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‘An Interview with Jonathan Coe—Looking Backwards and Forwards’

Vanessa Guignery: « Un entretien avec Jonathan Coe — Un regard rétrospectif et prospectif »
Vanessa Guignery


Cet entretien avec Jonathan Coe porte essentiellement sur ses textes de fiction, de son roman The Rotters’ Club (2001) à Number 11 (2015), mais se penche aussi sur le roman qui le fit connaître What a Carve Up! (1994), ainsi que sur ses textes écrits pour les enfants qui sont plus rarement évoqués par la critique.

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1This interview is an edited synthesis of three previously unpublished interviews conducted by Vanessa Guignery in Lyon at the Villa Gillet on 13 February 2014, in Paris at the Pompidou Centre on 5 June 2015 and in Russell Square, London, on 19 June 2017. The interviews were transcribed with the very kind help of Cédric Courtois, Diane Gagneret, Mathilde Le Clainche and Héloïse Lecomte. The editor would like to thank Jonathan Coe for granting permission to publish this interview.

Vanessa Guignery: The Rotters’ Club is a remarkable depiction of the 1970s in provincial Britain. How did you come to write that novel?

Jonathan Coe: There are hundreds of different directions from which I could approach the story of how I came to write The Rotters’ Club. Maybe I should start from the title which is the title of an album by Hatfield and the North released in 1975 and fairly typical of the kind of music I was listening to at the time. This makes you realise what a strange teenager I was because I had very out-of-the-way and esoteric tastes in music. Hatfield and the North belonged to a musical movement in England, which was called The Canterbury Scene and was characterised by quirkiness, humour, irony, experimentalism, great formal complexity in the musical compositions. You can see a clear overlap between the kind of music I was listening to as a kid and the kind of books I ended up writing. So maybe that album was the starting point.

I do remember that in the late 1990s, I decided that I wanted to go back to a book that I had started when I was seventeen or eighteen years old and I was still at school. The book was called Half Asleep, Half Awake. It was exactly what you would expect a seventeen-year-old schoolboy to be writing. It was a kind of Angst-written memoir of adolescent frustration. I only wrote the first forty pages or so of it. But what I liked about the book, looking back on it, was the way that, in a very immature tentative mode, it had used a school as a metaphor for the whole of society. So I thought: ‘I will run with that again: I will write a book set in a school in the 1970s and at the heart of it, I will put someone like me or like I was back then. But I won’t call him Jonathan, I will call him Benjamin’. That was the beginning. From around that time, from my late teens, I was interested in writers like Marcel Proust and Anthony Powell in England, who had written long sequences of semi-autobiographical novels, romans-fleuves. This, to me, was always the ambition. I wanted The Rotters’ Club to be the first volume in a six-volume sequence which would follow the adventures of these schoolchildren right through into middle age or maybe even old age. The Rotters’ Club was volume one but it ballooned as I was writing it. It became more political.

I was of a generation—because I was then just about to turn forty—of people who had been growing up in the 1970s, had had their adolescence in the 1970s, for whom it had been a very formative decade and yet nobody from my generation had set a novel in that era yet. So I thought this was a virgin territory here and a big subject. There was a lot going on in the 1970s in terms of the unions, politics, the decline of British industry, the rise of the Thatcherite movement and the Conservative party, disputes with the striking miners, the oil crisis, the IRA bombing campaign which had a particular significance for Birmingham. So it got bigger and bigger, and the gulf between the schoolkids’ story—particularly Benjamin’s very solipsistic and introverted and slightly wimpy take on the world—and what was actually happening out there in the world of political reality, that became bigger and bigger and to me, more and more comic. So it became this comic novel about an adolescent boy who is so wrapped up in his artistic and romantic dreams that he did not realise he was living through a great crisis in British history.

VG: But you didn’t write the six novels, even if you had that project in the first place.

JC: No, I leapfrogged straight over to the sixth and wrote The Closed Circle which is volume 6 of the sequence. And that raises now the question of whether I ever go back and write volumes 2, 3, 4 and 5, or whether I just leave it as a gap, which might be a nice thing to do: leave it to the reader to imagine what happens to them in-between. Or, alternatively, write a new volume which follows on from The Closed Circle—volume 7, if you like.

  • 1 ‘They sat and drank their pints. The tables in which their faces were dimly reflected were dark bro (...)

VG: In The Rotters’ Club, you refer to the 1970s as ‘brown times’ when describing a scene at the pub1. Why did this colour characterise the era?

JC: It is not a metaphor. Watch any drama or sitcom from the 1970s and you’ll see this was the colour of choice in all the backgrounds, and that was just my one strongest visual memory of the 1970s. The cars made at the Longbridge factory in Birmingham were quite bad, famously unreliable and the worst of all was the Austin Allegro, an ironic name because it did not go very allegro at all: it should have been called the Austin Andante or something! This was my car. When I first passed my driving test at the age of seventeen, I had a brown Allegro. This is the most 1970s Midlands kind of car you could possibly imagine. In The Rotters’ Club, I didn’t want to glamorise the 1970s. People describe it as the hangover after the party that was the 1960s. It was a very reactionary period in some ways, in sexual politics and so on. But I felt there was comedy to be got from that, the fact that Benjamin’s vibrant optimism and hopes for the future in his romantic longings was taking place against this drab environment. Britain was drab in those days. You couldn’t get a decent meal. I describe a lot of meals in The Rotters’ Club and I joke about the fact that they are all the same: steak and chips basically.

VG: An important landmark which recurs in The Rotters’ and The Closed Circle is the Longbridge factory. Could you say a few words about the place it occupied in the recent history of Birmingham?

JC: Everybody in Birmingham in the 1970s, it seemed, had some connection to the Longbridge factory, which was a big volume producer of British cars. My father designed batteries for the British Leyland cars and other electronical components so he had a connection with it. He did not actually work there but we lived close to it and every morning on the bus, as I went on to school, I would sit on the top deck and I would go past this massive sprawling acreage of buildings where, at eight o’clock in the morning, the workers would be pouring in and there would be a sense of incredible life and urgency, an absolute sense that this was the hub of the community and the economic bedrock of the community as well. Things changed in the 1980s and the 1990s: British manufacturing collapsed, disintegrated, we moved over more towards an economy based on services, and the Longbridge factory staggered on under different owners for a couple of decades and then in the year 2000, it was sold for good and the people who had bought it announced that they would close it down, stop making cars altogether, and the people of Birmingham rose up in protest. There was this huge rally for Rover and a group of four businessmen called the Phoenix Consortium said they were going to take over the factory, rescue it, keep as many of the jobs as possible and carry on making mass-produced cars. And on the wave of popular support that this rally generated, these businessmen did take over the factory, but they themselves asset-stripped it, became multimillionaires in the process, did not make any more cars and closed it down. It was a real slap in the face for the city and a recognition that those days of manufacturing and unionised labour world were never going to come back. They were gone for good, and in a way, the rally for Rover seemed in retrospect a sentimental gesture, but it was the people who were making the speeches on the platform who were the nostalgic ones, not Benjamin chasing after his boyhood.

VG: The sequel of The Rotters’ Club, The Closed Circle, takes place two decades later in the early 2000s and is characterised by a more bitter tone. Does the disillusionment in the book reflect your own disillusionment at the time?

JC: I think so. It is not a novel that I go back to very much in my head but when I looked at it again a bit closer, I was surprised by how funny I thought it was, because in my head, it had been this rather bitter, cynical novel about middle-aged compromise, both political compromise and compromise in your personal life. Neither politically nor personally had life worked out particularly well for any of the characters of The Rotters’ Club and a few years after I had written it, I carried this taste in my mouth that maybe was a little bit sour. I look back at it again and actually, there is quite a lot of satire and there are quite a few farcical scenes. It is not quite as dark as I remember but the story does take some slightly dark turns, particularly the rise of nationalism, the National Front and the other racist parties in Britain in the 1970s. There seemed to be a moment earlier in this century, about ten or fifteen years ago, when these parties seemed to be in the ascendant again, with the BNP—the British National Party –, but that strain of British political thinking has been filtered through into UKIP now so I think that is where that sentiment may be finding its expression, which might be even more dangerous, the fact that it is going mainstream. But UKIP did so badly in the general election we had in 2015 that I thought at the time they might be finished as a party, although of course that doesn’t mean the public sentiments they were channelling have gone away.

VG: You have just referred to the general election in May 2015 which saw the defeat of the Labour Party. Do such very recent events stimulate your imagination?

JC: In Number 11, the events have straddled that general election because the novel actually ends in the future, in the autumn of 2015—not very far in the future, obviously. But the election is not mentioned because generally, when I am writing what you might for shorthand call my political novels, they are not really about party politics. Things like elections do not really figure. They try to look at the deeper currents, things that are going on underneath the surface. And to do that, you need some distance, perspective. I think that might have been another of the problems with The Closed Circle, that I was writing it in 2003-2004, against the backdrop of events which were taking place at that time and from which it was very difficult to get any meaningful distance. So from a novel-writing point of view, I wouldn’t like to say exactly what the general election we had in 2015 means, although it was a very crushing defeat for the Labour Party and for the left generally in Britain, and a very worrying one because nobody was expecting it. Everybody on the left, with rather foolish optimism in retrospect, was thinking that the Labour Party had got its act together and was going to, if not get a majority, at least be in a position to hold the Tories back and make a real difference, and that didn’t happen. It has left the left in England really shattered and confused and uncertain what to do next. We have the whole Scottish question, where the whole of Scotland started to vote SNP and Labour has lost most of its support, which was one of the bedrocks of its presence in the UK parliament. 2015 was a very difficult moment for the left.

VG: What a Carve Up! was a political satire but it was also a very daring book in terms of form as it mixes genres, is not chronological and blurs the frontiers between fiction and reality. When you look back on this book that was published twenty years ago, how do you feel about it?

JC: I can only really see the faults in my books. As I sometimes say to people, you don’t read your own books, you proofread them against the ideal version that you had in your head once and all you are doing is noting the errors where the thing you planned is not the thing that you put on the page. But I did read most of What a Carve Up again to prepare for writing Number 11, and what I liked about it is that it is a very playful book. People talk about it as a savage satire on Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain, which is true but I had great fun while I was writing it despite the subject matter. It was the first time in my books that I had unashamedly drawn on my love of popular culture, and that brought the book to life in a way that my first three had maybe not been. I used slapstick humour, jokes from sitcoms, based the whole plot on a very bad spoof comedy, a horror film from the 1960s. That, to me, gave it a sense of fun, and I have tried to recapture that in Number 11, particularly the idea of the gothic, or my parody version of the gothic. There are sci-fi elements in Number 11, a lot of references back to H.G. Wells’s fantasy short stories which I read a lot when I was a kid and really loved. It takes unexpected turns and that is a reflection of the fact that I don’t think realism is good enough these days to write about contemporary reality. Just to do the kind of English comedy of manners which I have used in The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle and other places does not quite get the grotesqueness of modern life in the UK and elsewhere. I wanted to throw in some more peculiar elements, just to catch that element of grotesquerie.

VG: In What a Carve Up!, the narrator is a rather weak, passive, vulnerable character and this is a fairly recurrent figure in your work. It can be found in The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim which is a reflection on solitude in the modern world of technologies. What attracts you in this melancholy figure of the anti-hero?

JC: Nothing attracts me about him—he gets on my nerves but he does come back regularly. I hate this question because there is only one honest answer which is that it is a version of myself. I thought, when I wrote The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, that I would have completely got this figure out of my system because Benjamin is the apotheosis of this person: he is so weak and indecisive and hopeless and wrong about everything and makes such a mess of his life. Straight after The Closed Circle, I wrote The Rain Before it Falls, which does not have a figure like this at all. So I thought I had purged myself of this classic Coe-protagonist. Then I started writing The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, which was an idea I had had in the late 1980s for a picaresque novel about a travelling salesman, inspired partly by Lindsay Anderson’s film O Lucky Man!. I have always thought of this as a state-of-the-nation novel but not a typical state-of-the nation novel. I wanted to get out of London because British state-of-the-nation novels tend to be set in London. I wanted to get to the provinces which I am always rather more comfortable writing about, and show this bland consumerist landscape we have created over the last thirty years where every town has its Pizza Express, its Body Shop, its Caffè Nero and its Starbucks, every motorway service station sells the same food and has the same chain stores. I wanted to write it from the point of view of a person who loves all this and finds it immensely reassuring because he is scared of the unknown, of diversity, of going out of his comfort zone. I always saw him as a bland blank character who was never happier than going to Pizza Express and ordering the exact same pizza that he ordered the day before in another town. And then, to my horror, when I was about three-quarters away to writing the book I realised that he had turned into another Benjamin figure, and he was, again, a weak, vacillating, indecisive protagonist who is more swept along by events than capable of driving them himself.

VG: How did you come to imagine a character who falls in love with his SatNav in that same novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim?

JC: The idea of a man who falls in love with his SatNav came, like so many of the fundamental ideas in my novels, from an isolated incident, an apparently very trivial domestic incident which took place when we had just bought a hybrid car for my family, and we were driving it down a road that I knew very well, but I turned on the GPS because I had never used a GPS before and I was very excited by the novelty of it. I did not need to listen to the voice because I knew where we were going and my wife was talking to me. And then the voice from the GPS said something and without thinking, I turned to my wife and told her to be quiet, because I was listening to the GPS. Not surprisingly, she was upset about this. In the awkward silence which followed this incident as we drove on for the next few miles, I had the opportunity to reflect on what had just taken place and I thought: ‘Well, this is interesting, because at that moment, I chose to be in a closer relationship with a mechanical voice, an electronic voice on a computerised device than with the woman I share my life with’. I thought that was a strange choice. That was what got me thinking about the whole idea of technology, of intelligent machines, of our relationship with these machines, with people on social networking sites, who may or may not be real—we have no real way of knowing—and the quite serious question of what constitutes a real relationship and how the concept of that has changed in a world of very rapidly-evolving technology. So that was the beginning of Mister Sim, a very small episode, but one which threw up enormous questions to me, serious questions.

VG: Even if the weak, passive male character is a recurrent figure in some of your books, several of your novels focus on women or are written from a woman’s perspective or in a woman’s voice (The Accidental Woman, The Rain Before it Falls, and Number 11). Is it attractive or challenging to you to write from a female perspective?

J. Coe: It’s much easier and much more enjoyable to write from a woman’s perspective, or indeed in a woman’s voice for me. I write novels to escape myself and if I start writing a novel and realise that I am writing from the perspective of myself, as I essentially am in The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle and Maxwell Sim, then I’ve blown it, I am trapped in exactly the thing that I was trying to get away from. So I always get excited when I think of an idea for a novel which can be told from a woman’s point of view because it is much more interesting and liberating for me.

The Rain Before it Falls was one of my very earliest ideas for a novel. I had the idea for that novel and made notes towards it in 1985 or 1986, so twenty years before I actually wrote it. It had to gestate for a long time and although there is no male character in the book who is any kind of equivalent or mouthpiece for me, it is one of my most personal books, and in background detail, one of my most autobiographical books, because all the locations in Shropshire—this very beautiful, little-known county of England, the farm where some of the formative events take place in the narrator’s early life—are straight out of my own childhood, my own memories. I just moved them back about 20 or 30 years and gave them to this woman instead.

In Number 11 it wasn’t so much that I wanted to write from a female point of view, but that one of the inspirations for the book was the idea of the Bildungsroman, children coming of age, children passing from the belief that the world is benign and welcoming, and learning gradually and painfully about political reality, and because the people I have watched that happening to were my own daughters, it seemed easier for me to put two girls in that position throughout the book rather than using male characters. In this case, I don’t feel that a lot of the book is really from Rachel or Alison’s point of view. A couple of the stories are, but ‘The Crystal Garden’ is really Roger’s story and ‘The Winshaw Prize’ is really PC Pilbeam’s story. It was more that I wanted to watch children learning about the world, and from my own experience it was easier to do that with girls than boys.

VG: Could this coming-of-age dimension be related to your children’s book The Broken Mirror which was first published in Italy in 2012?

JC: Yes, the two books are quite closely related in my mind. The Broken Mirror came first and is about someone learning the truth about the world, seen completely through the eyes of a young girl. In a way, I felt I had already done that in The Broken Mirror, and with Number 11, it was a chance to play a variation on that but not to do the same thing.

VG: You said about The Broken Mirror that it was your most politically engaged book. What did you mean by that?

JC: A long time ago, when I was in my early twenties, for some reason which I don’t fully understand at this distance, I decided to write a book for children. This was before I had had any books published at all. I wrote a story which was about a group of four or five children who discover a fragment of mirror which reflects a world other than their own, a kind of fantasy world. About twenty years later when my own daughters were eight or nine or ten, I dug out this manuscript and read it to them. They are very polite girls, very well-brought-up so they told me that they thought it was very good and then went back to reading Harry Potter which was what they really wanted to do. At a distance like that, you can see quite clearly what is good about something you have done and what does not work and it was very clear to me that most of this book did not work at all, but I did like this central idea of a fragment of mirror which reflects an alternative reality.

At the same time I was observing in my two daughters a process which I found quite painful to watch, which was the development in their consciousness that the world was not the benign, safe, well-ordered thing that they had always assumed it to be as young children, the dawning realisation on them that there was violence in the world, there was injustice, there was unrest and I realised that what I was watching in them at a very embryonic stage, was the development of their political consciousness. So I had the idea of taking this image of a fragment of broken mirror and using it as the basis of a new book, not a book for children necessarily, although that is how it has been published, but I thought of it more simply as a short fable told in language as simple and clear as I could make it, which I suppose makes it suitable for children, although that was not necessarily the only audience I had in mind.

The young girl at the centre of this book, who is called Claire, finds this fragment of mirror and learns that it reflects the world not as it is but the world as it should be and her sense of what that means changes as the story goes on from the age of 8 to 15 and the possession of this fragment of mirror makes her feel very isolated, very unique. She thinks that she is the only person in the world who has one but at the end of the story, in the last chapter of the book, she discovers that actually many people have similar fragments of mirror and they start to put them together to try to build a jigsaw, an enormous reflection, a collective vision of the world as it could be if it were a better place. I suppose that is what I mean by it being a political fable, that it is a call, a plea for collectivity and a sense of communion in our political thinking to counter the individualism and atomisation of society as it is becoming at the moment.

VG: In 2011, one year before The Broken Mirror, you published a rewriting of Gulliver’s Travels called The Story of Gulliver. What attracted you to the genre of the children’s book at that time in your career?

JC: It must have had something to do with the fact that I had young daughters myself, who, when I started writing The Story of Gulliver and The Broken Mirror, were of an age when they would like this kind of book, but aside from that, I didn’t really think of them as children’s books in any sense. The Story of Gulliver is part of an initiative by the Italian writer Alessandro Baricco to get writers from around the world to retell the great canonical stories from world literature in a way that can be used as bedtime stories for kids who are about 8 or 9. Ali Smith has done The Story of Antigone, people have retold stories from Shakespeare, Umberto Eco has adapted Alessandro Manzoni’s ‘The Betrothed’, Yiyun Li has done The Story of Gilgamesh. Alessandro Baricco gave me a list of possible texts that I could choose from and I saw Gulliver’s Travels was there. It was one of my favourite books so I said: ‘I’d love to do that’. But that was a complicated choice because Gulliver’s Travels in itself already has this ambiguous status as a very adult book and also a book for children, that has been retold for children many times before. But I did not want to take any of the satire out this time. I don’t mean the contemporary early eighteenth-century satire, because that would not work for children today, but the much more far-reaching satire on human nature that you get in the later books, particularly book IV. So it was really an exercise in taking this very lean and spare text already—because Swift’s prose is so lucid and economical—and making it even more concise, even clearer for a younger audience. I enjoyed that just as an exercise really because in my own novels, what I am constantly trying to do is to make the prose clearer and clearer and easier to read. There are writers who have an exactly opposite aesthetic and think that a book should be difficult, that there is a virtue in difficulty, which is a point of view I respect but I do not share. I do want my books to be easy to read. Writing that version of Gulliver’s Travels was a part of that process.

VG: Most of your novels are set in contemporary England, except for part of The Rain Before it Falls and Expo 58, a novel which takes place in 1958 during the World Fair in Brussels. What interested you in the idea of moving back in time to 1958?

JC: It relates to this idea that I have become interested in the minor characters from my previous novels. I don’t have a very good memory of my earlier books, I don’t re-read them, so I can remember the main characters but sometimes, when I am doing a reading from one of them or talking to a journalist about one of them, I will look at them again and often a minor character will leap out at me from the page. I will have forgotten that I had created this person and s/he would be more interesting to me than the main characters because I don’t remember them so well. There is a very brief reference in The Rain Before it Falls to a character called Thomas Foley. He is the brother-in-law of the old woman who is making the narration into the tape recorder and all she says about him is that he was a dark horse but she advises Imogen: ‘You should get him to tell you about his life one day […]. There was more to him than met the eye’ (250). I never knew why I wrote that, I didn’t know what that sentence was unless I was planting some landmine which I could detonate a few books later. So I thought: ‘Well, let’s go back to Thomas and see what I meant by that little parenthesis’.

I am rather obsessive about the chronology of my books, so I worked out from the timetable of The Rain Before it Falls exactly how old Thomas must be and I realised that he would have been 30 years old in around 1958 and that was the era of his life I wanted to write about, when he was just married with a young family and something interesting would happen to him that would change the course of his life. That was really the reason why 1958 came up: it was a pure matter of the chronological logic of the earlier book. I tucked that idea at the back of my mind and I didn’t really think about it very carefully until I spent quite a bit of time in Belgium a few years ago, at a very nice writer’s residence in the countryside in Flanders just outside Brussels and obviously met a lot of Belgians and learnt a lot about Belgium while I was there. I realised that 1958 was a very important year in Belgian post-war history because it was the year of the great World’s Fair of 1958 which was the first World’s Fair after the Second World War. It was a fantastic coming together of culture and politics, which is still today striking for the modernity of its designs: the Philips Pavilion, the Arrow of Civil Engineering, these incredible state-of-the-art modern pavilions, the music that was performed there with installations by Stockhausen and Xenakis, a film festival where the prize that year was given to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. I thought this was so much more exciting than anything that would have been happening in London in 1958, which is where I thought the story was going to be set. It was much more interesting to take my rather dull character, Thomas, who is a low-ranking civil servant in the suburban London of 1958, and plonk him in the middle of Expo 58 with all the stuff going on around him at the height of the Cold War when the World’s Fair among other things was a hotbed of espionage, with the Russian pavilion and the American pavilion right next to each other. It was a great setting to throw this figure completely out of his depth, a fish out of water and see what happened to him, how he coped with this.

VG: Was it a challenge for you to write about a period when you were not born?

JC: I am hoping that this novel Expo 58 will be part, along with The Rain Before It Falls, of a larger scale mosaic or jigsaw of novels which will look at Britain, and specifically Britain’s relationship to Europe, over a long time period, from the 1940s through to the 1950s and indeed right up to the present. So, although this individual novel is set in the 1950s, it is part of a work—at the moment a virtual work, an unwritten work—which will eventually, I hope, be fully contemporary. But you are right, it did feel like a challenge at first, a difficult and intimidating thing to do, but I eventually reminded myself that I am not a historian, and writers of fiction are not historians either. Every historical novel is also a kind of fantasy novel. The version of the 1950s which I present and try to recreate in Expo 58, is highly subjective, highly personal to me. It is my filtering of the research I did, the films of the period that I watched, the television of the period that I watched, the newspaper and magazine articles that I read, the interviews I did with, for instance, people who had worked at the Brussels Universal Exhibition. All of these things I did as conscientiously as I could but finally it is a work of the imagination. I hope, my very subjective reimagining of the 1950s has authenticity, but whether it is historical truth, I don’t know and to me in a way that is beside the point.

VG: Beyond the historical authenticity, what is interesting in the book is the way the contemporary reader perceives realities dating from 1958. For instance, you refer to the fact that the protagonist’s wife could smoke while she was pregnant because it helped her relax. You also refer to the village on the exposition site called ‘Gay Belgium’, which doesn’t have the same connotations for a contemporary reader. Were you thinking of the temporal distance between the contemporary reader and the period you were writing about?

JC: I’m afraid I have a very childish sense of humour so when I discovered that there was a part of the exposition site called ‘Gay Belgium’, I made reference to this as often as I could in the book. However, I didn’t want to make or draw obvious parallels between the 1950s and the present era. In fact, I did my best while I was writing the book, for those few hours when I was sitting in front of my desk every day, to forget the time when I was writing it—so 2012, I suppose—and to feel that I was living in 1958. So the details about smoking seem humorous to a modern reader because the characters speak about cigarettes as though they were good for your health but, to me, this was just simple realism. This is how people would have behaved, how they would have talked and if there is a kind of absurdity already in looking back at the manners and assumptions of 1958, that’s a historical accident. It is not something I tried to create specifically for comic effect. My hero, Thomas Foley, is tremendously naïve, almost to the point where he might start to irritate the reader. The whole book can be read on one level as a satire on naivety and that includes satire on what—from the vantage point of today—seems like naïve assumptions about health, about science, about people in authority, which are characteristics of my version of the 1950s.

VG: Expo 58 can also be read as a parody of spy novels as it includes Russian, American and British spies, as well as charming hostesses. You are a fan of James Bond and of Ian Fleming’s novels, and at some point in the book, Thomas Foley reads From Russia with Love and wonders what James Bond would have done in his situation. One may also think of spy novels by John Le Carré. Did you have these references in mind when you wrote Expo 58?

JC: Among the bits of research I did was to read a book by an American writer called Robert W. Rydell, which was called World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions, and there was one sentence in this book that leapt out at me at a very early stage of thinking about this novel. He wrote: ‘By opening day [the opening day of Expo 58] the American pavilion had been molded into an espionage weapon against the Soviet Union and its allies.’ I was very excited when I read that sentence because I suppose I had always wanted to write a spy novel but I never really had the opportunity or the excuse before. And certainly here was a detail which made me think that it would be impossible, untrue in fact, to write about Expo 58 without also introducing an espionage element.

I’m ashamed to say that I had not read any novel by John Le Carré before I began thinking about Expo 58. One of the first things I decided to do was to start reading his work chronologically from the very beginning of his œuvre. I only had to read two or three of his novels before realising something which unforgivably I had not realised before which was that here was a really great writer who was using the subject of espionage to explore all sorts of issues to do with secrecy, loyalty, the darker corners of human motivation, and he was doing it with the absolute moral seriousness of a really great writer. So very quickly I decided that I was not going to attempt to imitate or parody John Le Carré.

But of course, there is another recent tradition in British spy writing which is represented by Ian Fleming and by the figure of James Bond. Increasingly I am fascinated and puzzled by this icon of the British national character who, even sixty-one years after Casino Royale was first published, remains a national hero but the oddest kind of national hero. If we look at the way Fleming writes him in the early novels and the way he is presented in the films of the 1960s that have made him famous, he is racist, misogynist, sadistic, he has a very juvenile, very crude sense of humour. He is a totally unlikeable character in fact, an appalling role model for the British people or any other people.

I started to read again the early James Bond novels and when I saw the emergence of this character against the backdrop of Britain in the 1950s, I had a strange reaction to it. I felt a kind of sympathy, a kind of pity for the time and for the people who could be so excited by these books, because when you read them now, they seem so tame and so provincial. The exotic journeys that he goes on that we associate with the films, the incredible expense of the sets that they built for those films, these are not replicated in the early novels at all. They are small, local stories, set at a time when, immediately after the second World War, a lot of food was still rationed in Britain, people were still finding it hard, for instance, to buy eggs. You read Fleming’s novels and what is James Bond’s idea of a luxurious meal: just scrambled eggs on toast! So, bizarrely, what reading these books again brought back to me was how provincial, austere and monochrome British life was in the 1950s and that made me realise and understand more fully why at that particular time he had become such a potent fantasy figure, a figure of escapism.

The more I thought about it, the more I came to see the Brussels World Fair of 1958 itself as a world of fantasy, of unreality, a place where all these different countries came together to build their pavilions and fill these pavilions with national fictions, stories about their national identity but stories which could never be true. And in this fantasy world, this world of complete make-believe, I couldn’t see a place for an introspective, complex, layered figure like John Le Carré’s George Smiley so I thought that if I was going to introduce espionage into the book it should be the fantasy world of Ian Fleming.

VG: But Thomas Foley is an anti-James Bond.

JC: Yes. I was writing this book mainly in 2012 at a time when Britain was staging the Olympics and we had this great Olympic opening ceremony devised by the director Danny Boyle, which itself asks questions about what constitutes British identity, and how we present that to the rest of the world. I was very struck by the fact that the two icons of British nationality he had chosen to deploy were James Bond on the one hand, played by Daniel Craig, and Mister Bean on the other. I thought that this was a striking combination and as good a way to define my character Thomas Foley as any in that he is somewhere halfway on the spectrum between James Bond and Mister Bean, a little bit more Mister Bean I think.

VG: Among the comic characters in the novel are the two British secret agents, Mr Wayne and Mr Radford, who bear the names of the actors who played Charters and Caldicott in Hitchcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, which you quote in an epigraph to the novel. Why did you want to include this homage to Hitchcock and why to this film in particular?

JC: I wanted it to be very clear to the reader where these characters came from and for the reader to be able to have a strong image in their head of what these characters looked like and sounded like. So I called them Mr Wayne and Mr Radford and at the beginning of the novel I put a little epigraph, a fragment of dialogue that these two same actors, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, speak in Hitchcock’s film The Lady Vanishes. I did this because I am a very considerate person and I like to make things as easy as possible for journalists and for reviewers in particular because they have to read books in a tremendous hurry and they don’t always have time to think about them very carefully. I thought that if I put the names on this page then they would know what I was referring to but every journalist who has interviewed me about the book almost so far has said: ‘So, your two spies, why did you base them on Dupond and Dupont from the Tintin books?’, which was not my intention at all so the lesson is that however obvious you make it for people, they will always misinterpret.

I do think my books tend to be better understood in France than they are in the UK, and one of the theories I have about this is that generally speaking, France is more a nation of cinephiles than the UK is. We don’t really love or understand the cinema to the extent that people in France do. The inspirations for my books, the models which lie behind them, are more often cinematic than they are literary, which is why British critics are trying to place them often in a certain kind of tradition where they don’t really belong and the most accurate way that I can describe Expo 58 is to say that it is a homage to Hitchcock.

Of course Hitchcock made many films in many different genres and his greatest masterpieces are actually very serious films, films like Vertigo, Psycho and Notorious, but one of the genres that he excelled in, which I have always loved in particular, are films like The Lady Vanishes, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Foreign Correspondent and also a film made very close to the period which I am writing about in Expo 58, which is North by Northwest. I particularly like these films where he produces a very distinctive combination of comedy because these are very funny films with romance, eroticism in a strange way—certainly in North by Northwest—and mystery, suspense, often with an espionage background. It is hard to think of many people who have attempted this particular mélange of styles in literature but I realised as I was writing Expo 58 that effectively that is what I was trying to do. So if you want to place the book generically, you should think of it as the equivalent on the page of one of Hitchcock’s comedy thrillers.

VG: The novel you published after Expo 58, Number 11, takes place in David Cameron’s Britain and is partly political. Is this a return to the type of satire that was to be found in What a Carve Up!?

JC: It has a lot of connections with What a Carve Up!. For many years, people, including publishers, kept saying to me: ‘Why don’t you write a sequel to What a Carve Up!?’ I didn’t like the idea of a sequel to What a Carve Up! because it was always meant to be a stand-alone novel. Also, there is a very obvious practical difficulty which is that at the end of What a Carve Up!, everybody gets killed, almost without exception. People said: ‘Yes, but the Winshaw family could come back as ghosts or it could be like that scene in Dallas where he wakes up and it was all a dream’. I thought about those ideas but thought: ‘No, that doesn’t really work’. There was a more interesting thing I could do, which was to take the very few surviving characters at the end of What a Carve Up! and as far as I could work out there were only five of them, and they were all very minor characters in the novel. So I have taken three of these people and they appear at various points in the story of Number 11. It is just a way of gesturing back towards that earlier book and saying that, as was predicted at the end of What a Carve Up!, the Winshaw family may all have been slaughtered but their influence, their legacy will survive. They will bounce back in some form or another as indeed Thatcherism has never gone away from the UK. As an ideology, it is present in Number 11 as well.

VG: Each part of Number 11 takes place in a different location: Beverley, Leeds, Birmingham, Oxford, London, Guildford, Lausanne and South Africa. This may recall to some extent the picaresque journey of Maxwell Sim in your earlier novel. Why did you find it interesting to move from one location to another in Number 11?

JC: This idea of the state-of-the-nation novel hangs around the neck of a lot of British novelists, including me, and very often, what it means is not state-of-the-nation but state-of-London, because, as I said before, the great examples of these books are Trollope, Dickens, Thackeray and writers of life in the capital, even John Lanchester’s Capital itself, more recently. I just wanted to get as far away from that as I could or at least to start the book as far away from that as I could, and to trace a picaresque journey through England to London, very much as Fielding does in Tom Jones but through the experience of different characters and in quite different moments in recent history. In my head I had quite a clear physical map of the UK and how the story would take people from South Yorkshire through the Midlands through Oxford through Guildford, and then up to London. It was a kind of spiral, ending up in the heart of the capital itself.

VG: Like John Lanchester’s Capital, Number 11 is an austerity novel, a post-recession novel, in which you refer to food banks, the closure of libraries, the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. However, next to these serious topics, the reader is offered comedy (through the character of “Nate of the Station” for example in the fourth story). Do you feel that comedy is for you the best vehicle to propose a social commentary on contemporary society?

JC: It is the way I like to write and of course there is that vein of humour running maybe more richly through English literature than the literature of other European countries. Novelists like Dickens and Thackeray are very funny writers. I also find Capital a very funny book at times. So it is a way of writing that comes naturally to me temperamentally and it is also embedded in the English literary tradition. You don’t just find it in state-of-the-nation writing; you find it even more in David Lodge and Tom Sharpe and people like that. Number 11 itself is not just a political comedy, but a book about political comedy and what that means in 2015. There are a few people who have done works of the imagination on the subject of comedy before. Trevor Griffiths’ play Comedians springs to mind. It always interests me how dour and humourless these works are themselves. Comedians is a very bleak, very grim play, and I didn’t want to do that. I thought that if comedy itself was going to be one of the subjects of the book, it should also be woven into the fabric of the book.

VG: You listed eleven sources of inspiration for the novel in a piece for Waterstones,2 and one of them was Lanark by Alasdair Gray. To what extent did it inspire you for Number 11?

  • 3 Jonathan Coe, ‘Why are we so obsessed with the state-of-the-nation novel?’, New Statesman 16/07/201 (...)

JC: The origin of that was an article I wrote for the New Statesman a few years ago,3 where I was asked specifically to write a piece critiquing the idea of the state-of-the-nation novel. It struck me very forcibly that no one in England mentions Lanark when they are talking about state-of-the-nation books, but to me, this is the great state-of-the-nation novel of the twentieth century. It just happens to be about Scotland rather than England. One of the things I love about it is that it is not an entirely realistic novel: it flirts with science-fiction and fantasy and horror. It was published, coincidentally, the same year that Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital came out—1982—a film which is an important part of the tradition—which I feel part of—of political commentary done in the form of comedy-horror. All these influences came together and seemed a perfect match for each other when I was writing Number 11. And that is when a novel really begins to take shape and acquire its life: when the influences and the favourite books and films and pieces of music that you have been carrying around with you all your life—or at least, a number of them—suddenly emerge from the morass and coalesce and prove to be a match for each other and to fit with each other and work together with each other in a way that you hadn’t imagined before. That happened for me with Lanark, Britannia Hospital, British gothic comedy horror movies, the piece of Harold Budd’s music that I reference in ‘The Crystal Garden’. All of these things suddenly seemed to make sense as a group and to feed into this particular novel.

VG: You wrote in the Waterstones piece that ‘The Crystal Garden’ was ‘a warning about the perils of nostalgia’. Do you think there is indeed a danger in nostalgia for the past?

JC: Yes, absolutely. Without wanting to leave the subject of literature and go into global politics too much, I think that a lot of the most alarming political developments we have seen in the last couple of years have an undercurrent of nostalgia as one of their driving forces. It is true of Brexit and it is certainly true of Trumpism. I am absolutely myself a prey to the lure, the temptations of nostalgia. There is a huge nostalgic current in so many of my books, whether it is for adolescence in The Rotters’ Club or for childhood innocence in The Rain Before It Falls. I wanted to put this obsession to bed, in a way, in Number 11, and I feel that I did that in ‘The Crystal Garden’ by writing a simple, absolutely clear fable about where nostalgia takes you if you allow it to become a driving force in all your actions.

VG: Would you say that the image, in the last but one section of Number 11, of Rachel eating a plum which has the taste of her childhood is nostalgic or is it meant to be slightly parodic?

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JC: No, it is not meant to be parodic but it is meant to be more an image of renewal and regeneration than nostalgia. Obviously, good things can come from an awareness of the past and from a knowledge of history, but we cannot retreat into that. We have to build upon it, and we have to seize upon what rose out of that, rather than trying to retreat into it.

Coe, Jonathan, The Accidental Woman (1987), London: Penguin, 2008.

Coe, Jonathan, A Touch of Love (1989), London: Penguin, 2008.

Coe, Jonathan, The Dwarves of Death (1990), London: Penguin, 2008.

Coe, Jonathan, What a Carve Up! (1994), London: Penguin, 2008.

Coe, Jonathan, The House of Sleep (1997), London: Penguin, 2008.

Coe, Jonathan, The Rotters’ Club (2001), London: Penguin, 2008.

Coe, Jonathan, The Closed Circle (2004), London: Penguin, 2008.

Coe, Jonathan, Like a Fiery Elephant—The Story of B.S. Johnson, London: Picador, 2004.

Coe, Jonathan, 9th & 13th, London: Penguin, 2005.

Coe, Jonathan, The Rain Before it Falls (2007), London: Penguin, 2008.

Coe, Jonathan, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, London: Penguin, 2010.

Coe, Jonathan, ‘Why are we so obsessed with the state-of-the-nation novel?’, New Statesman 16/07/2012: 73.

Coe, Jonathan, Expo 58, London: Penguin, 2013.

Coe, Jonathan, Marginal Notes, Doubtful Statements. Non-Fiction, 1990-2013, London: Penguin, 2013, ebook.

Coe, Jonathan, Loggerheads and Other Stories, London: Penguin ebook, 2014.

Coe, Jonathan, Number 11, or Tales that Witness Madness, London: Penguin, 2015.

Coe, Jonathan, ‘Eleven Sources of Inspiration’, Blog 23 May 2016, last accessed at, on September 10, 2017.

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1 ‘They sat and drank their pints. The tables in which their faces were dimly reflected were dark brown, the darkest brown, the colour of Bournville chocolate. The walls were a lighter brown, the colour of Dairy Milk. The carpet was brown, with little hexagons of a slightly different brown, if you looked closely. The ceiling was meant to be off-white, but was in fact brown, browned by the nicotine smoke of a million unfiltered cigarettes. Most of the cars in the car park were brown, as were most of the clothes worn by the patrons. Nobody in the pub really noticed the predominance of brown, or if they did, thought it worth remarking upon. These were brown times.’ (15)

2 Jonathan Coe, ‘Eleven Sources of Inspiration’, Blog 23 May 2016., last accessed on September 10, 2017.

3 Jonathan Coe, ‘Why are we so obsessed with the state-of-the-nation novel?’, New Statesman 16/07/2012: 73.

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Vanessa Guignery, « ‘An Interview with Jonathan Coe—Looking Backwards and Forwards’ »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 54 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 07 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Vanessa Guignery

Vanessa Guignery is Professor of Contemporary English Literature and Postcolonial Literature at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon and a member of the Institut Universitaire de France. She is the author of several books on the works of Julian Barnes, including The Fiction of Julian Barnes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). She published a monograph on B.S. Johnson, Ceci n’est pas une fiction (Sorbonne UP, 2009), as well as on Jonathan Coe, Jonathan Coe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and translated Jonathan Coe’s biography of B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, into French (Quidam, 2010). She edited a collection of Jonathan Coe’s essays translated into French, Notes marginales et bénéfices du doute (Gallimard, 2015), as well as a collection of interviews with eight contemporary writers (including Coe), Novelists in the New Millennium (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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