Sunday, 22 January 2017

Something I Read - 2017 - No. 1 - Never Mind, by Edward St Aubyn

The secondhand bookshop near me in Brussels is much better than a bookshop for my purposes, because it has more the atmosphere of a library than a bookshop and, as with libraries, the collection of books you find there is wider and more varied than in the average contemporary high street bookshop - perhaps because it is selected without any reference to marketing drives. I suppose that some might argue that secondhand books are by definition rejected books but, given Brussels's shifting population, it is often the case that entire book collections - including not just loathed volumes but old favourites - are simply unloaded when someone moves on.

Anyway, my first choice from the shop this year was Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn, a novel that some reports claim is barely a novel and really a thinly disguised autobiography, in which case, poor Edward St Aubyn.

Whatever it is, reading Never Mind makes you live more vividly, if that makes sense. There is a kind of hyper-realism about some of the descriptions that made me feel as if time had been distilled and I was staring into a clear, pure drop of someone's experience with a magnifying glass in my hand:

"She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth."

Yes, as this example suggests, much of the distorted sense of reality may arise from the obsessive or addictive or troubled nature of the personality being described. But never mind, (ha ha). The person in question, by the way, is a woman who has been so completely subjugated by her husband that she is too afraid to go and comfort her own child if her husband forbids her to. The only place she feels safe is "her car [which] was like a consulate in a strange city, and she moved towards it with the urgency of a robbed tourist."

The merciless clarity the narrator applies to his characters is matched by superb precision. The central figure, David, is drawn with the kind of unflattering truthfulness that he himself would have to applaud:

"His face was astonishingly handsome. Its faultlessness was its only flaw; it was the blueprint of a face and had an uninhabited feeling to it ... he wore an inattentive expression, until he spotted another person's vulnerability. Then the look in his eyes hardened like a flexed muscle."

I suppose one could argue that there is little room left there for the reader to draw his own conclusions about whether David is a delightful human being, but why should a writer of fiction leave the reader entirely to his own devices in making judgments about the characters he has created?

What story there is revolves around the unequal battle between Patrick, David's small son, and David. The events we are told of are unspeakable and unflinchingly portrayed. Particularly admirably, Patrick is not presented as an angelic creature, standing, small and alone, against the incarnation of evil. Patrick is flawed and David is not entirely - although very nearly entirely - without redemptive qualities.

While the material of the book is almost unbearable, it is also funny - as when one figure is described as having "the sullen air of a man who looks forward to strangling poultry" and two characters are shown at the end of a plane journey, starting "to clank their way down a flight of metal steps, caught between the air crew who pretended to be sorry at their departure and the ground crew who pretended to be pleased by their arrival" - and full of astonishing insight about human weakness and cruelty. The prose is so perfect that, despite the unpleasantness of most of the characters and the utterly shocking nature of some of the events, I read the whole thing in one go and will happily read the next volumes in the series, should anyone choose to take them down the Chaussée de Waterloo and flog them to Pêle Mêle.

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