THERE’S this belief in the US that you are an East Coast person or a West Coast person. A New Yorker would not like living in Los Angeles, vice versa, never the twain shall meet and so forth. Although this review has nothing to do with coasts, I was reminded of this saying when reading Edward St Aubyn’s Lost for Words. I just couldn’t get into it, while my friend, browsing through my copy, got sucked right in and laughed out loud — and this was just 20 pages in. Perhaps this was a London thing, I told myself; maybe you needed to be a Londoner and not a vagabond from Karachi (humour me) to get it. Get it, I eventually did but since I’ve set the tone for the review, I wish I could just say that I wasn’t that into it and tell you to move along — but alas, that shan’t be the case.
This is the first Aubyn novel I read; I am not familiar with the Patrick Melrose novels — Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last — that put Aubyn firmly on the British literary map. Patrick Melrose is the name of the character of the novels whose life and family Aubyn writes about, it’s reportedly semi-autobiographical. It documents Melrose’s life from childhood, seeing both parents’ deaths, to his alcohol addiction, marriage and parenthood (says Wikipedia) and by all accounts, it is a clever insight into that society (says everyone I know who pooh-poohed me for not having read them). I read that one reviewer refers to the Melrose series as Wodehousian, and another compared Aubyn to Evelyn Waugh.
Lost for Words was awarded the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. However, Aubyn’s At Last, the finale in the Melrose series, was not shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011 as was widely believed; the previous novel in the series Mother’s Milk lost out in 2006 to Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. In an interview to The Guardian the same year, he said he didn’t care and was instead going to focus on his next novel. The result, Lost For Words, is about the workings of a literary prize and, as I learned later through various newspapers, there are many similarities between his novel’s characters and the folks awarding the 2011 Booker.
Is this Aubyn’s revenge piece then? It doesn’t or shouldn’t matter. It’s a satire: plain and simple. Some of the characters are indeed hilarious without meaning to be. Perhaps it would have been funnier if one knew who Aubyn was spoofing/taking down but it’s not necessary. What is essential, obviously, is good writing, good characters and a good story. Lost for Words was a mixed bag. Its highs include incisive commentary on the farce of awards but the lows were the plot itself; it was more a series of vignettes if you will.
We have The Elysian Prize for Literature, a coveted award that writers are hankering after and we meet the jury who has to read hundreds of manuscripts and decide upon the winner. Those associated with the prize include Malcolm Craig, former parliamentarian, chairing a jury of few bizarre choices for a panel: an Oxford academic, an actor who’s there because he reads a lot, a writer who is also Craig’s former girlfriend, and a columnist. We have writers desperate for Elysian recognition. Sam Black who’s hoping for fame with his debut novel, Katherine Burns who is popular but, because of a mishap, loses the nomination to an Indian cookbook which, comically, is seen as a piece of fiction. There’s the Indian prince Sonny who is determined to see his work Mulberry Elephant get the recognition he believes it deserves but finds he’s not made the shortlist and then behaves, err … badly. He, incidentally, was my favourite character from the get-go; arriving at Heathrow, aghast at having to answer to an immigration officer about what he does. He’ll remind you of every desi rich guy stereotype you hate but can’t help but laugh at either.
What ensues is an insight into the literary prize world, which makes for some good reading. It shows the back stabbing, wheeling and dealing that takes place to get a prize, and during the judging process itself as jury members battle it out to get their nomination through to the next stage. It makes one wonder, with some shudder, if life imitates art. (Let’s hope that unlike Aubyn’s judges, literature prize judges do read all the manuscripts.) It also poses the important question about literature prizes: how does one judge any novel? If it’s anything like the Elysian judges, it answers the question you asked about how X won over Y. This is probably true for film as well.
The Elysian Prize is named after an agricultural company looking to revise its image so it decides to venture into the arts. That bears a striking resemblance to the Man group which took over the Booker Prize not so long ago. In a scene from Lost for Words, a jury member has a conversation with a high-up from the Elysian company about the prize and their motivation behind it. In a telling conversation, the gentleman says that he would’ve preferred to see an award in sports or business where competition takes place, not in the arts where a writer’s work can’t be compared to another’s. It is little quips like this that make this novel entertaining.
Aubyn is not lost for words but he may be thin on storyline. Told from different perspectives — the grandmother, the prince, the academic etc — the plot seems to slip at times. We know we’re in it to know who gets the prize, but despite the comic nature of this novel, we’re left wishing there was more to it.
Lost for Words (NOVEL)
By Edward St Aubyn