Literary satire walks razor edge without dulling blade
Lost for Words By Edward St Aubyn Picador, 266pp, $34.99 (HB) THE marvel of Lost for Words does not lie in the fact its pleasure-per-page quotient beats that of any other novel I have read this year. Nor does it have to do with the accuracy of the author’s swipes at everything from current British politics to the Gallic addiction to theory.
What Edward St Aubyn has done is tougher than that: he has written a contemporary satire about a literary prize that touches on universal problems of culture and value. It is a work whose cleverness never declines into cynicism, whose wickedness never departs from some baseline decency. It walks the razor’s edge without dulling the blade.
Present-day London remains a world capital of publishing even if, as some characters moan, little else these days. And it is here that Malcolm Craig MP, an obscure Scottish backbencher whose ambition exceeds his intelligence and political nous by some measure, accepts an offer made by an old mentor, a Foreign Office knight of advanced years, to chair the Elysian Prize: the Commonwealth’s grandest and richest award for literature.
Any resemblance between the Elysian and the Man Booker is wholly intentional. Just as the original Booker Prize was established by a Guyana-based conglomerate determined to shake off associations with colonial-era slavery, Elysian is a maker of ‘‘weaponised agricultural agents’’ whose largesse is a high-minded bit of corporate PR.
The make-up of the judging panel, a backroom-manufactured entity assembled in fauxdeference to democratic inclusiveness, will also be familiar. There is Jo Cross, the obligatory media personality, a ‘‘veritable geyser of opinions’’ whose ruling passion when it comes to choosing a winner is that slipperiest of terms, ‘‘relevance’’; and the token Oxbridge academic, Vanessa Shaw, a passionate advocate for ‘‘good writing’’ who is supervising a thesis on the history of a semi-colon.
Penny Feathers, a
writer and former girlfriend of the octogenarian who got Malcolm the job, is a particularly unsuitable candidate for the jury, though not as unsuitable as bookish actor Tobias Benedict, whose mellifluous voice and handsomeness hardly forgive his ongoing absence from the judges’ meetings.
On the other side of the narrative divide are authors whose prize entries range from drugaddled tales told in the urban vernacular of post-industrial Scotland to historical re-creations of Elizabethan figures of note (you sense St Aubyn’s real-life targets giggling behind these generic veils), along with a gargantuan epic of Indian life, The Mulberry Elephant, selfpublished by a clearly psychotic maharajah.
Only two books appear to have real virtue: The Frozen Torrent, by hypersensitive and creatively paralysed Sam Black, whose first published novel, ‘‘a bildungsroman of impeccable anguish and undisguised autobiographical origin’’, reveals St Aubyn as an author only too happy to puncture his own balloon; and Conse-