Do not waste your time on Social Questions. What is the matter with the poor is Poverty, what is the matter with the rich is Uselessness.
George Bernard Shaw
Tuesday night, after dinner, the gang – led by Tim (the mathematician who studied at Oxford) discussed the small world of people that governs Britain, the sons and daughters of sons and daughters who have been governing that world for eons. Similar to that group is a small group that’s attended les grands ecoles in France and has governed that country for eons and then there’s the Yale-Harvard-Dartmouth-Wharton-Chicago-Stanford-Georgetown crew that’s been running the U.S. for so long. Chummy.
Another type of small world
On Wednesday Farley and I read from The New Yorker: a profile of Edward St. Aubyn’s prowess in describing a world of wealth, heroin, sexual abuse, psychological cruelty, wealth, more wealth and heroin with sides of coke, etc. The profile fawns not so much over St. Aubyn’s work, but over, well, his relative wealth and the wealth of his relatives, friends and acquaintances as well as his former decadent lifestyle. As quoted by Ian Parker, here is St. Aubyn describing his life as an 18-year old:
I had an income that was actually quite a lot, but I would run out, because I was living in the Pierre [Hotel in New York City] and having five thousand dollars of drugs a week.
St. Aubyn writes in a genre described as
the “misery memoir,” and bookstores [in the U.K.] have “Painful Lives” sections filled with such titles as “Tell Me Why, Mummy” and “Please, Daddy, No.”
The Nicest People
St. Aubyn said that his father sexually assaulted him between the ages of three and a half and eight. According to others, St. Aubyn’s father abused other children and raped his wife. A friend from St. Aubyn’s youth says that in their world
parents were vile to one another. So Lorna and Roger [St. Aubyn’s parents] being vile to one another was no different.
While the now-mature St. Aubyn seems relatively civil and appears not to have carried forward his father’s dangerous behaviors, his friend Oliver James has recalled
how St. Aubyn sometimes reacted, at dinner parties, to a stranger’s careless remark: “A not terribly bright girl might say, ‘Ooh, that’s fun,’ and he would play with her use of language in a way that humiliated her.” He added, “It was like a wolf savaging a sheep. It was absolutely terrifying, and difficult to interfere with.” I later spoke with a woman who had had exactly this experience, in France: “I said something about a book I didn’t really know. He made me feel very young, and very stupid.”
His boorishness isn’t entirely in the distant past. The 2006 Booker Prize was won by Kiran Desai, an Indian novelist (St. Aubyn was in the running). According to Palmer, St. Aubyn included a passage in a later novel which describes
an Indian woman whose book of old recipes gets onto a literary prize’s shortlist by mistake.
Now a parent himself “Teddy” has now placed his acerbic
wit and generosity on the other side of the scale. St. Aubyn described his children as “extraordinarily impressive human beings—they’re funny and they’re interested in education, and they’re open-hearted.”
So really, he’s just like everyone else.
Exquisite Name Dropping
In the profile’s brief 13 pages we meet just a few acquaintances, pals, mates, and relatives such as
- Lady Antonia Fraser (the widow of Harold Pinter) and Tristram Powell, a filmmaker (the son of Anthony Powell, the author of A Dance to the Music of Time)
- his Scottish grandfather, who spent much of the Second World War in Nassau with his friend the Duke of Windsor
- his great-uncle, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a first cousin of Tsar Nicholas II
- His maternal grandmother, Lela Emery, who married Alastair Mackintosh, an amusing and well-connected Scot, whose memoirs describe how, when Lela was in labor with St. Aubyn’s mother, their friend Cole Porter was playing the piano in the next room.
- After a divorce, Lela married the Duc de Talleyrand,
- St. Aubyn’s former wife is now married to “a marquess—below a duke, above an earl”
- “St. Aubyn’s friends were grand, as they largely still are. (Mick Jagger attended the London party for “At Last.”)”
- Earl Spencer, Princess Diana’s much married brother, whose older son is St. Aubyn’s godson
- Oliver James, whose father, an analyst and whose own psychoanalyst had been Anna Freud
- “one friend of his father’s—a former secretary to Winston Churchill, and a war hero—never spoke to St. Aubyn again”
- the Duc de Talleyrand, one of Lorna’s husbands
- Edward spent his school years at her house in Kensington, which was later owned by Dustin Hoffman
- Jerry Hall (Mick Jagger’s ex-) was accompanied to an event or two by an obscure novelist with a troubled history who was labeled “JERRY’S TEDDY BOY” by the tabloids
- St. Aubyn had a son with his partner … a painter who had posed several times for Lucian Freud, and whose mother was a bridesmaid at the Queen’s wedding
- “And then Pierre Matisse gave her an exhibition”
- “St. Aubyn glanced at the paintings, on facing walls, which were by Loren MacIver, a New York painter who was married to a poet named Lloyd Frankenberg”
- “When I asked St. Aubyn a question about the Queen, he said, in a barely audible voice, ‘I really enjoyed my meetings with her. Unlike her sister.'”
So Why Read St. Aubyn?
Palmer writes that St. Aubyn
has written beautifully from the vantage point of self-preserving self-regard, and habits of mind that might be weaknesses in other fiction—a lack of leniency, a certain unresponsiveness toward the world beyond one’s world—become strengths.
St. Aubyn has written a world in which for
Six generations … every single descendant, not just the eldest son, [is] essentially idle.”
Palmer claims that
one can Google one’s way across Lorna St. Aubyn’s family tree and find little evidence of activity beyond astrology, horse-carriage driving, and an upmarket nail salon on West Broadway.