Lit­er­ary satire walks ra­zor edge with­out dulling blade

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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

third-rate crime

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-

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