Literary absurdity; The work of Edward St. Aubyn
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 15 September 2015)

At this time of year the normally tranquil life of the literary world erupts in spasms of competitive fury. The Man Booker Prize in England and the Scotiabank Giller Prize in Canada are approaching, the first in October and the second in November. Squads of judges in both countries are arguing their way through piles of apples and oranges and bananas, trying to rank them, knowing that their decisions will be resented and attacked but hoping to make not entirely shameful choices. Lurking deep in their collective unconscious is the memory of those years when decisions were dead wrong, like the time in Canada when judges for the Governor General's Awards spurned Fifth Business, the breakthrough novel of Robertson Davies, in favour of a book no one can remember.

Those involved in judging at the moment should avoid reading, till a calmer period, a satirical English novel by Edward St. Aubyn, Lost for Words (Picador), which appeared last season and is now out in paperback. But everyone not emotionally involved in the process will enjoy it. Lost For Words won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction, which brings the winner an Old Spot Gloucestershire pig and a selection of Bollinger champagne, presented at the Hay Festival.

St. Aubyn turns the judging of the Elysian Prize as a way of imagining British literary life at its most absurd, squalid and hilarious. His offhand ferocity and hyper-typical characters stir memories of Evelyn Waugh.

The Elysian Prize is his fictional version of the Man Booker but with a more interesting sponsor. The Elysian Corporation is an agricultural megapower whose modified seeds are either feeding the hungry of the world or ruining the environment, according to which opinion one accepts. They are world leaders in genetically modified crops, "crossing wheat with Arctic cod to make it frost resistant."

Malcolm Craig, a backbench member of Parliament from Scotland, chairs the prize committee, having accepted this chore in the hope that the publicity will revive his oncepromising career. He thinks he can handle the four other judges. He's not impressed by Jo Cross, a celebrity newspaper columnist, who favours novels with "relevance." He's annoyed by Vanessa Shaw, the obligatory Oxbridge academic, who believes that maintaining standards means condescending to everyone else. Tobias Benedict is a self-adoring actor, too busy to attend any committee meetings or actually read books.

The fourth judge, Penny Feather, my favourite, is a retired Foreign Office official who writes thrillers.

She uses a computer program called Ghost that searches out appropriate clichés for every character or scene: If you enter "assassin," Ghost provides you with "his eyes were cold narrow slits." Feather likes historical novels because you run into so many famous people. It's "like reading a very old copy of Hello! magazine." In other words, there's no resemblance to any Giller judges, which I (as a one-time Giller judge) can testify.

These characters are surrounded by a cast of assorted grotesques, there to widen the range of comedy. Sonny Badanpur, for instance, springs from an ancient noble family in India and has written what he considers a masterpiece, The Mulberry Elephant. He enters it out of generosity, to show British novelists how great books are written.

There's a French intellectual named Didier who spouts theories that he will later publish, as he does with his love letters. He's cast himself as a master of paradox: "Impulsiveness always points to the absence of spontaneity," he will say, or any other clever-sounding remark that pops into his head.

Didier is a former and sometimes current lover of Katherine Burns, a novelist whose many adventures give St. Aubyn's book a dash of sexual excitement. She has had affairs with her supervisor in university, the editor of her book and the Russian owner of her publishing house who gave her a huge advance. At the moment she's living with Sam Black, whose novel, The Frozen Torrent, is an Elysian possibility. There are at least three ex-lovers orbiting around her star, hoping for a second chance. Sam's novels are compendiums of autobiographical anguish and at the moment he's anguished about Katherine.

The novelist Anne Enright, responding to this aspect of Lost for Words, claimed that "if seduction got you literary prizes, then the candidates would be an altogether better-looking bunch." The hard truth, as she sees it, is that in publishing women can only sleep their way to the middle.

For a time it seems that the judges may finally be forced to pick a work of Glaswegian obscenity titled (without capitals) wot u starin at. It seems to be "gritty social realism" from the Glasgow slums, though its authenticity is challenged when the author turns out to be a lecturer in medieval love poetry at Edinburgh University. There's also a book from India of ancient recipes that gets entered by mistake. Of course that can be defended, from a post-modern perspective, as a commendably radical approach to meta-fiction.

Edward St. Aubyn, age 55, has many admirers for his eight books, of which five are the Patrick Melrose novels. (One of them was nominated for the Booker prize.) Their hero struggles with suicidal thoughts and a heroin addiction, resulting from his memories of being raped repeatedly by his father in childhood. After the series got under way a journalist asked St. Aubyn if the childhood passages were autobiographical. He said yes and it became part of his story forever.

Even so, his books are written with a crisp clarity and a fluent sense of comedy. In the fifth book, titled At Last, the first chapter is a brilliantly macabre account of a funeral at which one of the mourners gives Patrick a whispered, highly libellous commentary on the eulogists and the deceased. When St. Aubyn sat down to write his first book, in which he explored his distorted personality and the reasons for it, he told himself that he would either write the book or commit suicide.

Many a reader has reason to be grateful for his decision.

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