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Lost for Words: A Novel Hardcover – May 20, 2014
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Malcolm Craig becomes chair of the board awarding his country’s top literary honor, the Elysian Prize. In describing what ensues, noted British novelist St. Aubyn takes on the publishing industry and the horse-trading and ax-grinding among authors, critics, and hangers-on surrounding such awards, including the popular (and promiscuous) Katherine Burns, whose novel is overlooked in favor of a cookbook mistakenly sent for consideration by its publisher; interpreted by some as a new form of modern fiction, it makes the short list. Not wanting to read much himself, Craig is joined by judges Jo Cross (whose major criterion is “relevance”), Vanessa Shaw (“good writing”), Penny Feathers (former mistress of the elderly corporate sponsor), and actor Tobias Benedict. “Young writers were the future,” Craig muses, or “would be if they were still around and being published.” As a novel about the ephemeral nature of book awards, Lost for Words may itself be ephemeral, but along the way, St. Aubyn offers a hearty satire, full of laughs and groans, with snippets from the candidates, including the novel wot u starin at, an unsparing look at Glasgow low life, which bookies (the gambling kind) make the favorite. --Mark Levine
“Everything St. Aubyn writes is worth reading for the cleansing rancor of his intelligence and the fierce elegance of his prose…” ―Anne Enright, New York Times Book Review
“Lost for Words is especially witty... a hilarious commentary on the dissonance between the daily lives of authors and how they are perceived publicly.” ―Maddie Crum, Huffington Post
“Lost for Words is... a satirical romp that showcases... [St. Aubyn's] Waugh-like talent for comedy and his unsparing eye for people's pretensions and self-delusions.” ―Mikicho Kakutani, The New York Times
“Lost for Words... is an entertaining squib... [with] perfectly aimed satirical barbs.” ―John Banville, The New York Review of Books
“St. Aubyn… executes his irony with phlegmatic and tightly controlled prose, underneath which lurks the trenchant exasperation of a veteran.” ―Esther Yi, Los Angeles Review of Books
“[D]eeply eloquent writing… St. Aubyn's mastery of language--and the resonance it can hew--can't help but come through.” ―Brian Gallagher, The Seattle Times
“Lost for Words is a withering satire... a deliciously irreverent novel.” ―Jonathan Yardley
“St. Aubyn's is a subtle, dry, and often dark type of humor... [he] once again skewers privilege in a humorous way.” ―Jason Diamond, Flavorwire
“Lost for Words [is a] savage field report. ...The best and meanest parts of the book are its pitch-perfect parodies of fashionable genres...” ―Eugenia Williamson, Boston Globe
“[Lost for Words] contains some of the best writing we're likely to read this year.” ―Hannah Beckerman, Huffington Post
“A light-footed romp and a notable taboo-buster… a frisky satire on modern literary manners and the funniest thing St. Aubyn has ever written.” ―Sunday Telegraph
“St Aubyn's powers of observation are as sharp as ever.” ―Henry Hitchings, Financial Times
“Lost for Words is a fizzing satire that neatly skewers all the contradictions of literary prize-giving… Lost for Words is very funny, but it also makes some serious points about what is good writing, who is best qualified to make judgments about it… [The Melrose novels] are the most extraordinary transmutation of personal horror into great art.” ―Telegraph magazine
“[St. Aubyn is] an adept observer of the elite with a devastating talent for dialogue…” ―Chicago Tribune
“A tangy jeu d'esprit… [St. Aubyn] is such a bitchy, brilliant prose writer that any impression this book is a mere scathing divertissement is amply compensated for by nearly every sentence.” ―Metro
“St. Aubyn has a cut-glass prose style, a gift for unexpected metaphor, and a skewering eye… [He] is a conjurer, able to take that greasy deck of cards and make it perform tricks of a sort rarely seen anymore.” ―The Atlantic
“… St. Aubyn offers a hearty satire, full of laughs and groans.” ―Mark Levine, Booklist
“Lost for Words is a... jaunty, often hilarious farce… very, very funny.” ―Alexander Benaim, Bookforum
“Edward St. Aubyn is among the handful of the current giants of English fiction. He has always had an eye for the sort of satire that does not exclude compassion and understanding; now that eye is trained on the absurd world of awarding literary prizes. The results are hilarious!” ―Edmund White
“A laugh-out-loud sendup of literary prizes . . . Both the author and the reader have great fun.” ―Kirkus
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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.
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.
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.