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Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe’s new novel is Middle England.

Late Flann O’Brien

Jonathan Coe, 23 October 2013

We now know almost everything there is to know about Flann O’Brien; and out of this knowledge a story has emerged, a received narrative, which makes a more upsetting kind of sense than anything he ever wrote in his books. Our main, certainly our most detailed source for this story is an item that seems to be out of print: Anthony Cronin’s biography No Laughing Matter, published in 1989. Rarely can a book have borne such an apposite title. Cronin casts O’Brien’s life as a relentless catalogue of frustration, bitterness and repression, accompanied of course by a slow descent into alcoholism.

Giggling along with Boris

Jonathan Coe, 18 July 2013

In 1956, James Sutherland, a professor of 18th-century literature, delivered the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge on the subject of ‘English satire’. ‘In recent years,’ he announced, ‘there have been signs of an increased interest in satirical writing,’ but even he couldn’t have seen what was about to start unfolding in a year or two, on his very doorstep. Beyond the Fringe is routinely credited with starting the ‘satire boom’, but that accolade should really go to The Last Laugh, the 1959 Cambridge Footlights revue.

Alasdair Gray

Jonathan Coe, 20 November 2008

Once a writer passes the age of 70, it’s hard to write anything about him that doesn’t sound like an obituary. The precedents for a sudden upsurge in creative energy after this age are very few, so the urge, for critic and biographer alike, is to look for patterns, to trace threads, to mark peaks and troughs – to impose a form, in other words, on the chaos of the work and...

Vive Tati!

Jonathan Coe, 9 December 1999

Audiences in the old Northern variety halls were notoriously unforgiving. ‘I suppose he’s all right,’ a departing punter is supposed to have said of one hapless comedian, ‘if you like laughing.’ It’s a comment which, like most of the best Northern humour, throbs with multiple ironies. On one level it parodies the supposed miserabilism of its own culture; but on another, it implies just the opposite, because you cannot get the joke, or savour its rueful tang, unless you recognise the assumption on which it rests: that the need for laughter is universal and absolute.‘

The Life of Henri Grippes

Jonathan Coe, 18 September 1997

This enormous volume – beautifully designed, bound and typeset by its publishers – represents the merest sliver of Mavis Gallant’s lifelong achievement. Even discounting the two novels and the books of essays, what we have here can amount to little more than half the content of her nine published short-story collections. Gallant has made the selection herself, rejecting ‘straight humour and satire, which dates quickly … stories that seemed to me not worth reprinting, stories I was tired of, and stories that bored me’. It sounds like a haphazard and subjective methodology, but the resulting sequence does have an awesome cohesiveness.’

Tact

Jonathan Coe, 20 March 1997

This curious, mesmerising book, a hybrid of fiction and memoir which tells the life stories of four unhappy exiles, is the work of a German writer until now almost unknown in this country. It has already scooped up prizes in continental Europe and been published to great acclaim both in Britain and America. The epithets which have been flung at it include sober, delicate, beautiful, moving, powerful, mysterious, civilised and a hundred others: but it would be hard to praise The Emigrants more highly than by saying that it is a supremely tactful book.

Disorientation

Jonathan Coe, 5 October 1995

Umberto Eco began formulating his theories of the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’ text in the late Fifties, and then more than twenty years later, with the publication of The Name of the Rose, he appeared to achieve the impossible, by proving that these two seemingly incompatible forms could in fact be reconciled. This was particularly good news for publishers, who suddenly found themselves dealing with a product which not only had solid highbrow credentials but was also able to shift units, as they say, in the international marketplace, and throughout the Eighties there was much talk of this fabulous hybrid called the ‘Euronovel’, of which the next memorable example was Patrick Süskind’s Perfume. The Last World, a short and cheerless fictionalisation of Ovid’s years in exile by the Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr, was a best-seller throughout most of Europe while doing poorly in this country, but any thoughts that this lucrative sub-genre might have played itself out have been dispelled recently by the extraordinary success of Jostein Gaardner’s Sophie’s World, which with its dexterous combination of narrative interest and philosophical coating is the very model of a Euronovel.

Dunny-Digging

Jonathan Coe, 11 May 1995

Tim Winton’s new novel is full of shit. There are references to it every three or four pages, almost: characters are forever feeling like it, or smelling of it, or coming out with it, or at least kicking it off their boots. Winton’s hero, a builder called Fred Scully, is put through some harrowing emotional paces, and as often as not they affect him primarily in the bowels, which thereby become a potent index of spiritual well-being. The well-behaved, well-regulated bowel belongs to his era of stability and marital contentment: an era that predates this novel but is alluded to nostalgically as a time when Scully was ‘a languid outhouse merchant … who liked to plot and read and reminisce with his trousers down’. And when his spiral downwards into Hell begins – Scully arrives at Shannon Airport to collect his wife and daughter from their Australian flight, but discovers that only the daughter is there to meet him – the first symptoms manifest themselves, naturally enough, in the lavatory, where Scully takes immediate refuge and soon finds himself ‘shitting battery acid’.’…

Principia Efica

Jonathan Coe, 22 September 1994

Like his near-namesake, Tristram Shandy, the unlikely hero of Peter Carey’s new novel begins the story of his life at the very beginning. While he doesn’t go into quite as much detail about the moment of his conception, he appears to have a very clear memory of the minutes leading up to his delivery. As his mother leaves her theatre (where she has been rehearsing the Scottish Play) and sets out for the hospital,

The Biographer’s Story

Jonathan Coe, 8 September 1994

What exactly do we know about Peter Sellers? There have been at least half a dozen biographies before this one, and through them the outline of his career has become pretty familiar. We know that he was born in 1925, the only son of a Jewish mother, that his parents worked in a touring theatre company, and that during the war he joined the RAF and performed in Ralph Reader’s Gang Shows. Soon afterwards he teamed up with Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan to form The Goons: slightly wearing to listen to now (I suppose you had to be there at the time) but routinely credited with having ‘revolutionised British post-war comedy’ – unless that was Monty Python or Beyond the Fringe. He moved slowly but surely into film comedy, was outstandingly good in such low-key successes as The Naked Truth and I’m All Right, Jack, and even turned in memorable performances in a couple of Kubrick films. A combination of his burgeoning superstardom and a succession of no fewer than eight heart attacks in 1964 aggravated all the worst aspects of his character, so that he became increasingly difficult to live and work with. He had four failed marriages, mistreated his son and daughters terribly and did not star in a single good film between 1964 (A Shot in the Dark) and 1979 (Being There). He died a rich man, intending to leave his money to his children and the British Heart Foundation, but in order to effect a temporary reconciliation he had added a codicil to his will bequeathing it to his estranged fourth wife, Lynne Frederick, who kept it all to herself, married David Frost with indecent haste and recently died in California of a drug overdose.’

Shuddering Organisms

Jonathan Coe, 12 May 1994

Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx has been one of the more intriguing literary successes of recent years, and one which raises some interesting questions about the always fraught and problematic relationship between contemporary novelists and the reading public they like to imagine themselves serving. Briefly, the situation is this. In 1989, Palliser published The Quincunx, a narrative of some 400,000 words (1,191 pages in the recent ‘Collector’s Edition’) which so scrupulously recreated the language and conventions of mid-Victorian fiction, its labyrinthine plotting, its vivid characterisation and breadth of social canvas, that it was an immediate success with thousands of readers hungry for a return to the narrative and moral certainties of Dickens, Eliot and Collins. Deservedly, this unusual and ambitious book – 12 years, we are told, in the researching and writing – became an international bestseller.’

On the highway

Jonathan Coe, 24 March 1994

Young English novelists have a hard time of it these days. Not only must they work in the knowledge of an informed critical consensus which holds that their current productions are generally timid, moribund and insular; but to add insult to injury, they are confronted by the galling spectacle of mini-literary-Renaissances springing up all around them among their English-speaking neighbours, as supportive networks of publishers, small presses, magazines, young writers and editors foster the emergence of new and confident national literatures. No doubt this is, to some extent, an Englishman’s ingenuous view of things: but it does seem to me that the majority – the substantial majority – of interesting new writing coming out of these islands at the moment is either Scottish or Irish.’

A Life of Its Own

Jonathan Coe, 24 February 1994

‘Many people would say – there stands English comedy,’ David Frost is reported to have declaimed, as Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams stood side by side on his doorstep. Williams was unimpressed. ‘I thought to myself, “Then many people would be lacking in perception,” but shouted drunken goodbyes and reeled down the street into a taxi.’ What these two Titans of comedy might have said to one another is left entirely to the reader’s imagination. Similarly, the tantalising image of Howerd and Williams sitting down to lunch together in the Pinewood Studios canteen during the filming of Carry On Doctor dissolves brusquely enough into mundanity. ‘He is undoubtedly a very boring man,’ Williams recorded. ‘Loves talking, but there is no really cultivated mind. He continually says “eksetra” which is irritating.’’

Machu Man

Jonathan Coe, 2 December 1993

‘High concept’ is a phrase coined by Hollywood to describe films whose central premise or selling-point is so strong and simple that it can be summed up in a few words: Ivan Reitman’s Twins (‘Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as twin brothers’) is the classic example. Such films are revered in the movie business because they are thought to be childishly easy to market. Tintin in the New World is, by the same token, a ‘high concept’ novel, for its premise can be stated even more succinctly: ‘Tintin grows up.’ In Tuten’s hands (and with the personal blessing, we are told, of his friend and mentor Hergé), the cherub-faced, boundlessly intrepid teenager achieves a miraculous release from his forty-year pre-adolescence and is made to undergo a swift, bruising rite of passage into adulthood. Hair sprouts on his chest, his voice breaks, he gets his first erection and to his own wide-eyed bewilderment finds himself in the midst of an awakening that is at once sexual, romantic and political.

Doing justice to the mess

Jonathan Coe, 19 August 1993

The triumphs of this novel are at once tiny and enormous. Tiny because, like its predecessor A Strange and Sublime Address, it tells only of a placid and uneventful life, a life of domesticity, routine and small daily rituals, in which a ride on a bus or a rendezvous in a café is the closest we are likely to come to adventure; enormous because Chaudhuri has once again turned this unspectacular material into something enchanting, studded with moments of beauty more arresting than anything to be found in a hundred busier and more excitable narratives. Part of the reader’s exhilaration, for that matter, derives from our awareness that the substance of the book is so perilously thin: as we watch Chaudhuri weave such intricate patterns from it, the pleasure we take in his daredevilry is analogous to the excitement of hearing a virtuoso raag singer performing an act of controlled improvisation.

Wheezes

Jonathan Coe, 13 May 1993

Samuel Beckett was one of the first to realise that in a predominantly agnostic and sceptical age, nothing could be more irrelevant than the novel whose plot continued to imitate the workings of a benign deity: the writer’s new task, on the contrary, consisted in finding ‘a form that accommodates the mess’. Half a century has gone by since then, and still, both in and out of the mainstream, novelists are struggling to adapt their narrative strategies to the demands of a reality which, as any glance at the newspapers will remind us, grows daily more grotesque and unmanageable. In particular the threat of terrorism begins to look forever closer and more insistent when passed through the media’s magnifying lens, and any writer seeking to address this subject must face up to the possibility that tidy endings are not to be relied upon: that our lives (our narratives, in other words) run the perpetual risk of truncation by sudden, unexpected acts of violence which are dauntingly inexplicable in terms of cause and effect. In the words of Howard Beamish, one of the central characters in Penelope Lively’s new novel, reality ‘has never been quite so devastatingly random’.

What else is new?

Jonathan Coe, 11 March 1993

One of the more disarming sentences in Francisco Goldman’s impressive first novel-comes near the end, when his hero-narrator, Roger Graetz, takes a bus journey up into the Guatemalan highlands and stops off in a village just as the Indians are packing up their market in a dirt plaza. Brooding over what he knows about the village – how the army has only recently allowed nuns and priests back in, how the Indians have refused to return to the rectory because of all the people who have been tortured to death there – Roger finds himself tiredly incapable of outrage, and almost catches himself responding to the story with a jaded shrug of the shoulders: ‘Poverty, soldiers, nuns and priests, torture’ he reflects, ‘what else is new?’’

Gray’s Elegy

Jonathan Coe, 8 October 1992

This is Alasdair Gray’s funniest novel, his most high-spirited, and his least uneven. All of which does not necessarily make it his best, but certainly means that we have a nice surprise on our hands when you consider that Gray has spent much of the last few years publicly and gloomily announcing the death of his fictional imagination. That process began in 1985, with the postscript to Lean Tales, the short story collection he shared with Agnes Owens and James Kelman. ‘A director of a London publishing house,’ he wrote (in the third person), ‘asked him if he had enough stories to make another collection. Gray said no. There was a handful of stories he had intended to build into another collection, but found he could not, as he had no more ideas for prose fictions. From now on he would write only frivolous things like plays or poems, and ponderous things like A History Of The Preface or a treatise on The Provision Merchant As Agent Of Evil In Scottish Literature From Galt To Gunn.’

Sydney’s Inferno

Jonathan Coe, 24 September 1992

Mess is one of the distinguishing features of Janette Turner Hospital’s writing, but also one of its abiding themes: and part of the reader’s difficulty has always been to decide how much of the mess is intention, and how much miscalculation. The characters in Borderline, her 1985 novel which has many formal similarities with The Last Magician (including an obsession with Dante), are all engaged in transgressing boundaries, whether willingly or not, and the title story of her collection Isobars makes explicit its preoccupation with ‘ideas of order’ imposed upon a messy and shifting reality Lines drawn on a map, she wrote in that story, are ‘talismanic’ and represent ‘the magical thinking of quantitative and rational people’. Her latest novel gives this notion an urgent political twist, by supposing that the ‘ideas of order’ entertained by our governing classes are equally talismanic, and that their regulating power is in fact just as illusory as the power of isobars to make sense of ‘the sloshing flood of time and space’. From the perspective of a smart garden party overlooking Sydney harbour, the line separating order (of which Hospital disapproves, because it’s authoritarian) from chaos (of which she approves, because it’s human) is called sharply into question: ‘Where else,’ her narrator asks, ‘is the membrane between man icured lawn and quarry so wafer thin?’ The ‘quarry’ referred to here is a nightmarish warren into which Sydney’s underclass has been driven: Hospital likes to describe it in terms of Dante’s hellish circles, its outer regions consisting of seedy pubs and bars, its innermost recesses taking the form of hideaways beneath railway tunnels and tube lines. Somewhere in side this labyrinth there is a woman called Cat, and the search to find her keeps the plot’s engine ticking over, although the narrator is certainly in no hurry to let us know why it should be so important, Eventually we learn of a childhood trauma. A quartet of friends indulge in a dangerous game which goes tragically wrong. When the blame is laid, unjustly, on Cat, she is sent away to reform school and from that day onward can never be persuaded to speak. One or the participants and chief witnesses to the injustice, a young prig called Robinson Gray, keeps quiet about his part in it and grows up to be a distinguished judge even while the secret continues to burn away inside him. The other two children, one called (confusingly) Catherine and the other a Chinese Australian by the name of Charlie Chang, spend the rest of then horrified lives trying to make contact with Cat, tracing her fleeting appearances through strip joints, prisons and police files in Sydney and Brisbane.

Beautiful People

Jonathan Coe, 23 July 1992

It might seem a rather obvious point to make at the outset, but two of these novels are extremely long. Long novels make specific demands on our patience and attention, and in the end this can hardly help translating itself into a claim for their own importance: both Brightness fails and The Lost Father constitute invitations to spend at least ten or twelve hours of our pressured lives listening to the voices of their authors. The physical weight of these books, then, announces their literary weightiness, but this creates formal problems for both writers. Although by the end of Mona Simpson’s novel we are in no doubt as to the seriousness of her themes or her genuine gift for plot, a huge amount of the surface texture of her book is taken up with the kind of homespun detail and domestic minutiae which we associate with the American minimalist writers, and it takes a long time for the reader to become convinced that there is material here for a sustained 500-page narrative rather than a Carveresque short story. As for McInerney, we have grown so used to thinking of him as a purveyor of brittle, epigrammatic fictions that there is an immediate sense of unease in seeing his characteristic milieu, preoccupations and ironies suddenly being given the full-blown neo-Dickensian treatment.

Palimpsest History

Jonathan Coe, 11 June 1992

In her recent collection Stories, Theories and Things, Christine Brooke-Rose was casting around for a generic term under which to classify such diverse novels as Midnight’s Children, Terra Nostra and Dictionary of the Khazars, and came up with ‘palimpsest history’. What all of these books have in common is their interest in the recreation of a national history: a history which, in each case, has been erased or fragmented, subsumed beneath layers of interpretation, forgetting, writing and rewriting. If the genre has up until now seemed somehow alien to our own traditions, very much the product of something called ‘World Literature’, a kind of superleague of writers; whose work is, above all, thoroughly (and enviably) internationalised, this may be because we have so far lacked a really distinguished English entry in the field. We have been dogged, perhaps, by an assumption that English history and the English landscape do not in themselves offer a broad enough canvas (rather in the way that whole generations of film critics have allowed themselves to be persuaded, on the basis of Truffaut’s throwaway remark about the uncinematic qualities of this same landscape, that Britain can never produce films of world stature).

Calvinoism

Jonathan Coe, 26 March 1992

‘What tends to emerge from the great novels of the 20th century is the idea of an open encyclopedia,’ wrote Calvino in 1985, the year of his death. Tracing the lineage of the encyclopedic novel through Perec, Mann, Proust and Flaubert, he homes in on the figures of Carlo Emilio Gadda and Robert Musil, two ‘engineer-writers’ who have one quality in common: ‘their inability to find an ending’. Despite his own love of arcana and encyclopedic forms, Calvino’s relationship to this tradition was always tangential, for the simple reason that, in his own words, ‘my temperament prompts me to “keep it short” ’: but now we have two volumes which, because unfinished, are more defiantly, maddeningly ‘open’ than anything else in his canon, and which can therefore scarcely avoid taking on something of the glamour which in Gadda’s novels was an intrinsic quality – their sense of being ‘left as fragments, like the ruins of ambitious projects that nevertheless retain traces of the splendour and meticulous care with which they were conceived’.’

Something else

Jonathan Coe, 5 December 1991

The traditional self-contained, sensibly-proportioned novel, still very much the dominant influence on today’s literary scene, is called gently into question by each of these writers. Carey Harrison, with ostensibly the second (although in fact the first) volume of what looks set to become a monumental tetralogy, puts pressure on the boundaries of the form by insisting that it absorb a near-infinity of characters, events and incidental detail. Less ambitious, but more subversive, Christopher Stevenson and Hugh Nissenson seek to dismantle the system from within by producing novels which look like something else altogether: a form of experimentation which often has rather puritanical motives behind it – the assumption being either that existing literary forms have played themselves out or that it’s somehow possible to get closer to an uncorrupted version of the truth if the trappings of novelistic convention are done away with.’

Australian Circles

Jonathan Coe, 12 September 1991

Both of these Australian novels describe circles. Carey, forsaking the confident historical sweep of Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker to focus once again on the horrors of modern suburbia, traces the vicious circles of a family history in which successive generations are debilitated by a legacy of abuse. Rodney Hall tells of a convict at large in New South Wales in 1838, caught up in larger, even more powerful cycles of captivity and exploitation, until he finds temporary sanctuary with an Aboriginal tribe and becomes ‘the very centre of their circle’. Both novels end with violence: but only Carey’s has the nervous optimism to suggest that this might provide a means, however damaging, of breaking loose from an imprisoning pattern.

There was and there was not

Jonathan Coe, 4 April 1991

Amos Oz and David Grossman are both political writers. This might seem an obvious statement, given that they are well-known for being politically vocal and have both written political (non-fiction) books consisting of interviews with their Palestinian and Israeli countrymen. But the main thing is that they also write intensely and truthfully political novels of the sort which tend to he thin on the ground in Britain. Partly, no doubt, this is a question of Israel’s history, and of the urgency of the material which it offers, hut there’s also the possibility that when a writer decides to leap boldly into the area where ideology leaves off and action begins, significant analogies between political and literary activity start to emerge. One of them has to do with the nature of lies, because the fundamentalist Platonic position that ‘telling stories is telling lies’ has haunted the conscience of the imaginative writer for centuries. Even Sidney’s attempt to brush it off by claiming that the poet ‘nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth’ seems more than a little shifty: a real politician’s manoeuvre, in fact. It doesn’t deflect attention from the central link between politics and literature, which is that they both boil down to the art of lying in the name (supposedly) of a higher truth.

Conversions

Jonathan Coe, 13 September 1990

The terms ‘Catholic writers’ and ‘women writers’ were invented by critics to make their own lives easier, at the cost, no doubt, of making the lives of certain authors more exasperating. They are dangerous terms because they tempt us to lump writers like Muriel Spark and Alice Thomas Ellis together, especially when there are other alluring points of comparison, such as a characteristic tone which at first can seem no more than coolly ironic, and even – in these latest books – some clear similarities of plot (both novels touch on the predicaments of women who know they are about to be murdered). As it turns out, though, just about the only thing which Symposium and The Inn at the Edge of the World have in common is a readiness to be ceaselessly entertaining even when absorbed in the treatment of issues which are, for both authors, of the most deadly seriousness. If the contrasts in temperament and narrative method are what strike us first, it seems likely that these will finally boil down to a fundamental difference in the sense of what it means to be a Catholic: so this has to be addressed, however much we may feel – in Muriel Spark’s case, anyway – that the field has already been ploughed pretty thoroughly.’

Skullscape

Jonathan Coe, 12 July 1990

In the first place, let’s try to forget the word ‘experimental’, which has always been one of criticism’s more useless bits of terminology. There is really only one distinction to be made: between those novelists who think carefully about form, and those who do not. If there is anything new to be said, after all, the chances are that there will have to be found new ways of saying it, and yet nothing seems to send readers running for cover more quickly than the suggestion that they are to be thrown in at the deep end of the novel’s liquid possibilities. Perhaps this explains why one of this country’s more ambitious fictional enterprises has, for the last 11 years, been taking shape more or less under cover of secrecy. Nicholas Mosley’s Catastrophe Practice, published in 1979, was the first of a series of five highly intelligent novels, ostensibly concerned with the shifting relationships of a small group of characters, and linked less by narrative than by a patchwork of recurring images and thematic obsessions. The first book introduced the protagonists by the roundabout means of three plays and a short novel: it also included some polemical essays which took pains to set out the rationale behind the project very clearly. They stressed the need to devise new structures of thinking and language which would ‘provide for both art and science an encompassing covenant’: the need for a new literature of self-consciousness (‘the theatre has been accustomed to observe how people behave; what might now be observed is people’s observing’); and the need for new literary forms which jettison the dishonesties of tragedy and comedy in favour of a more explicitly liberal, optimistic and humanist position (this in the wearied knowledge that ‘to suggest working optimism in a sophisticated world is to be thought presumptuous’). The second novel, Imago Bird, followed the London-based adventures of Bert, a mixed-up 18-year-old who – like Mosley himself – happened to be related to a famous politician and afflicted with a nasty stammer. Serpent, the third in the series, was set almost entirely on an aeroplane carrying Bert’s sister Lilia and her husband Jason to a film location in Israel. The eponymous heroine of Judith was a young actress who became, at various points, the lover of each of the male protagonists. And now we have the concluding volume, Hopeful Monsters, which surprises both in the density of its intellectual lumber and in its comparatively straightforward way of unloading it onto the reader. In tracing the love affair of Max Ackerman (previously referred to as ‘the Professor’) and Eleanor Anders (often identified in the earlier novels by her pudding-basin haircut) it manages to take in most of the scientific and political highlights of the Twenties and Thirties: unrest in Berlin, the rise of the Nazis, the Spanish Civil War, the splitting of the atom – it’s all here.’

My Wife

Jonathan Coe, 21 December 1989

Bloomsbury have again brought out their hefty collection of contemporary writing just in time for Christmas, and indeed the enterprise is suffused with a sort of Christmas spirit. This ‘feast of new writing’ conjures up images of a lavish get-together where the nation’s literati – that quarrelsome but essentially close-knit family – bury their differences and gather noisily around the dinner table. Crusty old patriarchs and rebellious daughters sit in amicable adjacency, Candia McWilliam pulls crackers with Harold Pinter, and the whole atmosphere (though no one would like to admit it) is rather jolly.’

Openly reticent

Jonathan Coe, 9 November 1989

There comes a time in the lives of most public figures, it seems, when the exhortation of agents and publishers becomes too much to resist and there is nothing for it but to start writing books about themselves. In the case of Robin Day (Sir Robin, I suppose, if one is not to repeat Mrs Thatcher’s famous gaffe) that time has come at the age of 68; in the case of Kenneth Branagh, at the age of 28. Make of that what you will.

Jonathan Coe

Nick Richardson, 3 March 2016

On 18 July​ 2003, the body of the weapons inspector David Kelly was found in the woods on Harrowdown Hill in Oxfordshire, two months after he’d revealed that the Blair administration had...

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B.S. Johnson

Colin Burrow, 11 April 2013

Until very recently I had never read any B.S. Johnson. I had a staticky reminiscence of what he might have been, which could be represented, using his own idiosyncratic conventions for marking the...

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Jonathan Coe

Daniel Soar, 18 October 2007

People think they like reading Jonathan Coe’s novels for any number of reasons. For their satirical sharpness, for instance: What a Carve Up! (1994) – the carve-up in question...

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Disappointing sequels

Christopher Tayler, 21 October 2004

In Like a Fiery Elephant, his recent biography of B.S. Johnson,* Jonathan Coe writes feelingfully about the perils of too much Eng. Lit. He ‘emerged from the experience of reading English...

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B. S. Johnson

Frank Kermode, 5 August 2004

B.S. Johnson died by his own hand in 1973. He was 40, and the author of seven novels, all of them rather odd in ways that put publishers off because their oddities made them expensive to produce...

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Jonathan Coe

Ian Sansom, 10 May 2001

There are those who like to mortise a plot, carefully and neatly, and there are those who are content simply to bang it together with panel pins and a tube or two of Gripfill. Jonathan Coe is...

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You see stars

Michael Wood, 19 June 1997

In the early Eighties, British novelists worried a lot about history. Where had it gone, why had it left so few traces, why did it still hurt? How could it simultaneously seem so irrelevant and...

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Theydunnit

Terry Eagleton, 28 April 1994

Gothic horror tale, detective mystery, autobiography, political history: Jonathan Coe’s appealingly ambitious new novel involves a promiscuous intermingling of literary genres, as a potted...

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Deep down

Julian Symons, 28 June 1990

What is it really about, and why was it written like this? The questions are never unreasonable when confronted with works that suggest the possibility of other meanings present beneath the...

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Strong Meat

John Lanchester, 11 January 1990

Harry Fonstein, one of the four main characters in The Bellarosa Connection, is a now-prosperous American-Jewish businessman who was saved from a Fascist prison and smuggled to America by Mafia...

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