Edward St Aubyn is surely the most scintillating writer of English prose that we have. He is, as has predictably been suggested, an heir to Waugh, though thankfully without the Catholic bile or waspish snobbery. But the sheer rhythmic beauty and consistent brilliance of his writing is something of a miracle. One reads on, almost expecting him to teeter and trip from the highwire act of his meticulous prose, as stunning sentence after sentence go by, and he never once does.
This could be exhausting in a lesser writer, or merely irritating. Believe me, it isn`t. His novels, at least the five in the now-ended Melrose saga, dance by on a limpid river of `mots justes`, a stream of perfectly chosen words and phrases to die for.
At first glance, St Aubyn may seem a snob. Don`t be fooled. Waugh, however great a writer, was indeed a wilful snob; St Aubyn writes about snobbery. And boy, does he nail it! He had himself been given the keys to the kingdom, lost them, found they fitted some dubious locks, and returned from several seasons in hell to tell us what he`s seen and heard. The reason one gratefully reads on is the hilarity of his pen-portraits of the dragons and monsters he has met on his picaresque journey through a traumatised life (and, make no mistake, this is fictionalised autobiography) as well as the joy of perfect prose so unrelentingly rendered for page after page.
At Last, which is set, amid flashbacks to earlier times, at the funeral of his impossible mother Eleanor, forms a mournful coda to the story played out in the previous four novels in the sequence. I wouldn`t start with this book, but rather go back to the beginning of this glorious handful of five brief masterpieces: the novel Never Mind, then onto Bad News, Some Hope, and the magisterial (and Booker-nominated - all I can say is something bloody good must have won that year) Mother`s Milk, all of which are pitch-perfect, masterly, essential contemporary novels.
I could open any page of At Last and find a quotable phrase or sentence to show the deftness of the author`s style. The opening of Chapter One will do for a start:
`Surprised to see me?` said Nicholas Pratt, planting his walking stick on the crematorium carpet and fixing Patrick with a look of slightly aimless defiance, a habit no longer useful but too late to change.
Aimless defiance! Immediately you know not only exactly what he means, but, coupled with the walking stick and the vague air of camp, something of the irrepressible character of Nicholas, one of fiction`s most deliciously vile grotesques, saved by his Wildean wit and coruscating scorn for - well, most things, actually.
Startling phrases, coupled with St Aubyn`s godlike syntax, constantly leap from the page as, slack-jawed, one reads on:
Nicholas hobbled off with no pretence that he required any response other than silent fascination.
She stood in the doorway looking exhausted by her own haughtiness...
He inhaled the frosty, invigorating air of contempt flooding in from the window smashed by Fleur`s impertinent question.
She was like a spider`s web, trembling at the slightest touch, but indifferent to the light that made its threads shine in the wet grass.
The whole novel aches and groans with the pellucid prose of a master. But the funny thing is - and his books, despite the viscerally real traumas they describe, are howlingly funny - the writing is never superficial or self-conscious, never once `clever` for its own sake. In fact, each of the novels in the Melrose saga is full of a sad wisdom, the shining prose barely hiding storm-clouds of pain and regret.
The final pages of At Last are cathartic in a low-key way, and as moving as anything the author has written. They are a most fitting, open-ended finale to a series of novels which, the more they are read, will in time surely be seen as one of the glories of the literature of our age. A Comedy of Manners indeed.
I say to anyone who loves good writing: read all five of these wonderful books in sequence. At Last will seem like the icing on a richly satisfying cake.