Exceptional writing makes almost any book worth reading. But this wickedly funny piece is more than just cleverly written. A satire on participants and judges involved with an exclusive literary award, it does its best to make you smile and shake your head. And that especially applies to any who have ever questioned rarified competitions in the arts, the Olympics or even kids' sports! From the characters to the process, from amoral to political, each weakness and snafu is magnified with infinitely astute word craft.
The fine line between satire and farce is obliterated in this novel about the annual granting of England’s most prestigious literary prize. Author Edward St. Aubyn never hesitates to leap with both feet from satire into bold farce here, as often as some of his characters jump into each other’s beds. At the same time, however, he also maintains a bemused and distantly objective point of view regarding the machinations of those authors competing for the Elysian Prize, along with the judges who will decide the winner, and the literary establishment which recognizes the internal wheeling and dealing but still takes the whole process seriously. The prize in this novel is named for Elysian, a highly controversial agricultural company which manufactures “the world’s most radical herbicides and pesticides, and a leader in the field of genetically modified crops.”
St. Aubyn’s parodies of various literary styles, represented by some of the candidates for the Elysian Prize mentioned here will bring smiles of recognition to many readers. ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE, a book favored by Elysian judge Tobias Benedict, an actor, shows St. Aubyn’s skill in writing sophisticated parodies of Shakespearean drama here. Conversations between William and Ben [Jonson] and Thomas Kyd and John Webster conjure up the controversy about who REALLY wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Like Shakespeare himself, author St. Aubyn also delights in mining the depths of low humor and farce for other scenes. The writing of one candidate for the prize, WOT YOU STARIN AT, by Hugh MacDonald, is so full of gutter language involving Death Boy and Wanker that it cannot be quoted here. A surprise candidate is THE PALACE COOKBOOK by Lakshmi Badanpur, an Indian cookbook combined with family memoir, in which the prize committee recognizes creative fictional overtones.
Despite his wonderful, over-the-top descriptions, St. Aubyn also maintains a reserve (and a distanced smirk) which gives added punch to some genuine issues within the plot of this novel. Malcolm Craig, a member of Parliament and Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, has been appointed Chairman of the prize committee. The other judges are Penny Feathers, a thriller writer; Tobias Benedict, the actor, who is also the godson of Sir David Hampshire, the aristocrat in charge of choosing the prize committee; Jo Cross, a well-known columnist and media personality; and Vanessa Shaw, an “Oxbridge academic” who identifies her specific area of interest simply as “good writing.” None of the judges feel any need to read all the books on the Long List – and in choosing the Short List, all have at least one favorite novel – in some cases the only candidate for the prize that they have read at all.
St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words, a book of significant literary accomplishment, gives the lie to the idea that good fiction is dead. Its humor, intelligence, and awareness of the greater world is not only intact but sparkling, a book which, in its way, celebrates the values which serious readers accept and even admire. Of all the books I have read recently, this one has been the most amusing during a period in which so much other reading has been ultra-serious and (often) very long. A perfect book for summer written by a well-recognized author who is taking a different and much welcomed tack, Lost for Words may not be on any Short Lists, but it is high on my own Favorites List.
Witty, very British satire of the Booker Prize (here called the Elysium) given annually for the best novel by a commonwealth author. Edward St. Aubyn, who was on the short list in 2006, has written a delightful sendup that centers around the accidental insertion of a cookbook into the mix (don't ask!), and how it affects the other hopefuls and the five prize committee members. Throughout, the author parodies some of the prose of the contestants, takes a swing at Scottish Nationalists, and dismantles French intellecutuals. And he is far from gentle while doing it.
Despite its totally British milieu and style (the U.S. publisher makes no attempt to Americanize it), Americans will (or so I hope) find it nasty fun. Although I suspect that British literati know who the characters Mr. St. Aubyn pillories here are caricatures of. Surely I do not.
Notes and asides: The Booker prizes for 2012 and 2013 were awarded to Hillary Mantel's "Bring up the Bodies," and Eleanor Catton's "The Luminaries." Neither got there by accident; neither are cookbooks. Both are eminently worthy. So don't give up on the prize just yet.
Edward St. Aubyn's send-up of literary contests is wickedly funny and probably dead-on. Examining the politics behind the scenes among the judges of the Elysian Prize for the best book written by citizens of the British Commonwealth, the author gives us an array of literary 'types', as most of the judges are writers themselves. This leads to an hilarious procession of examples of bad writing by these same judges.
Along the way there are romantic complications, a murder plot, and familial travesties. Some readers may be put off by the relentless acidity with which St. Aubyn views his characters, but it was comforting, for me at least, that the author demonstrates the almost impossible comparison of the 'value' of contending literary modes. This helps with the queasy feeling many people experience when confronted by art of any kind. Has the painter, sculptor -- and writer given us 'art', or is it some cynical colossal joke? St. Aubyn's book is an absolute tonic for confronting such issues. The characters and literary modes my be exaggerated, but the execution is deft and cutting.
This book is not for the faint of heart but it is illuminating and well, funny.