Book review

'Lost for Words': Edward St. Aubyn's trenchant send-up of British literary life

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In this case, yes, you can judge a book by its cover. The cover of “Lost for Words” is a spill of bold black words on a crisp white background with a gold seal of approval declaring it “a novel.” The book is beautiful and looks like serious fun. And it is.

By Edward St. Aubyn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($26)

Readers may already know Mr. St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose cycle of five novels — “Never Mind,” Bad News,” “Some Hope,” “Mother’s Milk” and “At Last” — which follow Patrick Melrose, well-born and debauched (for good reason) through harrowing travails, and which somehow manage to be at once hilarious and enlightening in the way of Evelyn Waugh.

Admired for precise language, sharp observations and sublime wit, Mr. St. Aubyn’s novels are admitted to be somewhat autobiographical. This latest is less so, except that it is a scathing satire about the awarding of a famous British literary prize, written by a British writer who amazingly enough has not won that one.

In “Lost for Words” the award, the Elysian, is very like the Man Booker prize in that it’s confined to “the Imperial ash heap of the Commonwealth.” There is much meat for Mr. St. Aubyn to skewer: the prize givers, the judges, the hopeful writers and, of course, the writing itself.

The book starts with Sir David Hampshire, former permanent secretary of the Foreign Office, now on the boards of corporations like the Elysian Group, setting up the committee. He chooses Penny Feathers, a writer of thrillers, who happens to be an ex-girlfriend; Tobias Benedict, a young actor, who happens to be his godson; Jo Cross, a media personality; Vanessa Shaw, an Oxbridge academic; and, to head it up, Malcolm Craig, an obscure opposition member of Parliament. Jo likes anything with “relevance,” Vanessa is looking for literature, and Craig will go for anything with “a Scottish flavor.”

The many books they have to read, although Penny prefers to listen on tape, are occasions for wonderful riffs of delightful bad writing. Tobias’ favorite novel is “All the World’s a Stage,” which “according to its blurb was ‘an ambitious and original’ novel, written by a young New Zealander from the point of view of William Shakespeare.”

Through the marvels of historical fiction, we get to listen as he tells Thomas Kyd and John Webster of his new play: “Why, ’tis a Roman play,” said William. “It tells the tale of Anthony and how one of the three pillars of this world was made into a strumpet’s fool.”

Malcolm’s favorite candidate is “wot u starin at,” which he sees as a work of gritty social realism. “I told yuz nivir ivir to talk to uz when Aym trackin a vein, snarled Death Boy.” Perhaps most improbable is a cookbook from India, “The Palace Cookbook,” which, by accident, gets into the pile of fiction and, by perversity, is hailed for its qualities as “a postmodern, multimedia masterpiece.”

But this novel doesn’t just take on the public silliness of bad books, bad writing, privileged interests and random rewards. There is also a sort of hero in Sam Black, a blocked writer of great dedication, full of self-doubt, who doesn’t know if language can save him. In addition to being hung up on his writing, Sam is enthralled by Katherine, also a writer, who takes to her bed anyone who might be of use or distraction to her.

The man of the moment might be Sam; or Alan, her agent, who left his wife for her; Didier, a French writer who theorizes about everything; or Sonny, a sleepy-eyed Indian writer obsessed with his own talent and the world’s lack of adequate recognition of it, whose latest magnum opus is “The Mulberry Elephant.”

With a stage farce, you can count the doors to anticipate the fun, but here the number of deftly drawn characters assures the reader’s pleasure — that, and the piercing thought and sharp words.

Although not autobiographical like the Patrick Melrose books, “Lost for Words” is certainly about the world in which Mr. St. Aubyn lives. And in the book, Sam Black’s work, “The Frozen Torrent,” is judged by Vanessa to be of true literary merit: “It had what she wanted to call an experience of literature built into it, an inherent density of reflection on the medium in which it took place: the black backing that makes the mirror shine.”

This has the ring of truth and sounds very like the writing of Edward St. Aubyn.

Mary Rawson is an actor and acting teacher at Point Park University (

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