The buzz was that this was a radical departure from his previous work. An exaggeration, fortunately.
The most significant novelty is that its structure—while still more concise and deliberate than 99% of living novelists—shows St. Aubyn experimenting with a slightly more digressive mode. All but one of the Melrose books adhere to the classical unities, with a handful of characters going about their business in one place, within a day. In this book Racine cuts loose a bit.
And yes, Lost doesn’t feature Patrick Melrose or any of his disastrous family and friends. Their absence is filled by an entirely new cast of characters, as St. Aubyn turns his attention from aristocracy to meritocracy. Business, politics, and cultural posturing in their most appalling modern forms intersect in the behind-the-scenes story of a prestigious annual award for fiction—“The Elysium Prize.” Each of the characters is an all-too familiar feature of the contemporary landscape: the prematurely peaked politician, the unaccountably famous columnist, an exploited academic, an actor unjustifiably credited with intelligence, a retired semi-VIP with inexplicable success as an author of trashy thrillers, …. And that’s just the Jury.
St. Aubyn also provides a representative sample of novelists, publishers, agents and literary hangers-on of varying degrees of personal and intellectual hideousness. And he doesn’t just describe the hideousness: he gives examples. Lost presents extended extracts from the rubbish being considered for the Elysium. These virtuoso pieces demolish most of the current modes, from the gimmicky lowbow (Wut u starin at?) to the enervated highbrow (The Frozen Torrent). Since St. Aubyn would cut his dick off rather than publish an inelegant sentence, these parodies have an added kick. His distaste for Hilary Mantel-style historical fiction inspires a breathtaking description of an idiot reading an idiotic novel:
Penny couldn’t help admiring the way it made you feel you were really in a tavern with William Shakespeare and his pals. That was the wonderful thing about historical novels, one met so many famous people. It was like reading a very old copy of Hello! magazine.
Not confining himself to freaks of the UK, St. Aubyn also includes an Indian grandee with an unpublishable novel based on his childhood and a Frenchman who continuously unspools an endless stream of inane theoryspeak. The outrageous racist stereotypes are clearly bait for numbskull critics, who he also detests.
This enormous cast of typical characters gives Lost an allegorical air. I suspect that’s deliberate, and part of the fun.But the farcial pageant aspect is regularly disrupted by cruelty that is vividly actual. Indeed the damaged children of the academic and the thriller-hack who lurk off stage suggest that this might be a Melrose novel after all, with the difference that it’s written from the point of the view of the parents rather than the children.
And then there’s the man-eating novelist Katherine Burns. Her adventures and misadventures provide the thread that links all the characters. She’s thoroughly up-to-date, but every gesture betrays her heritage as the grand-daughter of one of Waugh’s lethal sirens. “But I love you …” one of her admirers manages to gasp over the phone, and so quickly that there's no time for any punctuation, “She hung up before he could finish his unpromising sentence.” I wonder how many literary women in London are currently absolutely positively denying that they provided the model for Katherine.
If the Melrose novels were the story of individual decadence, this is a story of a collective decadence. Art and culture transformed into their opposites. I see Lost has won the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction.
I remember reading in the 1980s the confessions of an obsessive book-collector, who began to recover from his addiction when he admitted to a friend that he was about to spend his last $5000 on a set of the complete works of Anthony Trollope. The confession brought home the absurdity of this desire, and from that moment he began to see a life beyond the rare volumes he could possess.
An ethical, moral and psychological breakthrough worth more than any book, certainly. But thirty years on, Amazon sells an e-book version of that Complete Works for $2.51—which rather defuses any controversy. And so people like me can embark on reading all of Trollope’s novels in chronological order—from The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847) to An Old Man's Love (1884).
I just finished #3, La Vendée: An Historical Romance (1850). I suppose after Sir Walter Scott made historical fiction popular and respectable, it was the duty of every aspiring novelist to try a historical romance. But Vendée demonstrates that AT had no talent for romance and no talent for melodrama. The French Revolution is an impossible subject for him, even worse than the Irish provincial life of his first two novels. It’s instructive and sobering to see that it took the most intensely English of English novelists three books to discover that his true and singular subject was English men and women.
Besides giving easy access, e-books editions of old texts have also inaugurated a new era of typos which, it's already clear, will vie with the achievements of Dark Ages. My favorite so far is how Trollope’s description of a Capuchin monk’s “coarse brown frock,” is translated in the Kindle into, “arse brown frock” …
[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Big Fish Eat Little Fish]
Jimmy Scott died yesterday. I hadn’t realized he had been alive. Like a lot of people, I first heard about him from Jimmy McDonough’s profile "For whatever the reason: all the way with Jimmy Scott," in the Winter 1988 Rock & Roll Quarterly supplement to the Village Voice. It was the most heartbreaking story I’d ever read. But more important, it made me seek out the music.
Scott doesn’t have a lot of range or variety: he’s always quiet, slow and sad. His music does not impose itself. But if you attend, he speaks with such authority and honesty and art that nothing else seems worthwhile.
Now, in retrospect, he's obviously one of those mid-century musicians—jazz and classical—who devoted all their art to crafting nuances rather than making a big sound. He dissected a phrase, elongating a syllable into a wail. Unmistakably a delineation of despair, but also a pure tone presented for the pleasure of it. Its painstakingly calibrated degrees of grain, its contour like the blunt but exact forms of an Ellsworth Kelly drawing. Artistry making it possible to face down despair.
National Theatre Live’s King Lear last Sunday afternoon was the first production of any kind I've seen. It confirmed my suspicion that this is the greatest tragedy of all literature.
I was weeping throughout.
Literary art, and great acting can make you care tremendously about a young girl in trouble with the law for burying her brother, or a young man unsure whether or not to avenge the murder of his father, but the circumstances that create Antigone and Hamlet are remote from most of our lives. Art is required to translate their quirkily specific dilemmas into something universally understandable. But in Lear the necessity for translation is minimal: the conflict is a conflict experienced by pretty much everyone: losing ones grip and/or dealing with someone who is losing their grip.
“Losing ones grip” sounds almost comical, but there could not be a more damning situation in the unforgiving world we have made for ourselves. To be weak is to be automatically not only irrelevant, but disgusting. Lear takes us on the journey from the first apprehension of decrepitude, through all the stages of embarrassment, shame, dehumanization, and on to death. And after death, there is no peace, to redemption, no reconciliation.
As the story is intensely and profoundly ordinary, the poetry—though there are astonishing flights—radiates out of an idiom of luminous plainness:
"O reason not the need"
“O, let me not be mad, sweet heaven!”
"I see it feelingly."
“Ripeness is all …"
“Never, never, never, never, never”.
Knowing him exclusively through reading, I’ve always thought that Lear’s Fool was one of Shakespeare’s supreme creations. However after this production I’m not so sure. Adrian Scarborough was admirable, and the Fool’s oracular lines were shattering. But I’m afraid the jokes fell flat. I don’t think it’s Scarborough’s fault. A Fool who only makes shatteringly profound remarks is not quite a proper Fool at all.
The Earl of Gloucester (Stephen Boxer) and his legitimate son Edgar (Tom Brooke) demonstrate the family trait of being simpletons. They’re even more annoying than Polonius and Laertes. It’s hard to fault Edmund (Sam Troughton) for tormenting them—they kind of deserve it. The beauty of this is that Gloucester evolves over the play from a ninny into a really grand and wise figure. When Edgar cries, "Alack, sir, you cannot see your way,” Gloucester replies, “I have no way and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw."
Our Lear, Simon Russell Beale, is an unprepossessing figure. But he has the pipes: he made the lines sing. And what lines! But even better, he had the moves. He is a subtle and graceful artist with his body. The movements of his head, the trembling of his hands, his stooped gait, his pace …. He described a trajectory from the very first awareness of failure, to collapse and death. The art made it bearable.