Edward St. Aubyn’s recent NPR interview with Terry Gross contains a number of anecdotes about the author’s approach to writing, with one of the choicest being the ultimatum he gave himself as a younger writer. “I made a deal with myself that I would either write a novel and get it published or commit suicide,” he told Gross. “I was very unhappy at that time; I was 28. And it worked and I didn’t disrupt that formula, so I went on writing with the menace of insanity and suicide in the background.” His delivery of this anecdote is marked by the same dryness that you get from some of his characters, and it’s more disconcerting than any other single line the author has ever written.
The interview reveals a great deal about the author that isn’t obvious if you’ve only read his great Patrick Melrose novels — though of all the great sound bytes from the conversation, the most illuminating might be St. Aubyn’s choice to write about his experience as the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his father, seen through the eyes of his largely autobiographical protagonist, and its connection to his own family’s history. About his father’s side, he says, “I’m told we came over with the Norman conquest,” adding, “But I don’t know who ‘we’ is in that sentence.” He mentions that his family still owns land they’ve owned since the 11th century, and that the head of the family has a title and lives in a castle — presumably one that’s at least 500 years old. He admits, “I don’t know why that’s considered a virtue.”
Upon the release of his latest novel, Lost for Words, the interview serves as a nice primer to better understanding St. Aubyn, his writing, his motives, and his ability to have a good laugh at people from privileged backgrounds without being too funny. Anyone who’s familiar with his work knows that St. Aubyn’s is a subtle, dry, and often dark type of humor. With Lost For Words — far more than the Melrose books, and much like 1998’s On the Edge — the dark edge is a bit subtler, and he gives us a cast of characters reminiscent of a Wodehouse novel, all in a situation they really aren’t equipped to handle. That situation is judging the Elysian Prize, a fictional literary award based on Europe’s highest honor for writers, the Man Booker. The scenario has St. Aubyn swimming into those dangerous waters: writers writing about writerly things.
By the end, St. Aubyn arrives at shore safely. A novel-within-the-novel, a literary device that can seem weighty and unnecessary, works just fine here. He presents us with some misguided judges, a handful of writers desperate to win the coveted prize, and the thing that ties them all together: privilege. One of my favorite characters in the book, Sonny, who “could trace his ancestry, according to the highest Brahminical authority, back to Krishna, the dark-blue God,” is a wannabe author convinced he’s written the greatest book ever. Sonny finds himself verbally jousting with a UK border guard who just wants a clear answer about the purpose of his visit, eventually getting Sonny to admit that it’s not for business but pleasure. “Business is my pleasure,” Sonny tells the guard, in total douchebag fashion.
After the beautiful bleakness of the Patrick Melrose books, Lost For Words is a funnier, much more lighthearted read. But ultimately, it’s difficult to feel anything for the characters, other than the recognition that these smart and often well-off people don’t recognize how great they have it. What makes the Patrick Melrose novels great is that they made us feel for Patrick, no matter how screwed up he was or how horribly he behaved. The characters in Lost for Words elicit far less sympathy. St. Aubyn once again skewers privilege in a humorous way, but Lost for Words never feels like more than a follow-up act.