misery, but I was well-primed to flinch and quail at the frightening scenes of substance abuse that take up most of the first half (anyway) of Bad News, the second volume.

He was so tired, he really must get some sleep. Get some sleep. Fold his wings. But what if George and the others sent somebody to look and they found the sick-spattered basin and hammered on the door of the cubicle. Was there no peace, no resting place? Of course there wasn’t. What an absurd question.