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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Hephzibah Anderson

Jonathan Coe: ‘People say, where’s the anger? It’s still there’

Jonathan Coe, novelist, photographed at the Guardian Photo Studios in London.
Jonathan Coe: ‘There was something profoundly wrong with the status quo.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

In a career spanning more than 35 years, notable for novels such as What a Carve Up! and The Rotters’ Club, author Jonathan Coe has established himself as one of the UK’s keenest satirists. His works have become bestsellers in translation, and he’s been awarded the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize and the Prix Médicis. Bournville, his latest book, is perhaps his most personal, spanning three-quarters of a century and fusing a poignant family saga with pointed reflections on post-Brexit Britain.

How did the novel originate?
I was planning a more typical state-of-the-nation novel, starting in 1945 and coming up to the present day, when my mum died. It was a very sudden death, and knocked me for six emotionally and creatively. Then my brother and I began clearing out her house and found boxes full of diaries from the 1940s and 50s – nothing revelatory, but they did bring me into a kind of closeness with her that I didn’t have when she was alive, so immediately I wanted to write about her and use this material. The novel became the story of her life and the story of Britain during those 75 years. It is both highly personal and quite political but in a way that I haven’t attempted before.

Was it at all cathartic?
It’s hard to know really because I’m still very full of grief, but probably that would have been worse if I hadn’t written Bournville. It was very consoling to be in this fictional dialogue with her for 18 months or so.

At the start of the novel, a musician on tour in Europe finds herself called upon to explain Brexit. Is that a situation you’ve found yourself in?
I’ve had so many conversations like that. Bafflement and disappointment are the two responses that I’ve encountered among my publishers and my readers in other European countries, along with a desire to have it explained to them, which is not something I find it very easy to do. One helpful thing that Brexit has taught people like me is that Britain is a more complicated and multifaceted place than we thought.

Not for the first time, characters from some of your previous books have made their way into this latest work.
It was never really the plan to draw so many of them together into one fictional universe, but because I’ve written so many novels set in the same part of Birmingham, and with similar kinds of families living almost next door to one another, I thought, well, surely these people could all be related if we went back a few generations. At the back of my mind is the idea of a final gigantic book that is going to pull everybody together.

You’re Birmingham’s unofficial laureate, really.
I haven’t lived there for nearly 40 years now but for me, nothing ever imprints itself on your consciousness as firmly as the landscape of your childhood and adolescence. My physical connection with Birmingham has been severed by the death of my mother and in a way, that’s liberating. I’m looking forward to writing a few books that are not set there.

You’ve become quite prolific lately. What’s your secret?
Twitter. Everyone says writers should never go on Twitter because it’s so distracting but since I joined nine years ago, I’ve been churning novels out like there’s no tomorrow. One of the things I always used to like about writing in cafes was listening to the conversations going on around me and I still do that sometimes, but I find the digital equivalent equally stimulating.

Do you worry that Elon Musk will break it?
I do.

Nostalgia is a theme that runs through your work. Is there anything you’re nostalgic for?
I’m nostalgic for how Cadbury’s chocolate used to taste, I’ll grant you that. It doesn’t quite taste the same to me any more, I don’t know why this is.

We’re living in interesting times. This must be good news for a state-of-the-nation novelist.
Part of me wants to get back to the status quo and part of me thinks, well, there was obviously something profoundly wrong with the status quo or we wouldn’t have taken the turns that we did. It does nourish me. I don’t like to talk in terms of writers’ duties or obligations but it gives me a need to write about it.

How have your ideas about the novel evolved over the years?
I look back on a novel like What a Carve Up!, which was extremely polemical, and from a literary point of view, very one-sided, and I stand by its politics but I’m not sure I stand by it aesthetically any more. Milan Kundera used to say that satire and the novel were incompatible because satire is a “thesis art” and the novel is polyphonic, and you can’t reconcile the two. I think he was on to something and I’m trying to write more polyphonically these days. Sometimes people who are disappointed by my more recent books will say where’s the anger? It’s still there but these latest books are more of an attempt to understand rather than hit people over the head with my own view.

In 2011, I saw you play keyboards on stage in New York as part of Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders series. Have you played any gigs lately?
My Italian friend Ferdinando, who runs this 21-piece Italian jazz orchestra, Artchipel, heard some music I composed, mostly in the 80s, and said: “Can we do a concert of these?” We’ve done five of them now in Italy and recorded a live album. I was terrified but there’s a lot of free improvisation and it’s a very noisy orchestra so I can hide my mistakes.

Has any of your childhood reading stuck with you?
Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings series was the great love of my life when I was a young reader. They’re still my comfort read.

Is there a book that made you a writer?
I didn’t come from a hugely bookish household but I had an English teacher at secondary school called Tony Trott who told me to read Catch-22. Very near that time, the BBC screened The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and I read the novel that that was based on. They both made me understand an obvious thing, which is that a book can be deadly serious and very funny at the same time. Uncoincidentally, I started writing fiction that summer.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?
The Ascent by Stefan Hertmans. He’s found a really interesting way of doing what I was groping towards in Bournville, which is integrating family history with national history. It tells the life story of a Belgian Nazi collaborator during the second world war, who Stefan realised with a shock lived in the same house as he was living in. It’s an absolutely masterly book.

What do you plan on reading next?
I was slightly horrified when the Granta Best of Young British novelists was announced to realise that I didn’t know a lot of these names, so I’ve just downloaded Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s There Are More Things. I’d had a little private shortlist of writers I thought were going to be on it and none of them was. Then I went on Wikipedia to find out why and it’s because all these “young” novelists are in their 50s, so that was a wakeup call.

  • Bournville by Jonathan Coe is published by Viking (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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