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Jonathan (Roger) Coe Biography

Jonathan Coe comments:

Nationality: British. Born: Birmingham, 1961. Education: Trinity College, Cambridge, 1980-83, B.A. (honours) in English literature; Warwick University, 1983-86, Ph.D in English literature. Career: Loan officer, Barclays Bank; poetry tutor, Warwick University; cabaret pianist; legal proofreader; arts journalist. Agent: Tony Peake, Peake Associates, 14 Grafton Crescent, London NW1 8SL, England.



The Accidental Woman. London, Buckworth, 1987.

A Touch of Love. London, Buckworth, 1989.

The Dwarves of Death. London, Fourth Estate, 1990.

What a Carve Up!. London, Viking, 1994; as The Winshaw Legacy, New York, Knopf, 1995.

The House of Sleep. New York, Knopf, 1998.


Humphrey Bogart: Take It and Like It. London, Bloomsbury, andNew York, Grove, 1991.

James Stewart: Leading Man. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, Autumn, 1994; published as Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life, New York, Arcade, 1994.


My first impulse to write came from the films and television programmes I watched as a child: British film comedies such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and I'm All Right, Jack, and TV sitcoms like Fawlty Towers. At the same time I have a certain yearning towards the high European seriousness of great twentieth-century novelists such as Proust, Mann, and Musil, and my own novels have grown out of the tension between these two very different influences.

Another creative tension arises from my desire to reach a wide readership while remaining convinced that it is the novelist's job to innovate, to take formal risks and always attempt something new. I have never wanted to write historical or escapist fiction: contemporary Britain provides me with my source material.

An off-the-cuff list of all-time favourite writers would include Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Charles Dickens, Dorothy Richardson, Rosamond Lehman, Bohumil Hrabal, Milorad Pavic, Flann O'Brien, and B.S. Johnson.

* * *

"Words are awkward sods, and very rarely say what you want them to say"—a thought expressed in Jonathan Coe's first novel, The Accidental Woman. The intractability of language seems to preoccupy the young novelist. This slight tale of a young woman, Maria, to whom things happen, rather than who makes things happen, is haunted by an authorial voice that is never far from intervention. "Before the film they met for a drink, or at least they met at a place where drinks were served, and drank there." Such attention to detail is not uncommon in the first-time novelist; so keen to avoid cliché he is forever stopping the flow of the narrative to deconstruct the image: "Her hand was being held with a strength which it would not be inappropriate to compare to that of a vice."

The role of Maria reflects Coe's questing approach to narrative. Maria is the accidental woman; like one of Hardy's passive victims, things happen to her. Her actions never propel the narrative; the story is driven by her response to events. She marries Martin because she ate gammon.

In A Touch of Love, Coe eschews forthright authorial intrusion and tells a more direct story, although he does not completely forget his experimental roots. The story of Robin, a depressed postgraduate who is charged with indecency after a misunderstanding in a park, is seen from various viewpoints that allow the reader to build up a complete picture of his character. The clearest insight is allowed by the inclusion in the text of four of Robin's short stories. (The style of his work is reminiscent of The Accidental Woman.)

With The Dwarves of Death, Coe takes an enormous stride forward. The narrator, William, is a musician caught up in a murder case after being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now, there is some heart (Maria and Robin had both been dealt their cards indifferently, even cruelly)—that is, William's frustrating relationship with the unreachable Madeline engenders the reader's sympathy. He gets us on his side early on, after all, by delivering blistering satirical salvos at Andrew Lloyd Webber's so-called music. Coe is experimenting. He constructs the novel like a popular song. It even has a middle eight—a hilarious account of waiting for a bus that never comes.

If Coe took a stride forward with Dwarves, he leaps to a higher plane with What A Carve Up! Societal satire, savage political attack, rip-roaring farce, in-depth character study, deeply moving love story. it's all here, and every aspect of it works like a dream. Especially the oneness of it, the masterful way in which the author brings it all together. Ostensibly, at least to begin with, it is the story of a rich and powerful Yorkshire family, the Winshaws, and writer Michael Owen, who is writing a book about the Winshaws for a vanity publisher. Tabitha Winshaw has been confined to an asylum, having overreacted to the death (she remains convinced it was no accident) of her brother, Godfrey. It is Tabitha who charges the Peacock Press with the task of finding someone to write the history of the Winshaws, and the more details that are revealed about the depths of greed and viciousness of her various relatives the more she emerges as the sanest of the bunch, despite being locked away.

Hilary Winshaw writes a vituperative, hawkish column for a right-wing tabloid; brother Roddy is a Cork Street gallerist sustaining the careers of talentless would-be artists. Henry becomes a Labour MP but veers sharply away from the party to become one of the powerful backroom thinkers and plotters behind the Conservatives' relentless drive to privatize everything they possibly can. Dorothy is a heartless factory farmer who becomes head of an insidious packaged-food business. Thomas is a merchant banker who involves himself in the film industry for the voyeuristic opportunities it will afford him. Mark sells arms to Saddam.

Exploiting this extraordinary cast of characters to the full, Coe tears apart the body politic of British society and lays bare its corrupt heart. Because the author handles his material so assuredly, the reader never gets lost in the richness of detail. The appalling political machinations remain fascinating throughout the book, but what really draws the reader in is the character of Michael Owen, who one senses may be only partly fictional. Though he is nine years older than the author, there's a strong temptation to read Coe into part of the part of Michael, and not only because of playful references to Michael's published novels, whose titles are reworkings of The Accidental Woman and A Touch of Love.

The passages taken from Michael's works seem deeply personal, as does the relationship between Michael and Fiona. It's an indication, however, of how absorbing the action is throughout the book, that 90 pages elapse after Michael and Fiona's first embrace before the narrative returns to them. And although the reader wants to get back to them because s/he cares for them now virtually as for real people, one remains captivated by all the many characters and narrative strands. This is partly due to ingenious plotting and a complicated structure that must have required the author constantly to go back and rework sections.

The scope of What a Carve Up! is dizzyingly ambitious, taking in the art world and factory farming; the depletion of the health service and the war against Saddam; the corruption of politicians and betrayal within the family; the philosophy that suggests that a course of events might be entirely accidental (harking back to Coe's first novel) set against elaborate and all-too-convincing conspiracy theories. It's a very brave novel and one that will have the reader laughing aloud and bursting into tears. The broad sweep and structure recall Michael Moorcock's Mother London, which was a masterpiece. In many respects, not least for the way in which the cinema metaphor is employed at the end of part one, that description would not be out of place here.

Coe continued his sly self-reference, once again using the device of a story within the story in The House of Sleep. This novel within the novel describes a series of "midnight kidnappings" committed by "a notorious criminal called the Owl," and the book us just one of the spectres that haunt the characters in The House of Sleep. At the center of the story is Dr. Gregory Dudden, who operates a sleep clinic in a nineteenth-century mansion named Ashdown—which just happened to be his dormitory in college more than a decade earlier. Reminiscences arise, old loves and conflicts are resurrected, and all in all, Coe amply satisfies his readers' hopes for an entertaining experience.

—Nicholas Royle

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