Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn

lost for words

What better way to celebrate Kafka’s birthday than with a book that delightfully skewers the absurdity of literary prizes? Edward St. Aubyn’s newest, Lost for Words, is a clear satire of the brouhaha surrounding the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Even for those unaware of the uproar surrounding that year’s award, one can still find wicked pleasure in the work St. Aubyn has written. After my last reading dud, I was ecstatic and addicted to Lost for Words.

The fictitious Elysian Prize for Literature is at the center of the novel with a dozen or so characters, all keenly portrayed with whip smart precision resulting in hilarity. There are obvious lines drawn between the real Man Booker Prize and literature in general. The awards committee is made up of a handful of judges, their literary credentials range from professor to a former civil servant who writes mediocre espionage thrillers with the help of writing software named Ghost Writer designed to slip in tired similes and cringeworthy metaphors to spruce up the action. There are a gaggle of writers who are in someway connected through professional threads or tangled personal relationships (which is ever so true about any writing community).

A really marvelous aspect of the novel is when St. Aubyn serves up some of the titles of the books in consideration and their subsequent passages. I found myself relishing in them the same way I’ve always loved the fictional films in Seinfeld (ahem: Rochelle, Rochelle, Sack Lunch, Prognosis Negative). One of the books “excerpted” by St. Aubyn is wot u starin at, a clear takeoff on the novels by Irvine Welsh written in a particular vernacular. Other books bear the titles, The Mulberry ElephantThe Frozen Torrent, The Enigma Conundrum, The Greasy Pole and All the World’s a Stage, the latter being a historical novel set during the time of Shakespeare,

“Why, ’tis in my codpiece,” said William, “for a man is a fool who keeps not a poem in his codpiece, and a codpiece that hath no poem in it is indeed a foolish codpiece.”

Everything becomes even more harebrained when a wrong book is submitted for nomination consideration. In the place of an actual work of literature, the publisher sends along a cookbook, which makes it all the way to the short list. Only one judge can see that this is clearly not literature, but the remaining cabal describes it as some kind of post-modern meta examination of culture through the structure of the easy navigable cookbook recipe or some such hogwash (this plot point is also reminiscent of the madness of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, when many believed the committee had the wrong book, choosing to consider a Russian spy thriller by AD Miller instead of a heavily lauded and awarded novel by Andrew Miller; the committee denied any mistake).

There was never a dull moment and St. Aubyn’s writing was spot on. It was one of those novels where I wondered, Why can’t I write such a book?! I have never read a previous novel by the author, but his series of Patrick Melrose books are quite popular. I know the subject matter and general air are much different from his newest, but I’m curious if anyone has read his previous works.

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10 comments

  1. Stop, stop! I’ve never read any of St Aubyn’s work and this sounds right up my alley, but your recommendations have created a list long enough to last three summers (good work)!

    1. Oh dear, I know. There are so many other great book blogs I read as well and my TBR list is every growing with their recs and I always feel like I’m swimming in books! I thought I was pacing myself this summer, but I’m up to my eyeballs (in addition to my other reading duties for publications). This one was fantastic. It’s a quick read, too, and perfect for summer lounging.

  2. Interesting. I particularly liked the part about “a really marvelous aspect of the novel is when St. Aubyn serves up some of the titles of the books in consideration and their subsequent passages.” This reminded me a little of the way Kurt Vonnegut uses the fictional author “Kilgore Trout” in many of his works. The titles and sometimes brief descriptions of Trout stories are tantalizing, and I often like to think of them as story ideas of KV’s that never quite germinated.

    Loved the tie-in with Seinfeld “faux movies.” Hadn’t thought before about how many of them there are. My favorites include “Death Blow” and the episode where George wants to go out somewhere with Jerry but is instead obligated to watch “The Muted Heart”(!) with Susan.

    1. I’m a huge fan of books/authors inside of books (including Kilgore Trout). That’s interesting what you say about ideas of Vonnegut’s that never panned out. It’s probably true. In my own fiction, when I include a fictitious account of something similar, it’s definitely something I’m interested in or poking fun at something I’ve encountered.

      I so wish I could pick a Seinfeld favorite. I’ve always been partial to Sack Lunch, Checkmate, and of course, Rochelle, Rochelle.

  3. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as you, but I really did like the pastiches – they were SO clever. And the writing was very good throughout. I haven’t read any of the Melrose novels, but when I reviewed this one, lots of people in the comments suggested Mother’s Milk by him as the one to try.

    1. I just went over and read your review. I completely understand that the lack of deep characters might be less to people’s liking, but I think in this case, it worked well to skewer these people and the situation. I’ll have to try Mother’s Milk. However, I heard his previous books are definitely more depressing, so I might have to wait for when I’m not reading out by the beach.

  4. This sounds so fantastic. The longer I spend thinking about reading and writing, the more literary prizes baffle me. He must have had so much fun making up titles and excerpts too. Will definitely be reading this.

    1. I’m torn about literary prizes, both small and large. It’s lovely when great books and authors are recognized, but like many other sectors, the awards are usually based on cronyism, trendiness, and who you know. Le sigh. I hope you like the book. Let me know what you think if you get a chance to read it.

      1. I guess above all they are subjective, and the winner will be a compromise based on the tastes of the judges. I’ve ordered the book at the library – I’ll keep you posted.

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