In recent years, few British authors have managed to straddle the line between critical acclaim and commercial success quite as effectively as Jonathan Coe.
Much admired for his earlier novels, such as The Accidental Woman, The House Of Sleep and, in particular the era-defining What A Carve Up!, Coe with 2001's The Rotters Club went on to also achieve bestseller status. Its portrayal of growing up in the Britain of the 1970s gave full range to the humour, political awareness and, perhaps most significantly, compassion that lie at the heart of much of Coe's work.
His new novel, The Closed Circle, brings the story of Benjamin Trotter and his younger brother Paul, last seen as Birmingham schoolboys, to its close. After the bright enthusiasm of youth displayed in the first book, The Closed Circle gives full vent to the disappointment and disenchantment of a middle age lived in a time of New Labour and those annoyingly mislaid weapons of mass destruction.
The past year has also seen the publication of Coe's biography of the writer B.S. Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant. A remarkable book, it not only helped restore B.S. Johnson's reputation as a genuinely innovative writer, but also provided a unique study of the relationship between a biographer and his subject. It focuses particularly upon the doubts and uncertainties both writers have struggled with regarding a justification for conventional 'story-telling' within the innovations of modern literary fiction.
Following the recent adaptation of The Rotters' Club for British TV and to coincide with the publication The Closed Circlein Italy (Circolo chiuso), Jonathan kindly agreed to talk to Three Monkeys Online.
After What a Carve Up!‘s dissection of Britain in the 1980s, The Rotters’ Club‘s slightly rosier view of the 1970s, and The Closed Circle's setting in the present day, I began by asking how comfortable he now felt being described as a ‘State of the Nation’ writer.
“Writers never feel comfortable having labels attached to them, however accurate they are. It was never my intention to produce definitive accounts of particular decades, or to attempt ‘State of the Nation’ writing. But I have always – ever since The Accidental Woman – written novels about individuals attempting to make choices in the context of situations over which they have no control. As the books grew bigger and more ambitious, the situations in question sometimes became political ones, and so it became necessary to start painting in the social background on a scale which eventually became panoramic. It seems to me that you would have to write a novel on a very small, intimate scale for it not to become political. As soon as you start writing about how human beings interact with each other socially, you’re into politics, aren’t you? I think it’s also the case that I’m not as widely travelled, or as well-educated in history, as most of the other novelists I meet: so I have to write about my own country, at the present time, because it’s more or less all I know about! Contemporary Britain seems an endlessly fascinating place to me – but if I knew a little bit more about other places, and other times, maybe it wouldn’t.”