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And then there was ‘Playtime’

Jonathan Coe: Vive Tati!, 9 December 1999

Jacques Tati 
by David Bellos.
Harvill, 382 pp., £25, October 1999, 1 86046 651 6
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... 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 ...

Machu Man

Jonathan Coe, 2 December 1993

Tintin in the New World 
by Frederic Tuten.
Marion Boyars, 239 pp., £14.95, October 1993, 0 7145 2978 8
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... 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 ...

Tact

Jonathan Coe, 20 March 1997

The Emigrants 
by W.G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse.
Harvill, 237 pp., £14.99, June 1996, 1 86046 127 1
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... 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

The Island of the Day Before 
by Umberto Eco.
Secker, 513 pp., £16.99, October 1995, 0 436 20270 0
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... 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 ...

Shuddering Organisms

Jonathan Coe, 12 May 1994

Betrayals 
by Charles Palliser.
Cape, 308 pp., £14.99, March 1994, 0 224 02919 3
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... 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 ...

A Life of Its Own

Jonathan Coe, 24 February 1994

The Kenneth Williams Diaries 
edited by Russell Davies.
HarperCollins, 827 pp., £20, June 1993, 0 00 255023 7
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... 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 ...

The Life of Henri Grippes

Jonathan Coe, 18 September 1997

Selected Stories 
by Mavis Gallant.
Bloomsbury, 887 pp., £25, April 1997, 0 7475 3251 6
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... 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 ...

Clutching at Railings

Jonathan Coe: Late Flann O’Brien, 24 October 2013

Plays and Teleplays 
by Flann O’Brien, edited by Daniel Keith Jernigan.
Dalkey, 434 pp., £9.50, September 2013, 978 1 56478 890 0
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The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien 
edited by Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper.
Dalkey, 158 pp., £9.50, August 2013, 978 1 56478 889 4
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... There were many wonderful running jokes in the first few years of ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, the Irish Times column written, on and off, for almost a quarter of a century by Flann O’Brien (or, if you prefer, Myles na Gopaleen, or Brian O’Nolan). My favourite has always been the catechism of cliché. When things are few, what also are they? Far between ...

Dunny-Digging

Jonathan Coe, 11 May 1995

The Riders 
by Tim Winton.
Picador, 377 pp., £14.99, February 1995, 0 330 33941 9
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... 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 ...

Sinking Giggling into the Sea

Jonathan Coe: Giggling along with Boris, 18 July 2013

The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson 
edited by Harry Mount.
Bloomsbury, 149 pp., £9.99, June 2013, 978 1 4081 8352 6
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... original cast members) and the other three-quarters of the Beyond the Fringe team (Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore), who would go on to present their own take on the nuclear threat, in a sketch called ‘Civil War’.In that sketch, a worried Moore listens trustingly as a succession of posh-voiced government spokesmen seek to reassure him that ...

Conversions

Jonathan Coe, 13 September 1990

Symposium 
by Muriel Spark.
Constable, 192 pp., £11.95, September 1990, 0 09 469660 8
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The Inn at the Edge of the World 
by Alice Thomas Ellis.
Viking, 184 pp., £12.99, September 1990, 9780670832743
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... 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 ...

Sydney’s Inferno

Jonathan Coe, 24 September 1992

The Last Magician 
by Janette Turner Hospital et al.
Virago, 352 pp., £14.99, June 1992, 1 85381 325 7
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Vinland 
by George Mackay Brown.
Murray, 232 pp., £14.95, July 1992, 0 7195 5149 8
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... 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 ...

The Biographer’s Story

Jonathan Coe, 8 September 1994

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers 
by Roger Lewis.
Century, 817 pp., £20, April 1994, 0 7126 3801 6
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... 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 ...

Nae new ideas, nae worries!

Jonathan Coe: Alasdair Gray, 20 November 2008

Old Men in Love: John Tunnock’s Posthumous Papers 
by Alasdair Gray.
Bloomsbury, 311 pp., £20, October 2007, 978 0 7475 9353 9
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Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography 
by Rodge Glass.
Bloomsbury, 341 pp., £25, September 2008, 978 0 7475 9015 6
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... 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 the life ...

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 ...

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