Edward St. Aubyn’s series of five novels – “Never Mind,” “Bad News,” “Some Hope,” “Mother’s Milk,” and “At Last” – that are collectively known as the Patrick Melrose novels stand as one of the towering achievements of contemporary literature.
Deeply autobiographical, the novels follow Patrick Melrose from age 5, when he was raped by his father, through adult battles with drug and alcohol addition, a failing marriage and the deaths of his mostly monstrous parents. What ties the books together is their unrelenting exploration of identity and personality, which Patrick defines this way:
“Perhaps that’s all identity is: seeing the logic of your own experience and being true to it.”
St. Aubyn is a spectacular writer. No matter how harrowing and distressing the subject matter may be, he leavens it with wit, humor and compassionate understanding. To the manor born himself, he is deflates snobs and poseurs with surgical precision. He struggles – and succeeds – to understand what drives his truly dysfunctional family members even as he reveals that the emperors of Britain’s ruling classes are standing without their clothes.
While “Mother’s Milk” was short-listed for the Man Booker prize in 2006, it lost out to “The Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai. This experience was all that St. Aubyn needed to take on the British literary establishment.
You get the sense that St. Aubyn, having exorcised many of his personal demons in the Patrick Melrose novels, set out to have fun with his new novel, “Lost for Words, ” a brilliant satire of a British literary award.
St. Aubyn deftly punctures the pretensions of both judges and authors. Revenge? Maybe. Satire? Definitely. But it is also a book about the ways words can combine to make art. Katherine Burns, a promiscuous novelist whose submission makes neither the long nor the short list because of a missed deadline, thinks about words:
She thought of an empty train shooting through an empty station at night, an image of her mind without words. How beautifully unnecessary they seemed at that moment, but soon it would be rush hour, with hardly enough words getting off the crowded train to allow any words from the crowded platform to get on. Everything congested with words, everything spoken for; conversations, dialogues, monologues, interior monologues, all the way down, words staining the marrow, pretending that nothing existed without them.
The panel of rather randomly assembled Elysian prize judges is appointed by Elysian board member and “Cold War relic Sir David Hampshire. ”
He invites Scottish politician Malcolm Craig, who will push for books with Scottish themes, to head the panel. Sir David’s ex-girlfriend Penny Feathers, who pens tepid thrillers with the help of her “Gold Ghost Plus” software program, and his actor godson are panel shoo-ins. Columnist Jo Cross plays off against Vanessa Shaw, a snooty Oxbridge type whose only concerns are “good writing ” and “especially good writing.”
She’s not to find much of that among the submissions. St. Aubyn shows off his satirical range by treating readers to excerpts of some of the listed books – as well as to Penny’s latest in-progress installment.
Novelist Sam Black – whose first novel was, much like the Melrose novels, a “bildungsroman of impeccable anguish and undisguised autobiographical origin”-- realizes the futility of thinking about art:
One thing was clear; he was going to have to drop the topic of art. In England, art was much less likely to be mentioned in polite society than sexual perversions or methods of torture; the word ‘elitist’ could be spat out with the same confident contempt as ‘coward’ at a court martial . . . Perhaps in future generations a law would be passed allowing consenting adults to practice art openly; an Intellect Relations Board might be set up to encourage tolerance towards people who, through no fault of their own, were interested in ideas. Meanwhile, it was just as well to keep quiet and play the fool.
Sam’s own novel is up against an Indian cookbook filled with anecdotal recipes, a historical novel featuring – of course! – Shakespeare, a Scottish piece of “gritty social realism,” and a political roman a clef scandalously penned by Malcolm Craig’s old boss.
As befits a satire, there is plenty of farcical comedy from missed connections to malfunctioning elevators to a crazy unrealized plot for revenge undertaken by a spurned Indian novelist. Along the way, St. Aubyn considers the more serious matters of love and loss – “ Did love have to disappear with her disappearance? Did he have to hate love because it wasn’t working out the way he wanted?” -- and whether real talent and art can ever be recognized in a world gone mad.
What pulls it all together is St. Aubyn’s impeccable, unerringly exact prose. A master of the bon mot, he effortlessly, elegantly describes a blocked writer as being “becalmed in a vast Pacific of self-employment.” He is funny, really funny. Wealthy Indian writer Sonny resents the success of others as the London literati spurn his own dreadful opus:
To think that his ancestors had already spent millennia being cooled by rose sherbets and peacock fans, while these fellows were still prancing around on frigid beaches, dressed in rotting animal skins, and jabbering away in the rudiments of a language it had fallen on him to raise to the highest level of art, brought him close to hysteria.
With “Lost for Words,” St. Aubyn, again, has raised the English language to the level of high art.
"Lost for Words" is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.