Book review: Lost for Words

Literary pretentiousness is neatly skewered in Edward St Aubyn’s new novel, writes Allan Massie

Edward St Aubyn, author, in his Holland Park home. Picture: David Sandison/Writer Pictures

Edward St Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels were sharp, intermittently brilliant, rather nasty, dark comedies. Lost for Words is a comic novel which is equally sharp but light and sunny. The author is in a relaxed mood. You have the impression that he is enjoying himself no end.

It is a very literary novel, the subject being a new fiction prize. The characters are the judges, writers, publishers and literary agents. The judging panel is a typically ill-assorted crew. Its chairman is Malcolm, an MP, now idle in opposition, the height of whose career was a spell as Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. His colleagues are Jo, a newspaper columnist famous for her strong opinions, an Oxbridge don called Vanessa, Penny, formerly of the Foreign Office, and Tobias, an actor too busy to attend committee meetings.

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Each of them will push for a particular author. Jo is concerned that the winning novel should be “relevant”. Vanessa insists that it must be well written (which rules out most candidates). Penny is eager to please Malcolm, who is determined to choose a book “with a Scottish flavour”. Happily a sub-Irvine Welsh novel – very sub indeed – entitled wot u starin at has been entered.

Malcolm thinks it “really hit the spot when it came to new voices, the real concerns of ordinary people, and the dark underbelly of the welfare state”. The extract St Aubyn provides shows it to be very bad indeed. As for the actor Tobias, he is “in love with” a novel about Shakespeare which in its way is every bit as awful as the “harsh but ultimately uplifting account of life on a Glasgow housing estate”.

We don’t meet all the authors, which may be a blessing and is certainly self-denial on St Aubyn’s part. One of them, Sam, has actually written a good novel, but is equally concerned about his relations with a beautiful and brilliant novelist, Katherine, whose novel has by an oversight not been entered for the Elysian Prize. He has been one of her several lovers, and still hopes to be re-admitted to the fold, presently dominated by a French literary theorist, whose style of speech is beautifully caught, even if, as in real life, a little of it goes a long way – too far indeed.

One of the would-be prize 
winners is an Indian prince, whose 2,000-page novel doesn’t, happily, make the grade. He is the one character who doesn’t come off, being simply too ridiculous. However, he has a very pleasant aunt, whose Palace Cook-Book, entered by mistake is – despite her protests that it is merely a collection of recipes with some memories of her family – taken to be an example of meta-fiction, and is therefore in line for the prize.

Some of the best things in the novel are the parodies. Happily we get only a snippet of wot u starin at and of the appalling Shakespeare novel, which is even worse than the worst of ersatz Elizabethan fiction.

Actually the best parody is the spy-novel which Penny, the judge who used to work in the former Foreign Office, is writing. This is not a prize entry and may, one suspects, never be finished. But it catches the tone of this kind of novel beautifully: “The words shot through Jane’s body like an electric current. She reached instinctively into the Audi’s generous glove compartment and felt for her weapon. The IPX370 packed the punch of a Colt .38, but its magazine carried that one extra bullet that could make all the difference if things turned nasty. Six grams shy of its American counterpart, its lighter weight also made a real difference if you had to carry it round in your handbag all day.” I could have done with more of this.

Penny also makes good use of “some highly addictive software called Ghost” which is of great help to the writer: “When you typed in a word – ‘refugee’ for example – several useful suggestions popped up: ‘clutching a pathetic bundle’ or ‘eyes big with hunger’.” One feels that some of the authors whose books were eventually short-listed might themselves have profited from employing Ghost, or the superior models Gold Ghost and Gold Ghost Plus.

The actual prize-giving ceremony is, as it should be, dogged by disaster, and one can’t avoid the thought that the author is indulging in a degree of wish-fulfilment when he has the chairman making a complete idiot of himself.

It is also a nice touch that the representatives of Elysia, the Chinese company which has taken over the prize’s sponsorship, are shown to have a finer appreciation of literature than any of the mostly ridiculous judges. The novel ends with Sam and Katherine, happily reconciled, watching the proceedings on TV from Katherine’s bed. “Let’s just make love and be happy,” she says. “‘Vaste programme’, said Sam, ‘as de Gaulle said to the heckler who shouted “Death to the idiots”.’”

Vaste programme indeed, but it’s nice to see some of the idiots skewered, and many readers will surely derive as much enjoyment from this piece of elegant froth as St Aubyn evidently had in confecting it.

Comic novels are all too rare these days, and if this one isn’t quite in the class of, say, early Evelyn Waugh, it comes close enough to be more than welcome.

But I still hope that Penny , with the help of Gold Ghost Plus, finishes her work. As it is, we are left with Jane “about to face Ibrahim al-Shukra, one of the world’s most ruthless and dangerous men” without the IPX390 which she had forgotten to put in the Audi’s “generous glove compartment” – left, as Gold Ghost Plus might suggest, “on tenterhooks”.