Class has been the greatest concern of the English novel: it is doubtful whether the form, as practiced in England, will ever escape it. To be sure, we find themes of class almost everywhere: in America, an allegedly classless society, novels such as The Human Stain, Underworld, or Then We Came to the End can be profitably read as, among other things, meditations on class. Or think of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, or any of Henry James’s novels, or The Age of Innocence.

But what overwhelmingly characterizes the English novel—and, one could reasonably argue, English culture, society, and mentality—is the centrality, indeed the inescapability, of class. Consider Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Less obviously, but in oblique and vital ways, class inflects novels as disparate as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Siege of Krishnapur, Money, and Atonement. The English novel of the last quarter century reminds us of yet another of Tony Blair’s fatuous declarations, that England is a “classless society” where the “class struggle is over.”

Edward St. Aubyn, born in 1960, is the most fascinating of contemporary literary investigators into the phenomenon and experience of class. His first published novels were Never Mind and Bad News in 1992, followed in 1994 by Some Hope, the third installment in what would come to be known prematurely as “The Patrick Melrose Trilogy,” after its central character. Prematurely, because the trilogy became a quartet with the publication of Mother’s Milk in 2006. In between the Patrick Melrose books, St. Aubyn wrote two other novels: On the Edge (1998), a scintillating, witty satire on New Age mumbo-jumbo that also manages to be a serious (and seriously intelligent) dissertation on consciousness and the nature of the mind; and the curious experiment A Clue to the Exit (2000). These two novels arise from a central concern sounded repeatedly in the quartet, that of consciousness and embodiment, and give St. Aubyn’s oeuvre a remarkable unity, approaching almost a programmatical poetics.

Given the comparative paucity of grand projects in English literature (no Á la recherche du temps perdu, no The Man Without Qualities, no Joseph and His Brothers, no Roth, no Dos Passos), it is surprising to find a contemporary writer inaugurating his literary career with two volumes of what is effectively a bildungsroman. Never Mind opens in the village of Lacoste in southern France and plays out over the course of one day and evening. Its central character is not Patrick Melrose, who is five years old in this novel, but his father David. David is a frightening figure in English fiction. A savagely bitter, cruel, and unhappy sadist living off and steadily depleting his American wife Eleanor’s considerable wealth, he has reduced her to a jittery, scared, alcoholic wreck. Patrick is himself the product of his father’s violence, in this case a horrifying marital rape. David has either frittered away or thought nothing much to make of his talents in life, chief of which is a gift for music.

What makes David disdain the effort necessary to cultivate a talent? Is it his individual cast of personality, or is it a feature of the particular class he inhabits, a privileged class that prides itself on its absolute indolence and parasitism and looks down on work as vulgar? The Italian Renaissance court, and those influenced by it in England at the time, promoted a quality called sprezzatura, the art of hiding the effort required to master a skill. David Melrose and some of the other figures in the quartet—most notably Nicholas Pratt, aptly named and witheringly described as having become a self-parody “without going to the trouble of acquiring a self first”—practice a kind of truncated version of sprezzatura, with the artistry and achievement bit lopped off. In a later book, the dying David repeatedly tells Patrick, in moments of great anguish, to cultivate whatever talents he may possess, that life will otherwise leave him stranded and empty, deprived of a core of meaning.

The action of Never Mind culminates in a dinner party, and the stories of the two visting couples—Victor Eisen and Anne Moore, Nicholas Pratt and Bridget Watson-Scott—are interwoven into the stories of the Melroses. But the chief event of the day—and the quartet—is the rape of five-year-old Patrick by his father just before lunch. Like all good writers, St. Aubyn is admirably restrained in providing clear reasons for this atrocity, but a hint emerges in David’s theories of child-rearing:

Children were weak and ignorant miniature adults who should be given every incentive to correct their weakness and their ignorance. Like King Chaka, the great Zulu warrior, who made his troops stamp thorn bushes into the ground in order to harden their feet . . . he was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son.

Another hint, not so much a motive as a post-hoc explanation that runs through David’s mind immediately after the act, is not such a distant cousin to the notion of fatherhood we’ve just seen: “As to this latest episode, he hadn’t done anything medically dangerous . . . nothing that would not happen to the boy at school in due course. If he had committed any crime, it was to set about his son’s education too assiduously.”

That word “gentlemen,” used by General Melrose, is a straight path into this poisonous world, a world that runs exclusively on snobbery, greed, gossip, cruelty, privilege, and extreme vapidity.

If the subsequent novels are a relentless unfolding of the ways this rape—the abuse continues for three years, until Patrick decides to confront his father at the age of eight—fissures Patrick’s life, they are equally concerned with the slow drip of poison from generation to generation (Philip Larkin’s deepening “coastal shelf”) and any possibility of stanching that flow. There is a glimpse of this in David’s own childhood and adolescence. Disinherited by his father for daring to suggest that he wanted to be a doctor, David, too, is the son of a sadist. General Melrose held that “shooting men and animals were the occupations of a gentleman, tending their wounds the business of middle-class quacks.” Later, in Some Hope, Patrick confides in Anne Eisen (this is Anne Moore from Never Mind, who is now married to Victor Eisen) a revealing anecdote about his father’s childhood that he ran across in his grandmother’s wartime diary:

‘After pages of gossip and a long passage about how marvellously they’d managed to keep up the standards at some large country house, defying the Kaiser with the perfection of their cucumber sandwiches, there are two short sentences: “Geoffrey wounded again”, about her husband in the trenches, and “David has rickets”, about her son in prep school. Presumably he was not just suffering from malnutrition, but being assaulted by pedophiliac schoolmasters and beaten by older boys. This very traditional combination of maternal coldness and official perversion helped to make him the splendid man he turned into . . .’

That word “gentlemen,” used by General Melrose, is a straight path into this poisonous world, a world that runs exclusively on snobbery, greed, gossip, cruelty, privilege, and extreme vapidity. As Patrick’s best friend, Johnny Hall, comments in Some Hope:

‘They’re the last Marxists . . . . the last people who believe that class is a total explanation. Long after that doctrine has been abandoned in Moscow and Peking it will continue to flourish under the marquees of England. Although most of them have the courage of a half-eaten worm . . . and the intellectual vigor of dead sheep, they are the true heirs of Marx and Lenin.’

St. Aubyn’s prose reaches a crescendo of note-perfect viciousness when he writes about the members of the braying classes. Tellingly, it is the one intelligent outsider in Never Mind—the American Anne Moore, who has nothing invested in this world of “pieces of gossip, or insincere remarks, or irrelevant puns, or anything that dispelled the possibility of seriousness”—who articulates his contempt.

The novels, however, are not some innocuous version of Louis Quatorze’s court; rather, they are a ruthless dissection of a particularly English kind of behavior. The compulsion to be facetious comes at a very real cost, and throughout the first three novels St. Aubyn weighs this cost to any number of characters who people this world—especially the outsiders. Unlike Anne, many lack the clarity and detachment to see through this world. Among others, characters like Bridget, an airhead social climber who wants an entrance into the world of entitlement and riches, and Eleanor and Bridget’s mother, dazzled by the aristocracy and treated even by her daughter with barely concealed contempt, are the real victims of this kind of sociality. It is a loathsome world, where amorality is a trifling price to avoid being taken as a bore or a prig.

The style with which St. Aubyn skewers this world draws on a coruscating repertoire. There is Wildean wit; of an unsavory arriviste, David comments:

He’s desperately fashionable and consequently knows more about people he has never met than he does about anything else.

There is barbed acuity; a definition of charm:

being malicious about everybody except the person you are with, who then glows with the privilege of exemption.

St. Aubyn has a prodigious facility with similes and metaphors; there are two unforgettable descriptions of the face of the aging George Watson. One notes

‘that his skin is like the cracked varnish on Old Masters,’

the other compares it to

‘a crème brulée after the first blow of the spoon, all covered in little cracks.’

And the books contain no shortage of lambent descriptive prose; an account from Bad News, a novel about Patrick’s drug addiction, of a disappointing coke hit reads:

Although his hands were shaking and his heart was pounding, he had missed that blissful fainting sensation, that heartbreaking moment, as compressed as the autobiography of a drowning man, but as elusive and intimate as the smell of a flower.

It is a style at once saturated with controlled hatred and anger and soaring in its beauty—prose endowed with the meticulousness of a surgeon’s steel.

In Bad News his style becomes richer, the sentences heavier, more exquisite and ornamented, in keeping with the minute attention to the skittering interiority and altered consciousness that drugs produce. You would have to search very hard, and in vain, to find such a loving description of a drug in Kerouac or Ballard or Leary or anyone, really:

Heroin was the only thing that really worked, the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster’s wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favorite cushion. It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm.

But style is not just a matter of word choice or creating scrupulously crafted sentences with their precise and perfect meanings. It is also the vision the writer brings to bear upon the nature and configuration of the world. Style is a moral instrument because the impulse to narrative is primarily a moral impulse. Paraphrasing Hermann Broch, Milan Kundera writes in The Art of the Novel, “The sole raison d'être of a novel is to discover what only the novel can discover. A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality.” What if style is also the novel’s morality? In the quartet, morality takes a binary form. Both Never Mind and Some Hope are vicious novels. The depths of their misanthropy, especially the first book’s, are staggering: a steady, corrosive jet of loathing (and self-loathing in Bad News) eats into everything. Yet they are intensely moral novels: in directing his seemingly inexhaustible capacity for hatred toward his characters, St. Aubyn articulates the normative and ethical alternatives that justify his venom.

Good satire on the privileged classes has been done before. What distinguishes St. Aubyn’s anatomy of this class is that he uses the class novel to enact its own literary redemption rather than settling for satire alone. A moral core is always inherent in satire, but, unsatisfied with attacking, St. Aubyn separates morality from its class valences and relocates it in the quartet’s central quest for redemption: first, in Patrick’s attempts at liberation from self-loathing and anger, of which his drug addiction is such a potent manifestation, and second, in Patrick’s devising an ethics of conduct for his behavior and eventually putting an end to the damage bequeathed from generation to generation.

To make palpable the upturn in the curve of Patrick’s life, it is imperative that we witness its lowest point, and Bad News lives up to its name. It is set in 1982, seventeen years after the events of Never Mind. Following St. Aubyn’s remarkable adherence to a sort of Aristotelian unity of time, Bad News unfolds over two days in New York, where David Melrose has died and Patrick arrives to collect his father’s ashes.

Twenty-two years old, Patrick is now a raging junkie, pushing himself to the point of near-obliteration with his usual favorite. He begins by mainlining coke, which gives him the “opportunity to experience the arctic landscape of pure terror,” which itself is the “price he had to pay for the first heartbreaking wave of pleasure when consciousness seemed to burst out, like white blossoms, along the branches of every nerve.” He follows the coke with hits of heroin to bring himself down when the terror gets out of control. But he’s not above pumping himself up with cocktails of Quaaludes and beauty (speed) when he cannot get his hands on coke and heroin (and even when he can). He is conscious of his body as “a battleground strewn with the carnage of internarcotic wars” and the descriptions of botched fixes are so precise and so visceral that you have to look away from the page and gulp a few times to regain your nerve or fight down your queasiness.

There is a harrowing chapter, written almost like a play, on Patrick’s possession by the various figures and voices who live inside his head and who manically and unremittingly chatter away their lines while he is in the throes of an extreme trip. In the middle of some fine writing, where we can hear every note of the pharmacological symphony that is Patrick’s consciousness, St. Aubyn plants the seeds of something that will come to fruition, gradually, over the next two books in the quartet.

One of the many joys of reading Mother’s Milk is to notice how healthy, how sustaining, how loving Patrick’s relationship with his sons is.

A casual, throwaway detail about Patrick spending some time in a psychiatric ward, at the age of eighteen, suddenly shines a different, more objective light on this ocean of self-destruction in which the young man is drowning. When a prospective girlfriend’s father drawls to Patrick, “A lot of parents in your fawther’s generation just didn’t know how to express their love,” Patrick’s reply comes as a slap: “Cruelty is the opposite of love . . . not just some inarticulate version of it.” It pins down a pithy truth, a truth we did not know Patrick had the nerve to articulate in its pared-down essence, for he is not only eaten up by the drugs but also lacerated by an all-consuming hatred and anger. As he walks down Madison Avenue, carrying the box containing his father’s ashes, he realizes it is the first time he has “been alone with his father for more than ten minutes without being buggered, hit, or insulted.” The attack of rage begins almost immediately:

Bastard. Nobody should do that to anybody else.
        Never mind, never tell. . . .
        Death and destruction. Buildings swallowed by flame as he passed. Windows shattering at a glance. An inaudible jugular-bursting scream. No prisoners.
        ‘Death and destruction’, he muttered.

Throughout Bad News, Patrick keeps getting sucked into the vortex of such roiling anger and loathing. Only after the fever reached its height could the rehabilitation begin.

• • •

Set eight years after Bad News, Some Hope contains the best of St. Aubyn’s salvos against the English upper classes and the beginnings of redemption. The greater part of the novel is given to gleefully disecting the rotten core of a certain stripe of Englishness and “the effortless nullity of [the] lives” of this circus of snobs as they congregate to celebrate the birthday party of the rich toff Sonny Gravesend. The guest of honor, Princess Margaret, is rendered in such a mordant portrait that St. Aubyn easily takes his place among the luminaries of English satire: Dryden, Pope, Swift, and the forgotten Robert Smith Surtees, the nineteenth-century writer whose Jorrocks’s Jaunts and Jollities is David Melrose’s comfortable post-prandial reading matter after he first rapes his son in Never Mind.

Yet another American, Tom Charles, sums up this reprehensible class with dismissiveness when he describes Sonny as “one of those Englishmen with plenty of ‘background’ and not a hell of a lot going on in the foreground.” Patrick, while initially inseparable from this upper-crust world’s armory of self-regard—irony, the scathing put-down, snobbery, ridicule—discovers an ethos and an ethics in radical contrast to those of this society and in support of his own liberation from it.

Some Hope, with great daring, makes its moral concern transparent from the very first page. The thirty-year-old Patrick is shocked at hearing the word “mercy” so many times over the course of a production of Measure for Measure. The occasion provides an interpretive parameter—for mercy for himself and his dead father would be the only way out for Patrick—that St. Aubyn will deepen in this and the next novel. The thoughts on mercy soon lead to a candid reckoning about Patrick’s fears of becoming his father:

Worst of all, as his struggle against drugs grew more successful, he saw how it had masked a struggle not to become like his father. The claim that every man kills the thing he loves seemed to him a wild guess compared with the near certainty of a man turning into the thing he hates. . . . The memory of his father still hypnotized him and drew him like a sleepwalker toward a precipice of unwilling emulation.

While the plot centers on Sonny’s party, to which Patrick is invited, the psychological core of the book is the bigger, more important question of whether, and how, Patrick will attain salvation. He takes the crucial first step by divulging some aspects of his sexual abuse to Johnny Hall while they are both in the village of Little Soddington—note the Jamesian aptness of St. Aubyn’s proper names—for the party.

From the beginning, we understand that, at the very least, Patrick has kicked his drug habit and started studying to become a barrister. But habits of thought and behavior from his past life still somewhat enmesh him. Johnny, who now attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings regularly, is still bothered by Patrick’s “corrosive criticism and drug nostalgia and stylised despair,” while Patrick himself is excruciatingly alive to his desperation “to escape the self-subversion of irony and say what he really meant, but really meaning what only irony could convey.”

The project of Some Hope is really to build a whole self from fragments, or at least prevent further disintegration. The revulsion Patrick feels toward the partygoers—he twice calls them “bacteria”—is the beginning of moral behavior. Patrick possesses a punishing self-awareness that leads him to probe further, more painfully, yielding what can only be called a kind of positivism:

He longed to stop thinking about himself, to stop strip-mining his memories, to stop the introspective and retrospective drift of his thoughts. He wanted to break into a wider world, to learn something, to make a difference. Above all, he wanted to stop being a child without using the cheap disguise of becoming a parent.

It is finally time to test whether the flow of poison to the next generation can be stopped. Mother’s Milk, the final volume, addresses exactly this. But before turning to the quartet’s conclusion, there is the pressing matter of the reckoning between Patrick and his dead father in Some Hope.

As Patrick confides in Johnny and comes to a theoretical understanding of forgiveness—if only arising from a need to free himself from the prison that his life has been so far—something more than forgiveness, more than even redemption arrives in the figure of Bunny Warren. It is the herald of grace. Bunny explains that David saved his life by taking care of him after his wife died. David kept him from drinking himself to death, he “listened with enormous intelligence to hours of black despair” and never used what Bunny told him against him. To Patrick, the account is so out-of-character, so unlike the father who ruined his life, that he first responds with a caustic rejoinder.

Later, Patrick meditates on this thread of salvation in his father and, in some of the most soul-searching pages of the quartet, comes to the realization that the restoration of his self must center not on forgiveness or even understanding, nor on whatever residue of affection and admiration for his father he can excavate from his past. Only by embracing the rivenness in his life—by keeping the dualisms in his head in a precarious balance—can he achieve redemption:

Only when he could hold in balance his hatred and his stunted love, looking on his father with neither pity nor terror but as another being who had not handled his personality especially well; only when he could live with the ambivalence of never forgiving his father for his crimes but allowing himself to be touched by the unhappiness that had produced them as well as the unhappiness they had produced, could he be released, perhaps, into a new life that would enable him to live instead of merely surviving.

In a measure of how much redemption has been achieved, there is an astonishing, hopeful ending to the novel by the side of a frozen lake where swans take wing, and the dazzling metaphorical reaches of the prose come to rest on the last word, and the last feeling, of the book: “elation.”

Does this redemption survive into Patrick’s life twelve years on, when the story of Mother’s Milk begins? Once again, St. Aubyn follows an elegant and stylized time arc: the book is set over four successive Augusts, from 2000 to 2003. The first three are at the property in Provence where Patrick spent his childhood summers and which was the setting of the first novel; the final one in the United States and London. Patrick, forty-two when the book opens, is married to Mary and is father to two children, Robert and baby Thomas. The property in Southern France is not the Melroses’ any more, for Eleanor, to whom it belonged, has gifted it to an Irish shaman, Seamus Dourke, and his New Age organization, called the Transpersonal Foundation.

A broken woman deprived of the faculty of speech after a stroke and confined in a care home, Eleanor has been cheated of her mother’s immense wealth because she left it to her French husband, the impoverished duke Jean de Valençay. What money and property Eleanor had to her name, she has given away to various charities. The same is true of her last remaining possession, this house and surrounding land in Southern France, which has been given away in a typically misguided philanthropic move. St. Aubyn traces the roots of this immensely self-destructive tendency toward charity, unsurprisingly, to Eleanor’s relationship with her mother. In the absence of a functional emotional life, Eleanor suffers from “the great aching bruise of her good intentions” and, living out the common saying, transforms everything around her into the road to hell. Though Eleanor is in a pitiable state—decrepit, empty, finished—it is hard not to sympathize with Patrick’s bitter outrage at being cheated out of his inheritance.

We are still very much in “the flow of poison from one generation to the next.” Yet, one of the many joys of reading Mother’s Milk is to notice how healthy, how sustaining, how loving Patrick’s relationship with his sons is: something real has been gained here, although he worries away at how he may have passed on to the ever-watchful Robert a tension springing from the sheer vigilance he has had to invest in the task of avoiding his parents’ mistakes.

The intergenerational and familial destructiveness is now transposed into different keys, but the emotional calculus between parents and children works out with all the variables in their right (if that word can be allowed in this situation), predictable places. If the first three novels were about a father and son, then this final volume is about mothers and sons, seen mostly through the point of view of a son and father. First, there is the emotionally withdrawn and psychotically selfish Kettle, Mary’s mother. Mary is a moving example of how one can become a loving and kind person by cleaving rigorously to one principle: “I will not become my mother.” Second, Mary’s maternal role has consummately eclipsed her marital one: parenthood really is a blight on something or the other; if it is not destroying children, it is ruining marriages.

Most importantly, there is the relationship between Eleanor and Patrick. Motherhood, St. Aubyn always implied, was a deeply unsuitable role foisted on Eleanor and one she played badly. Think of the savage irony in Never Mind when little Patrick stands outside her bedroom door, hours after being raped, waiting for her to call him in while she sits at her desk writing a large check to the Save the Children Fund. The reference to Dickens is unmistakable, and spelled out explicitly in Mother’s Milk when Patrick and Mary compare Eleanor to a cross between Lear and Mrs. Jellyby of Bleak House. When Robert asks who “Mrs. Jellybean” is, Patrick explains: “She’s a compulsive do-gooder who writes indignant letters about orphans in Africa, while her own children fall into the fireplace at the other end of the drawing room.”

Now in her dotage, Eleanor is so dependent on Patrick that even his formidable reserves of scathing irony tumble to rage. His only hope of deliverance, which would have to originate in “a generosity that was not based on compensation or duty,” is bitterly ironic, too: Eleanor wants him to help her with assisted suicide. Patrick inquires into euthanasia clinics in Switzerland and sets the ball rolling, only to have Eleanor’s perverse childishness sabotage his efforts.

• • •

Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art,” Nabokov wrote of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. That seems an apt description of the Patrick Melrose quartet. The drama of personal redemption runs in tandem with the forward movement of satire. Their concurrence leads to the intimate flow of the meanings and effects of each into the other: the glittering but cold arsenal of irony, self-consciousness, and cleverness itself seems to be in search of a salvation that only a moral, affective quest within the fiction, and not imposed by the writer’s fiat from the outside, can provide. Quite apart from the brilliance of its prose style, the quartet will come to be seen as a seminal work in English fiction for having fashioned an ethical style, pressed into the service of an emotional and moral truthfulness, using yet transcending its vertiginous displays of mere cleverness or self-regarding irony.