FIND­ING THE WORDS

Ac­claimed Bri­tish au­thor Ed­ward St. Aubyn sounds off about the per­ils of lit­er­ary cul­ture.

Elle (Canada) - - Radar - BY JAMES GRAINGER

nov­el­ist Ed­ward St. Aubyn may be the great­est liv­ing au­thor you have never heard of. His Patrick Mel­rose nov­els have won nu­mer­ous awards and gar­nered much ef­fu­sive praise, of­ten from fel­low ac­claimed au­thors like Alan Hollinghurst, who called St. Aubyn “the most bril­liant English nov­el­ist of his gen­er­a­tion,” and Alice Se­bold, who pro­claimed the se­ries “a mas­ter­work for the twenty-first century.”

The au­thor’s in­abil­ity to gain a broad read­er­ship is likely as­cribed to the se­ries’ dis­turb­ing, highly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal con­tent. St. Aubyn, like Patrick, his lead char­ac­ter, was born to a Bri­tish aris­to­crat fa­ther and rich Amer­i­can mother and grew up in the tony so­cial mi­lieu cel­e­brated by TV shows like Down­ton Abbey. He even spent much of his child­hood on a sprawl­ing es­tate in Provence.

But in­side the es­tate, the five-year-old St. Aubyn was be­ing raped by his ra­pa­ciously cruel al­co­holic fa­ther— a per­sonal hor­ror that con­cludes Never Mind, the first novel in the se­ries. The books fol­low Patrick as he ca­reens through an adult­hood marked by heroin ad­dic­tion, al­co­holism, bro­ken re­la­tion­ships and grad­ual re­cov­ery from child­hood trauma.

Some read­ers may be put off by the way St. Aubyn mixes this toxic fam­ily ma­te­rial with bril­liant so­cial com­edy. Af­ter all, who wants to be seen laugh­ing out loud while read­ing a novel about in­cest? h

But St. Aubyn’s lat­est novel, his first since the con­clu­sion of the Mel­rose cy­cle in 2011, may be the ideal gate­way book for first-time read­ers. Lost for Words is a satire of our pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with lit­er­ary awards, and it re­lies far more on the comic than the tragic.

St. Aubyn, speak­ing in per­fect Bri­tish sen­tences from his ho­tel room in New York, de­scribes the writ­ing of his first post-Mel­rose novel. “Lost for Words was an ex­per­i­ment in which I asked my­self if I could en­joy writ­ing a book that people would en­joy read­ing in­stead of hat­ing writ­ing a book that some people then ad­mired,” he says.

He com­pares writ­ing the Mel­rose nov­els to “singing [his] way out of hell,” a process that likely saved him from com­mit­ting sui­cide. But, at 54, he is ready to move on: “Lost for Words is a book writ­ten by a man who’s amazed to find him­self en­joy­ing life.”

The novel fol­lows the mis­ad­ven­tures of sev­eral jurors, au­thors and pub­lish­ing types con­nected to the an­nual award­ing of the Elysian Prize, a satir­i­cal ver­sion of the Man Booker Prize. The jury, like their Booker coun­ter­parts, largely com­prises medi­ocre politi­cians and sec­ond-tier celebri­ties. Only one ju­ror, an Ox­ford aca­demic, ac­tu­ally ar­gues for the lit­er­ary qual­ity of the short­listed nov­els while the rest crow on about “so­cial rel­e­vance” and “new voices” and trendy po­lit­i­cal causes.

St. Aubyn clearly sides with the aca­demic. “There should only be aes­thetic and lit­er­ary cri­te­ria for lit­er­ary prizes. You’re look­ing for the best book,” he says of the awards that dom­i­nate the fall lit­er­a­ture land­scape. “The judges are just read­ers, and giv­ing them a wig and a gavel doesn’t turn them into any­thing spe­cial ex­cept that they have this ex­tra­or­di­nary power.”

St. Aubyn ex­pe­ri­enced that power first-hand when the fourth Mel­rose novel, Mother’s Milk, was nom­i­nated for the Man Booker in 2006. “The short­list­ing was a mas­sive mo­ment in my ca­reer,” he says. The nom­i­na­tion helped him emerge from “14 years of to­tal ob­scu­rity” in Eng­land and fi­nally landed him a pub­lisher in the United States and Canada.

Al­though it func­tions as a mer­ci­less satire of lit­er­ary celebrity cul­ture, Lost for Words is se­ri­ous about the value and cri­te­ria of lit­er­a­ture. “Are read­ers hav­ing their at­ten­tion ar­rested?” asks St. Aubyn. “Are they be­ing in­vited not to es­cape re­al­ity but to go more deeply into it, in a way that is not pon­der­ous but just ir­re­sistible? Does a novel redeem people’s isolation and lone­li­ness? That’s what I would love books to be do­ing.” He would also like to see prize ju­ries ad­here to “sta­ble lit­er­ary cri­te­ria” and be made up of jurors “deeply im­mersed in the lit­er­ary life, as crit­ics or writ­ers or aca­demics.”

St. Aubyn is aware that the sys­tem he’s propos­ing would be deemed elit­ist by the pop­u­lar press, but he doesn’t care. “Are you elit­ist be­cause you pre­fer spaghetti noo­dles that have been boiled for the right amount of time over ones that pierce your gums or are re­duced to a vir­tual soup on your plate? That doesn’t make you elit­ist—it means you want a good plate of spaghetti! I just want to read a good novel.”

For read­ers who want to do the same, Lost for Words is a great place to start. n

Lost for Words is a book writ­ten by a man who’s amazed to find him­self en­joy­ing life.”

Su­per­star Mar­ion Cotil­lard slips into an un­rec­og­niz­able ev­ery­day groove in this Bel­gian drama about a woman who loses her job and then tries to beg her way back onto the pay­roll. Di­rec­tors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dar­denne are world-class film­mak­ers, and this will likely be one of TIFF’s hottest art-house tick­ets. ADAM NAYMANh

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