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