Lost for Words, a novel by the rather charmingly named Edward St Aubyn, is a satire onthe Man Booker Prize for Fiction – which meant that Eleanor Catton was very much on my mind as I read. Featuring a cross-section cast of the literary elite, Lost for Words particularly pokes fun at the pretension, ineptitude and general ill-qualification of the prize’s judges. The plot follows one iteration of the Elysian Prize from the assembly of the judging committee to the announcement of the winner.
Of course, a novelist satirising literature’s highest prize for novels cannot help but appear to be, at best, self defeating, and, at worst, harbouring rather sour grapes. This feeling only intensifies when you realise that one of St Aubyn’s previous novels, Mother’s Milk, was Booker shortlisted in 2006, and failed to win. Then everything gets odder when you learn that, with Lost for Words, St Aubyn has just won the UK’s prestigious Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction.
So is it any good? I have to say that I really enjoyed it. It is very, very funny. The characters − judges, publishers, authors, literary critics − are splendidly and mercilessly drawn. The bite to St Aubyn’s satire keeps the book bubbling along nicely; his real anger lending it an urgency and candour without which Lost for Words would have been self-serving and tedious. There is even − and how very dare he − what seems to be a swipe at our own literary golden girl: one of the long-listed titles is an historical novel written by a young New Zealander. We read an excerpt from it over one of St Aubyn’s characters’ shoulders and it is dreadful: crude and ridiculous. If this is intended as a dig at Catton’s sumptuous The Luminaries then it is very far from the mark.
Part of the pleasure of reading Lost for Words is in joining St Aubyn on his patch of judgemental moral high ground. The sheer ridiculousness of (for example) a self-published cookbook being mistaken for a post-modern novel and longlisted for one of world literature’s most serious awards is just possible enough to make the reader delightedly aghast. And of course St Aubyn is flattering us throughout, assuming that we − like he, one presumes − are able to call a literary spade a spade.
But are we? Who are we to say which is the best novel? What criteria would we impose? As my favourite character in the book, Didier the philosopher, puts it: “What is literature? … What is this privilege we grant to certain verbal communications, although they employ the very same words we use to buy our bread and count our money? Words are our slaves: they may be used to fetch a pair of slippers, or to build the great pyramid of Giza: they depend on syntax to make the order of the world manifest, to raise stones into arches and arches into aqueducts.”
There is a lot more in this vein. Didier is loquacious; every time he appears on the page, a torrent of words spills from his mouth. Other characters are constantly trying to get him to shut up; one even resorts to kissing him to stop him talking. Although he is hyper-articulate, the reader very soon begins to worry that his cascade of sentences hides a confusion of thought. There is no doubt that St Aubyn intends him as a parody, a caricature of literary theorists.
And here again, Catton came to mind. I saw her deliver the New Zealand Book Council lecture at Wellington Writers Week earlier this year and was delighted and inspired by her articulate confidence and intellectual grace − huzzah for successful Kiwi women! I was also very relieved not to be reviewing her lecture (as I had been reviewing other Writers Week events), because I didn’t entirely understand what she was trying to tell me. It reminded me of being in English Lit theory classes and being uneasily unsure whether my failure to grasp (for example) post-structuralism was down to my own intellectual ineptitude or a fault in the way the theory was explained.
David Larsen’s review of Catton’s lecture in The Listener was very revealing: “Not saying nearly enough is going to be my whole approach here, and one day, when this lecture is printed in a book of Catton’s essays, you can read it, and then read it three more times, and then you will understand why … let me concede frankly that the task [of explaining what Catton’s lecture was about] exceeds my abilities … I write this in terrified awareness that one day [Catton’s] non-hypothetical book of essays is going to put you in a position to judge just how badly I’ve got this wrong”.
This, I feel, is the core of the cultural problem that St Aubyn is trying to address. How can we assess the value of that which we don’t understand? To what extent should literature be judged on its ability to communicate? − and to whom? The cultural elite? The lowest common denominator? What does this mean for our cultural and intellectual ecosystem? What kinds of ideas − and people − can thrive in this environment?
As a satire, and as the title would suggest, Lost for Words takes a very dim view of the situation. Writers are self-absorbed, publishers are unfaithful, judges are blindly partisan, critics are spellbound by meaningless gush − and readers are entirely absent from the equation. The world of literature is doomed; a shrinking pool of self-referential, elitist tosh.
Personally, I am more optimistic than St Aubyn. I accept that judging will always be subjective and I’m sure there inevitably are political agendas at play − but I still find literary prizes to be useful signposts in a gigantic, ever-growing maze of books. And, if at first I don’t understand something, but I wish to, I am willing to re-engage with complex ideas. (I will be buying Catton’s book of essays when it is published.) Besides, if I fully understood everything I ever read or heard immediately, that would limit the possibilities of my intellectual development, and − like Gwendolen in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest − I intend to develop in many directions. But then, I’ve never been turned down for a Booker. That’s got to sting.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Lost for Words
by Edward St Aubyn