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About this book

Jonathan Coe is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed contemporary British writers. This comprehensive introduction places his work in clear historical and theoretical context, offering extensive readings of the author's ten novels from The Accidental Woman to Expo 58, including the remarkable What a Carve Up! The book explores Coe's biography and his experimentations with narrative, genre and comedy, as well as his thematic preoccupations with history, memory, loss and nostalgia.

The first volume devoted entirely to Coe, this book includes:
• A supporting timeline of key dates in literature and current events
• An examination of the critical reception to Coe's works
• An exclusive interview with Jonathan Coe himself

Table of Contents

Introduction

Frontmatter

1. Introduction

Abstract
Taking this quotation as the starting point, this book invites the reader to examine Coe’s fictional production since 1987 and assess the extent to which it shares the features described above. A ‘novelist who loves (traditional) novels’ (2004b, 7), Coe proudly belongs to that category of writers who, like Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson or Graham Swift, still believe in the powerful drive of story-telling. Just as stories continue to be ‘the bedrock of the novel’, for Coe, ‘narrative curiosity … remains the centrifugal force which draws readers back to the novel’ (2004b, 6). Rather surprisingly, although Coe considers England as ‘a nation of narrators’ and stories as ‘the Englishman’s preferred method of making sense of the world’ (2003), his novels are better received in France and Italy than in England. And yet Coe feels few affinities for such representatives of the French Nouveau Roman as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute or Claude Simon, or for radical modernist or postmodernist writers (with the notable exception of B.S. Johnson), and asserts his attachment to such supposedly outmoded devices as plot, characterization and suspension of disbelief. When he was at university, he felt bewildered and confused by some of the experimental writers he was reading and saw ‘the high modernism of Joyce and Beckett as a straightjacket the novel had to break out of’ (2004b, 6): ‘Someone had instilled at the back of my mind a quaint notion that novels should have an emotional as well as a cerebral impact, that they should contain characters with whom the reader was made to sympathise, that they should carry the reader, buoyed by curiosity, on a propulsive narrative journey’ (2013d).
Vanessa Guignery

2. A Biographical Reading

Abstract
In his biography of B.S. Johnson, Coe argues that the novel should be a self-contained statement: ‘a work of literature should speak for itself, without the need for glossing, interpreting and contextualizing by reference to its writer’s life’ (2004b, 7). However, Coe willingly admits to the autobiographical dimension of some of his work, though none is as autobiographical as his unpublished novels, The Sunset Bell, a book about a university graduate who has been disappointed in love (it was completed in the early 1980s but never published), and Paul’s Dance (the title of a 1981 tune by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra), a conventional Bildungsroman mainly set in Birmingham during a long summer vacation, dealing with the friendship between two Cambridge undergraduates who had been schoolfriends, a book which was abandoned after some 300 pages (Website, Touch; Message Board 14 February 2013). Coe defines What a Carve Up! as a ‘political novel alongside this personal story about my childhood’ (in Lappin, 11), and admits that in The Rotters’ Club, he ‘satirised [himself] as much as [he] could in the character of Benjamin Trotter’ (in Laity) so that the book feels like ‘“semiautobiographical” fiction: a thorough and sometimes uneasy blend of memory and invention’.
Vanessa Guignery

Major Works

3. ‘Funny, Brutalist and Short’: The Accidental Woman, a Touch of Love and The Dwarves of Death

Abstract
Jonathan Coe’s first three novels, The Accidental Woman (1987), A Touch of Love (1989) and The Dwarves of Death (1990), seem to echo B.S. Johnson’s dictum that the novel should ‘try simply to be Funny, Brutalist, and Short’ (1973a, 165). In interviews, Coe can be unjustly harsh about his early production and regularly points out that his first novel was rejected many times by agents and publishers. He gives the number of copies sold for each book (around 300 for each in hardback), considering The Dwarves of Death to be his weakest novel and remarking that: ‘My first three novels had been very pinched and constrained’ (2011). Philip Tew argues for his part that Coe’s early fiction ‘combines a reflexive, self-aware experimentation with a blend of caricature and satirical, ironic distance’ (2008, 47). This aptly captures the specific mode, tone and mood of these novels, all set in the bleak and dreary atmosphere of Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, but frequently illuminated by bouts of fierce humour and farcical comedy. Among the common features of these three novels are the characterization of most protagonists as placid and hapless, the dark humour, the use of self-reflexivity and deconstruction of narrative conventions, as well as the reflexions on memory and the relativity of truth.
Vanessa Guignery

4. What a Carve UP!: A State-of-the-Nation Novel

Abstract
Referring to What a Carve Up! (1994), Coe remembers that his decision to open himself up to ‘the idea of writing a socially panoramic story was incredibly liberating’ (2011). A social and political satire, the novel focuses on the Thatcher era of the 1980s, marked by the triumph of materialism and free enterprise, and the disavowal of community and social welfare. In an article devoted to the ‘fondness and predilection of Britain for state of the nation writing’, Coe pointed out that What a Carve Up! had been ‘written as a response to the seismic changes in British political culture during the 1980s’ (2013d). He was ‘flushed with political and literary certainties’ at the time and the most fixed of these certainties was his anti-Thatcherism (2013d). Coe explains that he used the upper-class Winshaw family as a ‘metaphor for the British ruling elite, whether they were involved in politics, finance, food production, culture or any other area of national life’ (Blog, What a Carve Up!). His undertaking echoes the work of film director Lindsay Anderson who, in If… (1968), depicted a rebellion in a boarding school to offer an anarchic vision of Britain in the late 1960s and in Britannia Hospital (1982) used the institution of a hospital as ‘a metaphor for the whole of British society as it stood on the threshold of the Thatcher revolution in the early 1980s’ (Coe, 2013d).
Vanessa Guignery

5. The Rotters’ Club and the Closed Circle: The Children of Longbridge

Abstract
Like What a Carve Up!, The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004) involve social and political satire and can be regarded as state-of-the-nation novels. The Rotters’ Club portrays England in the 1970s, in particular the dismantling of post-war consensus, the shift towards capitalism, the crisis in the car industry, the stifling of trade unions — which still ‘had real power in those days’ (176) — as well as the growth of ultranationalist and neo-fascist organizations. The Closed Circle deals with the disillusionment provoked by the New Labour of Tony Blair in the 2000s, when most people ‘still believe that they’ve voted in a left-wing party. Whereas really they’ve just voted for another five years of Thatcherism. Ten years. Fifteen, even’ (130). Both novels show that Coe resents the economic ideology people have come to take for granted in Britain: ‘Thatcherism, Majorism, Blairism, Brownism — it doesn’t matter how you label it’ (2013d).
Vanessa Guignery

6. In Search of Lost Time: The House of Sleep and The Rain Before It Falls

Abstract
Ten years separate the publication of The House of Sleep (1997) from that of The Rain Before it Falls (2007), but the two novels share an interest in the intimacy of private emotional lives and evoke ‘an understanding of the workings of human nature’ (Coe, 2013d). Like Sarah in The House of Sleep, the books combine ‘ease and melancholy, lightness and weight’ (1997a, 154) and explore close human relationships — between friends, lovers, family members — and the sense of connectedness and sharing they achieve or fail to conjure. To borrow Coe’s comment on Rosamond Lehmann’s work, a central theme is ‘nothing less than the moral responsibility of human beings towards one another’ (2013d). Unlike What a Carve Up!, The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, both novels essentially leave the historical and political context in the background even if it is never totally absent.
Vanessa Guignery

7. Everyman on the Road and Abroad: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim and EXPO 58

Abstract
While The Rain Before it Falls offered a retrospective of 60 years of a woman’s life and The House of Sleep followed the destiny of a group of young people over two decades, Coe’s most recent novels, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (2010) and Expo 58 (2013), focus on only one year — 2009 and 1958 respectively — and on the trajectory of ordinary men, on the road and abroad. Published in 2010, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, had its origins twenty years earlier when Coe ‘jotted down some ideas for a novel about a travelling salesman driving the length and breadth of Britain’s motorway network’ (Website, Sim). Coe describes his ninth novel as both a picaresque novel indebted to Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones (Website, Sim) and a ‘British “road movie”, finding narrative interest in a journey along the M40, the A5192 and the A74(M)’ (in Laity), a novel which was influenced by Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 epic film O Lucky Man!. In an essay on Anderson, Coe compares the film to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and describes it as ‘a modern version of Candide or The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which a naïve hero journeys through the cities and along the motorways of 70s Britain, looking for enlightenment and encountering a series of strange adventures’ (2013d). Similarly, like the hero (or anti-hero) of an epic, Maxwell Sim ‘undertakes a journey; faces diverse situations and characters; and, learning from his experiences, comes to some moral revelation by the end of the work’ (Hoskin).
Vanessa Guignery

Criticism and Contexts

8. Author Interview

Abstract
I don’t know if I would agree with that description now, but it was certainly on my mind at the time. My introduction to B.S. Johnson was the King Penguin reissue of Christie Malry which came out in 1984, and I believe I started writing The Accidental Woman a few months later. (Incidentally the title of the novel was always simply Maria, until I came up with a new one at the insistence of Colin Haycraft at Duckworth when he published it in 1987. ‘Maria’ appealed to me as a title because it was an homage to all the Beckett protagonists whose names began with M — Murphy, Molloy, Malone etc.) The phrase ‘funny, brutalist and short’ — which I don’t think I recognized at the time as an echo of Samuel Johnson — certainly appealed to me and indeed I quoted it in some of the many letters which I sent out to publishers with my manuscript. Christie Malry, which I had read so recently, is clearly a huge influence on The Accidental Woman, mainly because of the idea of the narrator being in a close and dialogic relationship with his hero, or in this case heroine. But then this was the very aspect of Henry Fielding’s technique that I was exploring in my PhD thesis, so Fielding is probably the older and more fundamental influence.
Vanessa Guignery

9. Other Writings

Abstract
Although Jonathan Coe is mainly known as a novelist, he is also a biographer, an essayist, a short story writer, an as yet unpublished playwright, a film and book reviewer, as well as a music composer. Coe’s most recent experiments in fiction include the writing of two children’s books: The Broken Mirror (2012) and The Story of Gulliver (2013), both first published in Italy. While the latter confirms Coe’s attachment to Jonathan Swift, the former (which has not yet been published in Britain) is a fable which expounds the necessity to believe in dreams and, above all, to dream collectively. The story had an earlier version, entitled Fragment of a Glass, which Coe wrote some 30 years earlier when he was a student. He retained the central metaphor of the broken mirror which reflects a better world than the one we live in and attempted in both versions to ‘capture something about what it was like to grow up, leaving your childhood and your youthful fantasies ruefully behind’ (Website, Broken). In The Broken Mirror, the lonely and melancholy eight-year-old Claire plays in a rubbish dump where she finds a fragment of mirror which reflects ‘not the ordinary, over-familiar things of which her everyday world consisted, but the things she might dream about’. As Claire grows up, the reflections in the mirror change: the ‘vibrant, colourful fantasy world’ of childhood is lost and replaced by familiar surroundings, but always ‘transformed, made more welcoming and beautiful’.
Vanessa Guignery

10. Critical Reception

Abstract
The criticism devoted to Coe’s work may be broadly divided into two categories: while some critics mainly draw attention to the political dimension of the books, seeing them as a satirical portrait of contemporary British society, others are more interested in formal aspects relating to genre, narration, self-reflexivity and intermediality. If Coe’s novels have been extensively reviewed over the years and he himself frequently interviewed, academic criticism of his work has only recently begun to emerge. Serge Chauvin published the first analysis of What a Carve Up! in 1998 (in French), examining the contemporary forms of the detective novel in the book — a generic approach further developed by Vanessa Guignery in 2002 — but it is really only since 2006 (starting with Pamela Thurschwell’s insightful essay on What a Carve Up!) that academics have started taking Coe’s work into serious consideration. His fiction thus features in recent surveys of contemporary British fiction, most notably Dominic Head’s Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction (2002), Nick Rennison’s Contemporary British Novelists (2005), Philip Tew’s The Contemporary British Novel (2007) and Richard Bradford’s The Novel Now — Contemporary British Fiction (2007). To this date, only one academic paper (by Lidia Vianu in 2008) has been devoted to Coe’s first novel The Accidental Woman, while most analyses centre on What a Carve Up!, The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle.
Vanessa Guignery
Additional information