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Through Plate-Glass

Ian Sansom: Jonathan Coe, 10 May 2001

The Rotters’ Club 
by Jonathan Coe.
Viking, 405 pp., £14.99, April 2001, 0 670 89252 1
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... those who are content simply to bang it together with panel pins and a tube or two of Gripfill. Jonathan Coe is undoubtedly the craftsman – a counter-sinking, dove-tailing, professional-finishing kind of writer. But he does get away with the occasional bodge. The framing device for his new novel, The Rotters’ Club, for example, seems to be held ...

Openly reticent

Jonathan Coe, 9 November 1989

Grand Inquisitor: Memoirs 
by Robin Day.
Weidenfeld, 296 pp., £14.95, October 1989, 0 297 79660 7
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Beginning 
by Kenneth Branagh.
Chatto, 244 pp., £12.99, September 1989, 0 7011 3388 0
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Storm over 4: A Personal Account 
by Jeremy Isaacs.
Weidenfeld, 215 pp., £14.95, September 1989, 0 297 79538 4
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... 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 ...

My Wife

Jonathan Coe, 21 December 1989

Soho Square II 
edited by Ian Hamilton.
Bloomsbury, 287 pp., £12.95, November 1989, 0 7475 0506 3
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... 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 ...

Wheezes

Jonathan Coe, 13 May 1993

Cleopatra’s Sister 
by Penelope Lively.
Viking, 282 pp., £14.99, April 1993, 0 670 84830 1
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... of them. Whereas in a novel like Kundera’s Immortality, for instance, narrative and analysis coexist in a relationship of tantalising obscurity, the light they are meant to cast on one another only beginning to dawn as the book itself draws to a close, Lively’s compulsive philosophising serves no purpose except to make needlessly explicit the ideas ...

Doing justice to the mess

Jonathan Coe, 19 August 1993

Afternoon Raag 
by Amit Chaudhuri.
Heinemann, 133 pp., £3.99, June 1993, 0 434 12349 8
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... 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 ...

Principia Efica

Jonathan Coe, 22 September 1994

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith 
by Peter Carey.
Faber, 422 pp., £14.99, September 1994, 0 571 17197 4
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... 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, things started happening faster than she had expected ...

Hindsight Tickling

Christopher Tayler: Disappointing sequels, 21 October 2004

The Closed Circle 
by Jonathan Coe.
Viking, 433 pp., £17.99, September 2004, 0 670 89254 8
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... 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 at Cambridge’, he explains in the introduction, ‘imbued with a thriving, unshakeable contempt for anyone who had had the temerity to attempt the writing of literature in the last seventy or eighty years ...

Nate of the Station

Nick Richardson: Jonathan Coe, 3 March 2016

Number 11 
by Jonathan Coe.
Viking, 351 pp., £16.99, November 2015, 978 0 670 92379 3
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... Britain, making it ‘unquiet, haunted’. Number 11 is a kind of sequel to What a Carve Up!, Coe’s satirical masterpiece of 1994, but it’s very different in tone: the raging satire has been dampened down, leaving melancholy edged with dread. It’s drizzly, the forecast might say, with a chance of supernatural doom. Number 11 follows What a Carve ...

Something else

Jonathan Coe, 5 December 1991

In Black and White 
by Christopher Stevenson.
New Caxton Press, 32 pp., £1.95
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The Tree of Life 
by Hugh Nissenson.
Carcanet, 159 pp., £6.95, September 1991, 0 85635 874 6
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Cley 
by Carey Harrison.
Heinemann, 181 pp., £13.99, November 1991, 0 434 31368 8
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... 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 ...

Skullscape

Jonathan Coe, 12 July 1990

Hopeful Monsters 
by Nicholas Mosley.
Secker, 551 pp., £14.95, June 1990, 0 436 28854 0
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... 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 ...

Australian Circles

Jonathan Coe, 12 September 1991

The Tax Inspector 
by Peter Carey.
Faber, 279 pp., £14.99, September 1991, 0 571 16297 5
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The Second Bridegroom 
by Rodney Hall.
Faber, 214 pp., £13.99, August 1991, 9780571164820
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... 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 ...

Calvinoism

Jonathan Coe, 26 March 1992

Six Memos for the Next Millennium 
by Italo Calvino, translated by Patrick Creagh.
Cape, 124 pp., £5.99, February 1992, 0 224 03311 5
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Under the Jaguar Sun 
by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver.
Cape, 86 pp., £10.99, February 1992, 0 224 03310 7
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The Fountains of Neptune 
by Rikki Ducornet.
Dalkey Archive, 220 pp., $19.95, February 1992, 0 916583 96 1
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Small Times 
by Russell Celyn Jones.
Viking, 212 pp., £14.99, February 1992, 0 670 84307 5
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... 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 ...

Gray’s Elegy

Jonathan Coe, 8 October 1992

Poor Things 
by Alasdair Gray.
Bloomsbury, 317 pp., £14.99, September 1992, 0 7475 1246 9
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... 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 ...

Palimpsest History

Jonathan Coe, 11 June 1992

Ulverton 
by Adam Thorpe.
Secker, 382 pp., £14.99, May 1992, 0 436 52074 5
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Kicking 
by Leslie Dick.
Secker, 244 pp., £13.99, May 1992, 0 436 20011 2
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Frankie Styne and the Silver Man 
by Kathy Page.
Methuen, 233 pp., £13.99, April 1992, 0 413 66590 9
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... 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 ...

Beautiful People

Jonathan Coe, 23 July 1992

Brightness Falls 
by Jay McInerney.
Bloomsbury, 416 pp., £15.99, May 1992, 0 7475 1152 7
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The Lost Father 
by Mona Simpson.
Faber, 506 pp., £14.99, May 1992, 0 571 16149 9
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Out with the Stars 
by James Purdy.
Peter Owen, 192 pp., £14.99, June 1992, 0 7206 0861 9
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... 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 Falls 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 ...

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