Three Monkeys Online

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Closing the Circle: Jonathan Coe In Interview

There is an obvious affection and nostalgia for the 1970s in The Rotters’ Club. Did you find it difficult to tap similar sources of inspiration for more recent times?

“I have to constantly rein in my nostalgia for the 1970s, in case it takes me over and I become one of those grumpy old men who just talks about how much better life was when he was a kid. Of course, it’s not really nostalgia for that period, it’s nostalgia for the person I was then, for the blissful simplicity of my life and the infinity of choices that seemed to be open to me. I’m one of those unlucky people who had a happy childhood. This has two disadvantages: it gives you very little to write about (not enough demons to exorcise) and it means that adult life can only be a let-down in comparison. I live a perfectly happy and comfortable life in Blair’s Britain, but I can’t work up much affection for the culture we’ve created for ourselves: it’s too cynical, too knowing, too ironic, too empty of real value and meaning. (These are clichés, I know – but true ones.) Somehow I intuit that this is a consequence of the Thatcher/Blair infatuation with the free market but I’ve never thought this through systematically. I tend to be better at imagination rather than analytical reason – so while I may be a ‘political writer’, I’m certainly not a political thinker: a distinction which sometimes seems to blur.”

The Closed Circle, responds, in part, to the changing political climate post 9/11. Did you start the novel with this in mind?

“Well, when the novel was planned (in 1997, at the same time as I was planning The Rotters’ Club) of course I could have no foresight of 9/11. But ‘responding to the changing political climate’ is what I’ve done in several of my novels – A Touch of Love, What a Carve Up!, and the last two – so there was no way I was going to write a novel set in 2003 and not have it reflect at least some of the post-September 11 turmoil. That would have been very odd, wouldn’t it?”

The Rotters’ Club has recently been televised and What a Carve Up! dramatised for the radio. How did the two experiences compare for you as writer?

“They were both extremely happy experiences because they both involved working with fantastic writers. I was lucky enough to be able to choose the writers in both cases and it’s probably no coincidence that I went for great television writers who did some of their best work in the 1970s. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads was one of the first portrayals of the grown-up world, the interplay of adult relationships, to have a profound effect on me as a child. The fact that it was a TV sitcom rather than a literary novel is neither here nor there, as far as I’m concerned. It’s simply a great piece of work, about friendship, marriage, memory, class, nostalgia … all of the themes that have preoccupied me ever since. David Nobbs, meanwhile, was meant to be adapting What a Carve Up! for television but the companies in question could never quite seem to commit themselves to it. The poor guy wrote about a hundred draft scripts and then when Radio 4 expressed an interest I immediately suggested using David – not least because he’d put so much work into it already. He’s most famous for The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, of course, and that was another ’70s show I felt a strong connection with – the combination of slapstick and tragedy, satire and melancholy that you also find running through most of my books. David is also a wonderful novelist, grossly underrated in this country because he commits the fatal error of making his books entertaining. Second From Last in the Sack Race is one of the great tragicomic books about childhood – a direct influence on The Rotters’ Club, I’m sure.”

Do you have much of a say in the process of your work being translated? Have you experienced any difficulty with being perceived as a particularly ‘British writer’ in markets outside the UK?

“The biggest markets for my books outside the UK are France and Italy, and those are the two countries where I also have the closest personal relationships with my translators – I don’t know whether that’s a coincidence, or if there’s something to be learned from it. Sometimes translators can be a little too ‘creative’, and it’s a shock when you get to hear about it. A Dutch journalist, for instance, told me he thought it was sadistic that Mark Winshaw, the arms dealer, gets castrated at the end of What a Carve Up!. Well, of course, he doesn’t – he gets his arms cut off, that’s t
he whole joke. But apparently this pun on ‘arms’ didn’t work in Dutch, so the translator had substituted ‘weapon’, and had his penis cut off instead. I was quite aggrieved about that, it seemed a significant change. Perhaps I’m just being squeamish. As for being perceived as a ‘British’ writer, this has been an enormous advantage in all the European countries, where they are fascinated by all things British and seem to read my novels – among other things – as guidebooks to the contemporary British scene. It’s only a drawback in the States, where most people seem to have no real interest in other countries and the notion of a novel which might offer insight into life in the UK doesn’t seem to appeal very widely.”

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