Back in May I posted about Edward St. Aubyn and Paul Murray speaking at the Dublin Writers Festival and I managed to get tickets for the talk in Smock Alley. St. Aubyn read from his current novel, published last month, called Lost For Words. I picked up a copy at the launch and had it signed by the author, who proved to be a very funny, humble and sharply intelligent man.
Lost For Words is a satire on the Booker Prize in the UK (for which St. Aubyn was nominated in 2006 for Mother’s Milk). The prize is called the Elysian Prize and it follows the struggles of the panel of judges to whittle down the long list and agree on the prize winner. The panel are a motley assortment, most of whom are completely unqualified to judge a work of literature.
The chairman is a bored backbench MP, Malcolm Craig, who is attracted to the glamour of the literary world and hopes it will provide him with media opportunities. The only judge who actually cares about books and who wants the winning book to represent good writing is Vanessa Shaw, an Oxbridge academic. Penny Feathers is a busybody working for the Foreign Office who is also writing her own novel, a laughably bad spy thriller. Penny’s attempts to understand the books on the shortlist are occasions for great flashes of humour from St. Aubyn: “That was the wonderful thing about historical novels, one met so many famous people. It was like reading a very old copy of Hello! magazine.”
Lost For Words also follows the writers who are nominated for the Prize including Katherine Burns, a brilliant writer and a femme fatale who leaves a trail of broken hearts behind her, and Sonny, the six hundred and fifty-third maharaja of Badanpur, who is convinced he has written the greatest novel of all time.
Lost For Words is a huge change in tone for St. Aubyn, worlds away from the darkness and intensity of the Patrick Melrose novels. One gets the sense that St. Aubyn wanted to rediscover the joy in writing, exercise his comic muscle and have some fun. Lost For Words won the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction this year and while the book is very funny in parts, it also explores deeper issues; the place of art in our society, and how real talent rarely wins out over commerce.