Illustration for 'Lost for Words' book review

Lost for Words, by Edward St Aubyn, Picador, RRP£12.99/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$26, 272 pages

Edward St Aubyn used to be one of contemporary fiction’s closely guarded secrets. Then, following the publication of the dazzlingly good Mother’s Milk in 2006, he was canonised as the quintessential “writer’s writer” and critics fell over themselves to profess the depth of their regard for his coolly stylish prose.

Mother’s Milk was the fourth of five novels about Patrick Melrose, a self-absorbed wastrel traumatised by childhood abuse. Through this dyspeptic character St Aubyn was able to survey the wasteland of English upper-class unhappiness: his characters were vicious, damaged, disdainful and always ready with a brilliant aphorism. By the time of that semi-autobiographical quintet’s final volume in 2011, Melrose was established as one of modern literature’s great despairing ranters, and admirers such as Zadie Smith were comparing St Aubyn to the likes of Evelyn Waugh.

Lost for Words is much lighter than the Melrose novels – a brisk, ultimately farcical satire that is ideal for the sun lounger and unlikely to earn the author further heavyweight comparisons. Whereas previously St Aubyn’s subject has been the tortured intricacy of family life, he now turns to the snaky politics of the literary world. Everything he writes is a comedy of manners, and even here one can occasionally see the legacy of Henry James and Jane Austen. But in Lost for Words the humour is less complex; the novel’s perfect accompaniment would be a glass of crisp rosé rather than one of Patrick Melrose’s favourite throat-scorching brandies.

St Aubyn sends up the shenanigans surrounding the Elysian Prize, a fictitious literary award clearly modelled on the Man Booker (for which Mother’s Milk was shortlisted, losing to Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss). The sponsor of the Elysian is an agricultural company known for its controversial innovations – such as crossing wheat with Arctic cod to make it resistant to frost. Environmentalists decry its methods, but do so in vain, as the public associates Elysian’s name with the generous sponsorship of literature.

Unfortunately, prizes need judges and Elysian’s particular bevy of them seem ill-qualified for the task. One misses most of the meetings because he is playing Estragon in a hip-hop adaptation of Waiting for Godot. Another thinks that all the world’s disharmonies can be resolved with a cup of tea, and accordingly prides herself on owning a very large kettle. A third is an academic, included on the grounds that it would be “no harm having one expert on the history of literature”. It’s no surprise that she marvels at the ignorance of all around her – not least the panel’s philistine chair, a backbench MP who accepts the role for no better reason than the hope that it will alleviate his chronic boredom.

Then there are the literary pretenders vying for the big cheque and accompanying kudos. Enigmatic Katherine Burns is “famously easy to fall in love with” and juggles her suitors with frosty expertise. Sam Black is one of these dolts – hopeful about his debut novel and anxious about whether he should convert his lovesick anxieties into the ingredients of his next one. And while Lakshmi Badanpur has cobbled together a lethally dull mix of old family recipes and equally dusty anecdotes, her nephew Sonny is convinced that his own book The Mulberry Elephant is a masterpiece that will turn him into the kind of celebrity obliged to shelter at all times behind a large pair of dark glasses. Finally there are the ghoulish hangers-on, condemned to glide from one tiresome literary shindig to the next. Chief among these is French philosopher Didier Leroux, a charming poseur addicted to clever-sounding soundbites.

St Aubyn’s powers of observation are as sharp as ever. There’s nothing quite as good here as his lines in Mother’s Milk about a “waiting-room atmosphere in which death was the delayed train” or the rich people who are “too often only the shrill pea in the whistle of their possessions”. But there are darts of elegant pointedness: Katherine in a moment of embarrassed disappointment “trying to assemble a smile”, or one of her admirers poking to no avail through “the gentlemanly mist that still lingered over the field of publishing”.

He also has a lot of fun pastiching various kinds of bad writing as he presents extracts from the shortlisted novels. One of these pitiful volumes is a grubby imitation of Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh; another is a historical effort about Shakespeare, littered with silly dialogue and weak jokes about codpieces.

We are left in little doubt that St Aubyn has contempt for the political agendas and horse-trading that influence the process of awarding literary prizes. More interesting than this is his concern with the hyperactive self-consciousness that informs the very act of creating fiction – and especially the kind of fiction that’s intended to be prize-worthy. But this entertaining novel is a slight one by the usual standards of an author who at his best can be an exhilarating master of irony.

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