Lost for Words

by Edward St. Aubyn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 261 pp., $26.00

There are book prizes, and then there is the Booker Prize, known, fondly, as the Booker, or, furiously, by a close homonym. In fact, “Booker Prize” is as much a nickname as “the Booker.” Properly, it was first the Booker-McConnell Prize, after its sponsor company, an international food conglomerate with a long and not entirely unshadowed colonial history. Since 2002, when the Man Group took over sponsorship, it has been the Man Booker Prize, a rather awkward renaming that the poor old—or, rather, rich old—Man Group has tried to establish firmly in the public consciousness, with not much success. The Booker remains the Booker.

The prize was established in 1969, although the novels considered had been published the previous year. Its stated aim was annually to find the best work of fiction written in English by a writer from the United Kingdom, the British Commonwealth, or the Republic of Ireland. The first winner was P.H. Newby, for his novel Something to Answer For. Newby wasn’t the most obvious choice—Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark were on the shortlist—and in subsequent years many more of the jury’s decisions have left readers, publishers, and booksellers scratching their heads in bemusement.

In the early days the prize was a staid affair, judged by such eminent figures as Stephen Spender, Rebecca West, Frank Kermode, Philip Toynbee, and Antonia Fraser. Few outside the world of books took much notice of it. There was a flurry of media interest when in 1972 John Berger, who won for his novel G., announced that, in protest against what he saw as Booker-McConnell’s many years of exploitation of sugar cane workers in the Caribbean, he would be donating half of his £5,000 award money to the Black Panthers. It was a colorful gesture, though some of the color was drained out of it by the question whispered abroad as to why Berger had thought to donate only half of the money: if you are going to make a point, best make the whole point.

It was not until 1980 that the Booker established itself as the world’s most famous, after the Nobel, and consequently most lucrative, fiction prize. In that year Anthony Burgess (Earthly Powers), who had warned the organizers that he would not attend the award ceremony unless it was confirmed beforehand that he had won, flew into a rage when the prize went to William Golding (Rites of Passage). Burgess, ever the literary roughhouser, told journalists that Golding’s book wasn’t a patch on his own, and the story made the front pages. Suddenly it dawned on media folk that the Booker was copy, and since the Burgess–Golding bout, hardly an autumn has passed without its Booker “story.”

The fun got even finer when the awards ceremony began to be televised live, allowing gloating audiences at home to feed their fill on the spectacle of evening-dressed authors, with their agents and publishers, sweating under the arc lights as the excruciatingly awful dinner wore on and everyone watched to see which tables attracted most of the camera’s attention, and which of those supposedly in the know were grinning, and which were scowling. Then, after the award night, there were the stories that leaked out of post-announcement accusations and recriminations being hurled back and forth over the by now disheveled tables, of tantrums and fistfights, of passed-over authors sobbing their hearts out in the bathrooms of hotel suites they could never have afforded to pay for, and which their publishers were now regretting having booked them into.

In 1983, the jury was riven by a struggle between the faction backing J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K and those who favored Salman Rushdie’s Shame, with the chairwoman, Fay Weldon, reportedly giving her deciding vote to Rushdie and then switching to Coetzee at the last moment. In 1997, a former Booker jurist, the publisher Carmen Callil, asserted on television that not only should Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things not have won that year, it should not even have been on the shortlist. In 2005, when to everyone’s astonishment, including the author’s, my novel The Sea won the prize, there arose a great cry of distress and outrage among Britain’s literary pundits. The morning after the announcement, Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of the London Independent, described the judges’ choice, Google reminds me now, as “possibly the most perverse decision in the history of the award.” In my family this became known, for the brief interval in which it occupied and amused us, as the Tonkin Incident.

Of course, it is easy to deplore and laugh at the Booker, for its middlebrow preferences and frequent wrongheadedness, for the intrigues attendant on it, for the burlesque atmosphere in which the awarding of the prize is conducted. However, there is no denying the remarkable influence the prize wields. The winning author and his publisher can expect a huge or at least very significant increase in sales; books that might not even have been reviewed are suddenly propelled to the reading public’s attention; editors who have had to conduct bitter in-house struggles to have a book accepted for publication can point to an unlikely triumph as evidence of their astuteness and, more significantly, of the necessity to take a gamble now and then on the most unpromising newcomer or disregarded old-timer. Above all, the Booker keeps people reading fiction, or buying it, at least.

The plot of Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words concerns the maneuvering, the finagling, and the bloody-mindedness that attend the judging of a very famous British fictional fiction award, the Elysian Prize. So light is the “Elysian” disguise that one assumes St. Aubyn, whose novel Mother’s Milk was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2006, the year Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss took the prize, has either despaired of ever winning it or, by an initiative both cunning and daring, has thrown down a challenge stark enough to give this year’s jury sleepless nights.

Edward St. Aubyn is a fine writer, much respected by his contemporaries. The five Patrick Melrose novels—the first of which, Never Mind, was published in 1992, and the last, appropriately titled At Last, in 2012—have received remarkable praise within the guild and without. Alice Sebold considers the Melrose series “a masterwork for the twenty-first century, written by one of the great prose stylists in England,” while Alan Hollinghurst goes even further, describing St. Aubyn as “the most brilliant English novelist of his generation”; Francine Prose judges his books “extraordinary,” while Edmund White finds in them “dialogue as amusing as Waugh’s and narrative even more deft than Graham Greene’s.” Meanwhile The Guardian claims St. Aubyn as “our purest living prose stylist” and the London Times finds his prose “staggeringly good,” while The New York Review considers him “intoxicatingly witty.”

The Patrick Melrose novels display fine work, certainly. The fourth volume, Mother’s Milk, is the best of them, the most accomplished in technique and the most estimable in artistic endeavor; it is also the most warmly human, compared to its distinctly brittle, drugged, and drink-soaked companions. It is no secret that the series is closely autobiographical. St. Aubyn has set out, like Proust, to make a drama, to make a work of art, out of the stuff of his own life. He is, however, something less than Proust.

There is an impatient and unfinished quality to St. Aubyn the novelist. The books are a not quite satisfactory mélange of styles and artistic attitudes. He can write marvelously for a page or two, then spoil things with a clumsy metaphor, a limp joke, or a moment of unprovoked, extracurricular spite. All too often he drifts off into windy perorations, and likes to give his alter ego, Patrick Melrose, the best or at least the most lines. Here, from Some Hope, the third volume of the series, is a passage of dialogue that displays both the windiness and the favoritism; Melrose is speaking to a friend:

I gave up drugs when the pleasure and the pain became simultaneous and I might as well have been shooting up a vial of my own tears. As to the naive faith that rich people are more interesting than poor ones, or titled people more interesting than untitled ones, it would be impossible to sustain if people didn’t also believe that they became more interesting by association. I can feel the death throes of that particular delusion….

Et cetera.

St. Aubyn’s tropes, and he is much given to them, vary greatly in quality and distinctness. Take this, from the second volume, Bad News:

Debbie was beautiful (everybody said so), and she was clever (she said so herself), but he could imagine her clicking anxiously across the room, like a pair of chopsticks, and just then he needed a softer embrace.

“Like a pair of chopsticks” is good, yes, but they are only what her legs are like, surely, not her entirety. But then he can come up with something wonderful, such as this extended comic metaphor of a man sick from drink and despair who cannot contemplate getting out of bed to shave:

He imagined the terrible mountain ranges of his yellow bedspread; native bearers falling off the cliff of his mattress with piercing cries; the delirium of a tropical fever; his excruciating boots slippery with blood; the forbidding overhang of smooth white porcelain in the final ascent.

There are moments of what one can only call sublime accuracy. Take his description of an excitable young woman who “did not speak so much as swallow articulately,” or his lyrical evocation of a heroin rush as “that blissful fainting sensation, that heartbreaking moment, as compressed as the autobiography of a drowning man,” although he almost ruins the effect by adding, “but as elusive and intimate as the smell of a flower.” In Mother’s Milk, which is made radiant throughout by the presence of Melrose’s two young sons, St. Aubyn describes five-year-old Robert already suffering the pangs of nostalgia: “He could feel his infancy disintegrating, and among the bellows of congratulation that accompanied each little step towards full citizenship he heard the whisper of loss.”

St. Aubyn is regarded by many, including himself, perhaps, as the direct heir of Evelyn Waugh, and indeed, the Patrick Melrose series has many extended bravura passages of heartless comedy worthy of the master. But if St. Aubyn is no Proust, he is no Waugh, either. Waugh’s genius as a comic novelist was to develop an Augustan style, modeled on that of his hero Gibbon, and apply it to the doings of ineffectual young men and callous young women, supported by, to borrow from Philip Larkin, “a cast of crooks and tarts.” The result is a poised and icily hilarious position from which the author leans down to skewer his victims with easy elegance and breathtaking accuracy. This form of literary pig-sticking is gloriously easy to read, but devilishly hard to pull off. Here, from Bad News, is an example of St. Aubyn trying to follow his leader, and getting lost. Melrose has picked up a girl in a New York bar and brought her back to his room at the Pierre on Fifth Avenue, where to his consternation and disgust she orders a gargantuan helping of chili and tacos from room service:

Rachel was clearly a nervous overeater, stuffing herself before he stuffed her, or perhaps, very persuasively, trying to put him off sex altogether by wreaking havoc on her digestive system, and saturating her breath with the torrid stench of cheese and chilli.
“Uh-hum,” said Rachel appreciatively, “I love this food.”
Patrick raised an eyebrow slightly but made no comment.

The weaknesses here are obvious. There is the gauche and plainly vulgar play on the word “stuff,” the cliché of “wreaking havoc” and the near cliché of “torrid stench,” and then the would-be sophistication of Patrick’s jaded forbearance in that “slightly” raised eyebrow.

No doubt it is unfair to do so, yet one cannot but think wistfully of what Waugh himself would have done with the material of Lost for Words. The theme of St. Aubyn’s latest novel is the way in which, in our time, and in part at least through the literary prize system, opportunists, charlatans, and fools have been allowed to set themselves up as arbiters of literature. The book opens with “Cold War relic” and Civil Service mandarin Sir David Hampshire offering the chair of the Elysian Prize committee to Malcolm Craig, a Scots MP who has damaged a promising career by unwisely speaking out against his party’s line on Scottish devolution.

Among the Elysian Group’s ventures, we learn, has been the crossing of wheat with Arctic cod, producing “Cod wheat,” which was “designed to withstand the icy rigors of Canada and Norway rather than the glowing anvil of the Indian Plain,” where the growing of it led to crop failure and “some regrettable suicides among Indian farmers.” Elysian also manufactures “weaponized agricultural agents” such as Checkout, which “caused any vegetation on the ground to burst immediately into flame, forcing enemy soldiers into open country where they could be destroyed by more conventional means.” All this, and we have only got to page three. As they used to say about silent movies, the fun is fast and furious.

Also on the Elysian panel are Penny Feathers—Waugh, as you see, gets his due acknowledgment—a former Foreign Office executive, the erstwhile girlfriend of Sir David’s, and a writer of thrillers, waspishly accurate extracts from which are supplied; Jo Cross, “a well-known columnist and media personality” whose “ruling passion” when it comes to fiction is “relevance”; Vanessa Shaw, Oxbridge academic—“Malcolm felt there was no harm in having one expert on the history of literature, if it reassured the public”; and the impossibly effete and, when the judging process starts, mostly absent actor-of-the-moment Tobias Benedict, who happens to be Sir David’s godson.

The shortlist of five novelists that the panel comes up with, after much wrangling, includes Sam Black, the book’s hero, sort of; Hugh Macdonald, whose wot u starin at is an Irvine Welsh–like farrago set among Scottish druggies—“Death Boy’s troosers were round his ankies. The only vein in his body that hadna bin driven into hiding was in his cock”—turns out to be a fake; and Lakshmi Badanpur, more familiarly known as “Auntie,” whose Palace Cookbook, which really is a cookbook, was mistakenly submitted instead of Consequences, a real novel by the irresistibly beautiful and compulsively promiscuous Katherine Burns, who is Sam Black’s love object.

Sam and Katherine, for all his tortured indolence and her frenetic bed-hopping, are the stable center of the book, or what passes for a stable center. If Lost for Words is a roman à clef, which it surely is, then Sam’s first published novel, “a bildungsroman of impeccable anguish and undisguised autobiographical origin,” strikes a suspiciously familiar note. On the other hand, it is not at all clear “who” Katherine Burns may be, though there are plenty of candidates among the younger English women novelists. It may be that everyone in the book is a caricature based on life, and all of literary London may be chuckling knowingly at every page’s turn; the rest of us, however, are largely left in the dark.

One can make some guesses about who’s who. A glance back at the Booker judging panels and the shortlists they came up with in years when St. Aubyn was in the running throws up a few clues. In 2006, when Mother’s Milk was on the shortlist but did not win, Oxbridge-educated Hermione Lee was the chair, and the actor Fiona Shaw was a jurist, and in 2011, when the hotly tipped At Last was not even included on the Booker longlist, the chair was Stella Rimington, former director general of MI5 and the author of a series of crime novels not entirely unlike those that Penny Feathers writes, and on the jury was Chris Mullin, MP.

Yet the search for real-life candidates for St. Aubyn’s mixed bunch of jurists seems hardly worth the candle; since we do not care much about the fictions, we are hardly likely to devote much energy to finding out the facts. The result is that we have an uneasy sense throughout of free-floating dislocation; this or that portent falls at our feet with a thud, while passages of what is surely intended to be high comedy leave us dully frowning: when it comes to comedy, nothing is more dispiriting than an in-joke that one is not in on.

The book overall is a curious combination of earnest literary endeavor and the kind of pranksterish, public schoolboy humor to be found in, for instance, the satirical magazine Private Eye. As an example of the former, here is Katherine agonizing over her inability to love, suffering as she does from

the special affliction of a novelist, of wanting to be the author of her own fate and take charge of a narrative whose opening chapters had been written by others with terrifying carelessness. Her need to decide what things meant came no doubt from having lived so close to the sense that they meant nothing at all.

For broad comedy we have, passim, Sonny Badanpur, Auntie’s Brahmin nephew, a young man of exquisite sensibility and drooping eyelids, who is convinced that his two-thousand-page novel The Mulberry Elephant will be a sure winner of the Elysian. When we first meet him he happens to be entertaining Katherine Burns at his palace, “filled with peacocks and cockatoos and herds of antelope,” where he passed his impossibly pampered childhood and youth, on the outskirts of “the city” that is presumably Delhi. He enjoyed his time at the University of Delhi, he assures his guest:

“And then,” he said, leaning towards Katherine with a troubled look, “the vimin arrived.”
“The what?” said Katherine.
“The vimin,” Sonny repeated. He sank back again, trying to dismiss the painful memory with a swipe of his wrist. “Everyone started rushing about—brushing their teeth.”

Sonny arrives in London for the Elysian circus, garbed modestly in a “slate-grey raw-silk frock coat” and “a long pale-peach shirt and loose white trousers, pinched at the ankle and finished off with a pair of his signature yellow slippers,” fully expecting to be met at the airport by a jostling horde of paparazzi. When he discovers that his book is not even on the Elysian longlist his outrage is such that he summons to London his aunt’s feral bodyguard, Mansur, with the intention of having him assassinate the entire Elysian jury. Mansur arrives and… Well, you get the drift.

The book’s most interesting character, because he is the character the author is most interested in, is Sam Black. Sam seems to be a genuine writer, with genuine literary ambitions. He feels a Beckettian distrust/disgust before the prospect of utterance—“To say anything at all would be a mistake”—yet he is bleakly aware that his negative aesthetic poses the danger of sterility: “It was no good really having nothing to say: being blank, blocked, lost.” Also, he has enough of an artistic conscience to acknowledge the dangerous lure of literary prizes. When the Elysian shortlist is announced it meets with “universal media derision”:

It gave him both a sense of shame at his own inclusion and a guilty exhilaration at his increased chances of victory. He had tried not to read the press, but couldn’t help noticing that The Frozen Torrent [his shortlisted novel] was the favorite at Ladbrokes.

Lost for Words, although uneven, is an entertaining squib, and it is obvious that St. Aubyn had a wonderful time writing it. The caricatures are painted with a broad brush, and the jokes too are broad, or the ones we can get are, anyway: Katherine Burns’s publisher and soon-to-be-evicted live-in lover attends “a conference in Guttenberg on the future of the book,” while Katherine tries to decide between “complacencies of the peignoir, or power shower.” There are some perfectly aimed satirical barbs. Penny Feathers, bitterly reflecting on the perfidy of her daughter who has criticized her in a newspaper interview, considers that “if anything should take place behind closed doors, it was cruelty and betrayal,” while the egregious Malcolm Craig favors a collegiate approach, since “there was nothing like proving you were a team player to get your own way.” These felicities and others like them, along with the enjoyable atmosphere of lighthearted malice, do not give enough heft to make this other than a lightweight work. Edward St. Aubyn is lavishly gifted, and is capable of, and surely will produce, much, much finer novels than this one.

Of course, the Booker judges may well not mind St. Aubyn cocking a snook at them and find Lost for Words the perfect prize candidate. Stranger Booker choices have been made.