This deliciously irreverent novel, Edward St. Aubyn’s eighth, will delight his admirers on this side of the Atlantic, but such being the nature of literary justice it must be acknowledged that their numbers are small. St. Aubyn, now in his mid-50s, has been widely praised in his native England and has acquired something of a following there — indeed, just the other day “Lost for Words” was announced as the 2014 winner of the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction — but in the United States his books have been available primarily in trade paperbacks (from the excellent Picador imprint) and do not seem to have sold especially well except among members of his ardently loyal cult.
I count myself among its members, but through no particular acuity or virtue of my own. About a year ago an old friend whose literary judgment I value asked if I had read St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. When I admitted that not merely had I not read them, I had never heard of them, he urged me to correct matters at once. This I did, and to my everlasting joy. Patrick Melrose, the author’s very thinly disguised autobiographical self, is a willfully self-destructive yet somehow buoyant young man who progresses through these five novels from an unhappy childhood under the tutelage of a sublimely insensitive father through drug addiction, fragile recovery and the beginnings of a new life. The novels are at times quite hilarious — a cocktail party in “Some Hope,” Volume 3 of the set, is a minor classic — and at others sobering. At moments they recall Wodehouse, at others Waugh, but they are always entirely sui generis, elegantly written, witty and adult.
St. Aubyn apparently has put Patrick Melrose behind him — “At Last,” the fifth volume, was published in this country two years ago — but his voice has lost none of its distinctiveness as he has ventured into new territory. “Lost for Words” is a withering satire of the vicious, back-stabbing process out of which literary prize winners emerge, most particularly the process by which Britain’s Man Booker Prizes are chosen, a process about which St. Aubyn has personal knowledge as one of his novels, “Mother’s Milk,” was shortlisted for the Booker in 2006. In St. Aubyn’s hands, the Booker becomes the Elysian Prize, sponsored by and named after “a highly innovative but controversial agricultural company” whose products include “some of the world’s most radical herbicides and pesticides, and [it] was a leader in the field of genetically modified crops, crossing wheat with Arctic cod to make it frost resistant, or lemons with bullet ants to give them extra zest.”
In serious need of an image makeover, Elysian wrapped itself in the cloak of literature, rather in the manner of the Man Group, the high-powered investment company that took over the Booker Prize a dozen years ago. Now it is time for the latest Elysian winner to be chosen, a task that falls to the jury’s new chairman, Malcolm Craig, who had briefly been undersecretary of state for Scotland until “a reckless speech about Scottish independence” cost him his job. Now he commands a jury that includes Jo Cross, “a well-known columnist and media personality”; Vanessa Shaw, the obligatory “Oxbridge academic”; Penny Feathers, formerly of the Foreign Office and now an author manqué; and Tobias Benedict, “an actor Malcolm had never heard of.”
Any author writing in English in one of the Commonwealth countries is eligible for the prize, which, unlike its counterpart in the United States, the National Book Award, actually amounts to something. The winning work of fiction may be nothing more than a beneficiary of literary politics at its smallest and meanest, but the prize ceremony is broadcast on television after a prolonged build-up, the cumulative effect of which is to make the winner well-to-do not merely because of the prize money but because of the increased sales that follow.
So it goes without saying that competition for the Elysian is cutthroat, and the more mediocre the novelist and his or her book, the more determined the throat-cutting. Among the books whose authors have dreams of Elysian glory are “wot u starin at,” purportedly a work of “gritty social realism” set in Scotland (its author turns out to be “a well-paid lecturer in medieval love poetry at Edinburgh University”); “The Frozen Torrent,” “a bildungsroman of impeccable anguish and undisguised autobiographical origin”; “The Mulberry Elephant,” the work of “an Indian grandee who had stooped to conquer English letters”; and “All the World’s a Stage,” “written by a young New Zealander from the point of view of William Shakespeare.” It had been expected that another competitor would be the latest novel by the entirely lovely and serially promiscuous Katherine Burns, but somehow her publisher instead delivered to the jury the manuscript of a cookbook — “cookery book,” as the Brits have it — assembled by the elderly Indian aunt of the author of “The Mulberry Elephant.”
As the jurors lumber and squabble their way first to the Long List of nominees, then to the Short List, then at last to the ultimate victor, St. Aubyn has a splendid time satirizing just about every kind of fiction being written in English these days, from the pseudo-streetwise “wot u starin at” to the fey “All the World’s a Stage.” In the latter the strumpet Mistress Lucretia asks Will Shakespeare, “Where is that sonnet you promised me?” to which he replies, “Why, ’tis in my codpiece, for a man is a fool who keeps not a poem in his codpiece, and a codpiece that hath no poem in it is indeed a foolish codpiece.” Confronted with this wealth of literary riches, the jury scarcely knows what to do, leaving poor Vanessa Shaw, the Oxbridge lady, at a loss. Malcolm listens to her with pity:
“He could hear Vanessa’s exasperation as she gradually realized that the majority of her so-called ‘literary’ novels were not going to make it on to the Short List. She kept trying to argue that the other novels lacked the qualities that characterized a work of literature: ‘depth, beauty, structural integrity, and an ability to revive our tired imaginations with the precision of its language.’ The poor woman didn’t seem to realize that what counted in the adult world was working out compromises between actual members of a committee that reflected the forces at work in the wider society, like Parliament in relation to the nation as a whole. Vanessa had taken on the role of a doomed backbencher, making speeches to an empty chamber about values that simply had no place in the modern world. Frankly, he felt rather sorry for her.”
That’s one of the two serious arguments that lie behind St. Aubyn’s satire. The other comes from an unlikely source, Liu Ping Wo, “Chairman of Shanghai Global Assets, the new owners of the Elysian Group.” Making conversation, one of the jurors asks him what direction the prize should take. He replies: “It’s a prize for literature. I hope it will go in the direction of literature. My wife takes a great interest in these things. Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent. Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in a commonplace language, can really be compared, but my wife thinks that ‘least mediocre of the mediocre’ is a discouraging title for a prize.”
Wo permits himself a small laugh at that, but of course he is exactly right. Literary prizes can be stacked in any number of directions, but true excellence and originality are only infrequently among them.
LOST FOR WORDS
By Edward St. Aubyn
Farrar Straus Giroux. 261 pp. $26