Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe has written thirteen novels, including What a Carve-Up!, The Rotters’ Club and Middle England, as well as a biography of B.S. Johnson.

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.

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.

Nae new ideas, nae worries! 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...

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.’

One​ of the inhabitants of Middle England, the title and the setting of Jonathan Coe’s last novel, part of a location that is also called ‘merrie’, ‘deep’ and...

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Nate of the Station: 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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Fetch the Scissors: 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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Beatrix and Rosamond: 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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Hindsight Tickling: 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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Retripotent: 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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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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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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