Me & Mr Coe
Has He Reached ‘National Treasure’ Status?
They always say it about Alan Bennett, although his field of interest, outside of his wonderful diaries and his fascination with Kafka, eventually returned to being more parochial. Mr Jonathan Coe is another matter entirely. He eschews intellectual chilliness at the risk of being excluded from the so-called literary pantheon. His style is deceptively light, funny yet serious, and the points he wishes to drive home creep up on you. He also returns to pick up his favoured themes in later books.
‘National treasure’ status has a downside; it suggests a line of normality, a soft-spoken lack of intimidation, an appreciation of humour and an avoidance of abrasiveness that won’t upset the status quo. Yet ‘What A Carve Up!’ set out to do just that, and is written with real fire.
He says of himself: I feel like I am working in a tradition, but not in a literary tradition. I felt that I was working in the English style of comedy that began with Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python, Reginald Perrin.’
I’ve been reading Mr Coe since ‘The Dwarves of Death’, and have just finished his most recent, ‘Mr Wilder & Me’. Now I think I have his measure, although it’s always dangerous to think that. But let’s start with non-fiction.
Coe’s lengthy breakdown of the career of BS Johnson, ‘Like A Fiery Elephant’, is as much an homage as a biography. Johnson is largely forgotten now – my editor and I had arguments about his inclusion in ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’. The experimentalist was a working class film maker-writer, very much of his time, producing the kind of surreal stream-of-consciousness books we’ll probably never see the likes of again, and Coe did an amazing job of explaining this avowedly ‘difficult’ author. For me, though, it’s just as interesting for the way in which Johnson illuminates Coe’s work.
Coe nods to BS Johnson’s techniques in his own fiction. Part of ‘Mr Wilder & Me’ is written like a film script, a Johnson technique. It tells the story of a young woman interpreting Greek who winds up on Billy Wilder’s shoot for ‘Fedora’, the director’s unsuccessful film version of the novella by Thomas Tryon (himself a forgotten author). In this, Coe produces a lighter version of his earlier Happy Families-style novel ‘What A Carve-Up!’, which uses the memory of a cheesy old British comedy film to create a dazzling dissection of the British class system in which the hereditary rich destroy the lives of the disenfranchised. ‘Only connect’, indeed, it has more than a touch of latter-day Forster.
But between these are three novels, a satirical tripartite roman à clef charting his avatar, Benjamin Trotter, from schoolboy to later age, culminating in the best, ‘Middle England’. Set against the divisions of Brexit, it’s comedy of deep-English observation but also of disappointment, resignation, compromise and ultimately, understanding.
‘Expo ’58’ takes us into Europe, where so many British authors are drawn in their mature writing. It finds an innocent abroad, a civil servant called upon to open a pub called The Britannia at the World’s Fair in Belgium. He’s there to make sure it doesn’t embarrass the nation, but of course it does after he is duped into espionage and compromise and – inevitably – appalling embarrassment. Here, Coe crosses literary paths with Michael Frayn, author of ‘Toward the End of the Morning’ and ‘Copenhagen’, and the master of bureaucratic cock-ups (‘Make and Break’ was set at a ghastly trade fair in Frankfurt where his hero sold office partitions).
Coe’s real oddity is ‘The House of Sleep’, in which a group of students with sleep issues end up in a clinic dealing with such disorders – it’s oddly obsessive, melancholy and rather haunting, with more than a touch of William Boyd. All of which makes Mr Coe very hard to pin down until you put him with Frayn, Boyd, Tim Lott, the late Graham Joyce and others to find further recurring fascinations with the ‘English condition’, written with strong female characters.
I would suggest he extends in a direct line from writers like Norman Collins (who was perhaps more literal but often brilliant) to help form a backbone of postwar English writing. No wonder ‘Middle England’ plays so well to his strengths. Coe adds an edge of satire that unusually does not strand his books as period pieces; they can be reread with pleasure many years later.
Perhaps he should accept that National Treasure status after all.