Politics of the pen

Politics of the pen

Politics of the pen

In ‘Lost for Words’, Edward St Aubyn takes a break from painful autobiographical novels for a thinly veiled satire of the Man Booker Prize. Michiko Kakutani reviews the book.

In recounting the story of his semi-autobiographical hero, Patrick Melrose, in a series of interlinked novels (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last), Edward St Aubyn established himself as a dazzling writer with an utterly distinctive voice. The harrowing story of Patrick’s life — from being raped at five by his monstrous father, to his years as a heroin addict, to his achievement of a measure of perspective and peace in middle age — was simultaneously heartbreaking and funny, devastatingly sad and cuttingly acerbic: painful experience transmuted into art through beautifully hammered, aphoristic prose.

His new novel, Lost for Words, is a different sort of book: a satirical romp that showcases just one octave of St Aubyn’s keyboard of gifts: his Waugh-like talent for comedy and his unsparing eye for people’s pretensions and self-delusions.In the Melrose novels, the world that St Aubyn so expertly skewered was the high-altitude one of British aristos — preening, narcissistic and obsessed with class. In Lost for Words, it’s the world of literary politics — preening, narcissistic and obsessed with status.

More specifically, the object of satire here is book awards: most notably, the well-known Man Booker Prize, depicted in barely disguised terms as the Elysian Prize. British newspaper writers have suggested that Lost for Words is actually a riposte or act of revenge on the part of St Aubyn, noting that his critically acclaimed 2006 novel, Mother’s Milk, was a front-runner for the Man Booker Prize that year, only to be passed over for The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai, and that his similarly acclaimed At Last did not even make the Booker’s 2011 longlist. (In a twist the author might enjoy, Lost for Words has just been awarded the 2014 Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction.)

Both the judges on the panel for the Elysian Prize and the hopeful authors of submitted books are sent up here with a light, wicked hand reminiscent at once of Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark. The chairman of the prize committee is an obscure member of Parliament named Malcolm Craig, who accepts the post out of boredom with his day job and the hopes that it might secure him “a decent amount of public attention.”

“We want to take the marginalised, and the politically repressed voices from the periphery,” he says, “from what we might call the Outer Hebrides of the literary scenes, and bring them center stage.”

Another judge, Jo Cross, is a high-profile columnist who writes about her husband and children, and who values books with “relevance” to her own readers, above all else. Then there are Tobias Benedict, an actor who’s too busy touring the country playing Estragon in a hip-hop adaptation of Waiting for Godot to read most of the submissions; and Penny Feathers, a former member of the Foreign Office who now writes cheesy thrillers. The only judge with anything resembling legitimate literary credentials is an academic named Vanessa Shaw, regarded as an elitist and defender of the old guard for prizing old-fashioned good writing.

As for the novelists, they’re an equally self-deluding lot. Sam Black, the author of The Frozen Torrent — “a bildungsroman of impeccable anguish and undisguised autobiographical origin” — is obsessively in love with the beauteous and seemingly unattainable Katherine Burns, another writer, who is enraged with her editor and lover, Alan, who through some terrible mix-up failed to submit her novel (Consequences) to the prize committee and instead sent in an Indian cookbook (The Palace Cookbook), written by the regal aunt of another Elysian Prize aspirant, a wealthy panjandrum named Sonny from India, who believes that his magnum opus, The Mulberry Elephant, is destined to win world recognition.

Among the novels singled out by the judges as top contenders for the prize are: “a harsh but ultimately uplifting account of life on a Glasgow housing estate,” titled Wot U Starin At (which sounds like a bad parody of an Irvine Welsh novel); Tobias’ favourite, All the World’s a Stage, a novel by a young New Zealander, writing from the point of view of William Shakespeare; The Enigma Conundrum, a page turner about the Enigma code-breaking operation during World War II, which gets a definite thumbs-up from Penny; and The Palace Cookbook, which is championed by several of the judges as an ingenious, postmodern confection — not the cookbook it so obviously is.

St Aubyn has a lot of fun giving us samples from these novels that underscore his gift for mimicry and parody, while at the same time charting the political alliances and alliances of convenience that develop among the judges as they jockey for position and influence, extracting — and trading — promises of support as if they were Iowa caucus voters, not judges of literary merit.

American readers might not get all the inside dishing and digs — for instance, that Penny Feathers appears to have been modeled on Dame Stella Rimington, a former director-general of MI5 turned thriller writer, who was the chairwoman of the 2011 Man Booker prize committee. But St Aubyn writes with such twinkling comic verve here that the reader couldn’t care less about possible real-life antecedents.And while Lost for Words doesn’t have the depth or resonance of St Aubyn’s Melrose novels, it’s not meant to. It’s simply an entertaining cartwheel of a book with a glittering razor’s edge.