Posts Tagged ‘Edward St. Aubyn’

‘Lost for Words’ by Edward St. Aubyn – Trying Real Hard to be Funny

‘Lost for Words’ by Edward St. Aubyn (2012) – 261 pages

Up until recently, I believed that Edward St. Aubyn could do no wrong as a writer, but that was before I read ‘Lost for Words’. This is his novel satirizing the process for selecting the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Due to his acclaimed 5-novel Patrick Melrose series of which I have read only one novel, Edward St. Aubyn became famous as a humorous literary stylist on the order of Evelyn Waugh and as a brutally funny satirist of the British upper class. Until now, I had only read one other of St. Aubyn’s novels, ‘Dunbar’, which is a pastiche of ‘King Lear’, and the writer turns that bitter family tragedy into a sharp-tongued comedy.

I was expecting great things from ‘Lost for Words’. However…

So what were my problems with ‘Lost for Words’? Nearly everything. The humor is just too broad, too obvious, too over-the-top. The reader is constantly being bombarded with one scene after the next, each more outrageous than the previous and with little connection to reality. The characters are not real characters but stock caricatures of characters.

One of the writers competing for the prize is an Indian Rajah. I don’t believe I’ve encountered an Indian Rajah in a novel since Rudyard Kipling. Do Rajahs still even exist? This is likely an unfair Indian stereotype. The Indian Rajah’s mother has created a cookbook she is trying to publish, and it accidentally gets entered for Booker consideration, and one of the judges champions it as a “ludic, postmodern, multi-media masterpiece.” The book not only makes the longlist but also the shortlist.

One of the novels entered for the Booker is a gritty realistic novel along the lines of Irvine Welsh with the title “wot u starin at”. That is kind of funny. St. Aubyn does include excerpts from these Booker novels which sometimes hit the mark as parody and sometimes do not.

Most of the Booker judges in ‘Lost for Words’ practice literary politics at its smallest and meanest level except for the Oxford academic Vanessa Shaw.

He could hear Vanessa’s exasperation as she gradually realized that the majority of her so-called ‘literary’ novels were not going to make it on to the Short List. She kept trying to argue that the other novels lacked the qualities that characterized a work of literature: ‘depth, beauty, structural integrity, and an ability to revive our tired imaginations with the precision of its language.’

Of course, Vanessa Shaw does not prevail.

I expect the Booker Prize select process is ripe for satirizing, but ‘Lost for Words’ misses its target by being so far out of date and ridiculous.

I do intend to read more of the Patrick Melrose series in the near future as that is St. Aubyn’s still most acclaimed work. I would say read Edward St. Aubyn but avoid ‘Lost for Words’.


Grade :   C


‘Dunbar’ by Edward St. Aubyn – King Lear Comically Revisited


‘Dunbar’ by Edward St. Aubyn   (2017) – 244 pages

‘Dunbar’ is a pastiche on ‘King Lear’ that is a lot of fun. Instead of a King, we have a media mogul. Edward St. Aubyn writes under the reasonable premise that the world media owner families of today are at least as ruthless, petty, and cruel as the ancient royal families of yesteryear. Think Rupert Murdoch.

King Lear is considered one of the most depressing tragedies ever written, depressing even for a Shakespeare tragedy. St. Aubyn turns King Lear from a tragedy into an over-the-top comedy.  We realize from his Patrick Melrose series of novels that St. Aubyn knows just how dysfunctional and flat out crazy some of these aristocratic families can be.  In ‘Dunbar’ he has perfectly captured the lust for power and the wretched behavior of the super wealthy and privileged.

Old man Dunbar as a media king was the high priest of tabloid entertainment for the masses. Now he has just had his lofty position in his media empire swiped from him by his two elder daughters, and they have stuck him away in a remote sanatorium in the Lake District in rural England.

“They stole my empire and now they send me stinking lilies.”


The older daughters outdid themselves professing their great love for their father. The youngest daughter refused to play that game, so Dunbar in a rage disinherited her, a bad move because she is the only one who truly loves him. From the beginning, the two older daughters are portrayed as having an evil wickedness that knows no bounds.

St. Aubyn is one of those authors who understand it is not a novel’s final destination that matters but instead the joys and jests and other acute feelings we experience along the way that matter.  The story is played for laughs, but I suppose it also does contain its share of truth. Edward St. Aubyn is rapidly becoming one of my favorite fiction writers.  There is a verve to his individual sentences that carries the tale. Take this sentence from when Dunbar escapes from the care home into the pastoral moorland of the Midlands:

“The white noise of rushing water helped to camouflage the anxious murmur of his thoughts.” 

Here one of the few quiet moments in the novel is well captured. The humor early on is helped along by Peter who is a drunk but sharp-tongued comedian who plays the Fool in the story.

‘Dunbar’ would be an excellent zany novel even without the shadow of King Lear.


Grade:   A 


%d bloggers like this: