By Mad Dog & Glory
I finished Jonathan Coe's The Closed Circle in the early hours of this morning. The first Coe novel I read was What A Carve Up!, which was a revelation to me, which its mix of humour, politics and the macabre. Then I read The House Of Sleep, which I loved. I then went back to his early novels, none of which I liked very much, but which kept me going until The Rotters' Club, which is of course currently being dramatised on BBC2. Jonathan Coe was born in the same year as me, and so all the stages that Benjamin, Doug and Philip were going through - and all the events in the outside world - were happening to me at the same time and the age. This gave the novel a very powerful resonance for me.
The Closed Circle features all the teenagers from The Rotters' Club, and is set between 2000 and 2003. (Their parents though have been replaced by their children, where applicable.) However, when I began reading, I didn't recognise the teenage characters I knew in their grown-up versions. I had to go back to The Rotters' Club - and read the synopsis at the end of The Closed Circle - to remind myself who they were. So an inauspicious start.
However, the novel kept my interest right up until the end, while never reaching the heights of his previous three books. It is beautifully written, and an excellent picture of a very recent but very important period in history (covering the Millennium, September 11th up to the war in Iraq). Coe's strength is mixing the personal with the political, the interior world of the characters with the world outside. Those characters though never transcend the page which is odd because they were so familiar (or should have been!) from The Rotters' Club. There is plenty of plot, but it's not presented particularly dramatically, despite a twist straight out of a soap opera (which oddly Coe ends up telegraphing just before its revelation).
For lovers of The Rotters' Club, who were left dangling by its loose ends, they are all tied up in the end. I would definitely not recommend reading The Closed Circle without reading The Rotters' Club first. In fact, I would definitely recommend reading The Rotters' Club, full stop, whether you have been watching the BBC2 version or not.
The Rotters' Club - Jonathan Coe
What - no thread? I've seen many new and established BGO-ers mention JC so I thought that I'd check out the thread for this book, which both myself and His Lordship read on holiday.
I added it to the TBR planet just before the TV series started, and as with most other books there it has stayed. I didn't watch the series, but I might now.
Despite the issues, this is a really easy read and thoroughly enjoyable. As with many of my recent reads, it has opened my eyes to a part of my country's history, and introduced things to me that were never taught at school.
I found it fascinating comparing much of the backdrop to events of the last few years - terrorism, rising house prices, a change in focus of industry - isn't it funny how things go full circle yet we never learn (not helped by ignoramus' like myself who don't know about the past I suppose!).
My only complaint with the novel was the end - what was that all about?! Right up the the final part, I was gripped, loving getting to know the boys and their lives. And then disaster - the last 40 pages go on and on and on, and don't seem to have any point! His Lordship described it as "it was like he got to the end of his holiday and had to come up with some way to end it quick, but leave you with a tidied up and well rounded story".
We were both interested to learn about the sequel, The Closed Circle, as it seems to have slipped under my radar. Despite our reservations of the end of The Rotters' Club, looking at the very positive reviews on here, I suspect it may be a good addition to the next holiday reading list.
Looking for patterns (again)
It had been adumbrated for some time, following the publication of Jonathan Coe's The Closed Circle, that his seventh novel did indeed represent some kind of closure, and that the next one would be an important new departure.
The Rain Before It Falls is different in many immediately obvious ways. It is considerably shorter than either The Rotters' Club or The Closed Circle, and, unlike those immediate predecessors, not firmly rooted in a socio-political context. This is a book about memories stretching back over several generations.
The subject-matter would seem easy enough to summarise: an elderly lady, Rosamond has decided to bequeath a series of taped descriptions of photographs to a cousin's blind granddaughter, at the same time providing details of a sometimes tumultuous family history. On the surface this would appear to promise rather tame reading. And yet, for The Spectator to specify that the main narrative voice here is that of "an elderly, suicidal lesbian" is to skew readers' expectations in an unnecessary way.
The truth lies somewhere in between the over-conventional and the over-sensational.
Rosamond's taped narrative is framed by the discovery of the tapes, following her death, by her niece and executrix, Gill, and the subsequent reactions to their contents by Gill and her daughters, Catharine and Elizabeth. And although the main narrative interest is very clearly Rosamond's account of her family history, beginning with her early childhood in the years leading up to the Second World War, and although the main descriptive interest lies in impeccably simple evocations of the English countryside, a deeper philosophical interest is provided by Gill's meditation on the meaning and implication of the tapes, which she intends to be able to to transmit eventually to Imogen, the blind girl. It is very much in this domain that themes already pondered in The Closed Circle, especially the influence of the past on the present, show that this is not a totally new departure for Jonathan Coe. There are clear links for the attentive reader:
*Rosamond ponders at one point that "a cycle was coming to an end; a circle was closing";
*later in the narrative, it occurs to her that particularly painful or traumatic experiences can be wiped from the memory: "'The mind has fuses,' as somebody once said." The "somebody" is Rolf in The Closed Circle.
But surely the most striking new idea to be introduced here is Rosamond's realisation, in her early thirties, that:
"sometimes, it is possible - even necessary - to entertain contradictory ideas; to accept the truth of two things that flatly contradict each other. I was only just beginning to understand this: only just beginning to acknowledge that this is one of the fundamental conditions of our existence."
It is reminiscent of the maturing James Ramsay's recognition, in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, that "nothing was simply one thing".
Gill's meditations towards the end of The Rain... continue Benjamin's efforts in The Closed Circle to find patterns in life, efforts which tend to be thwarted by a sudden intense awareness and acceptance of chance and randomness in everything.
But whereas Benjamin Trotter is often narcissistically and neurotically obsessed with the need to make sense of his own life, Rosamond looks back rather more generously and lucidly over an essentially ordinary lifetime, and yet one composed of a heady mix of both sheer contingency and some kind of intimation of deeper meanings, deeper patterns. It is in this respect that The Rain Before It Falls urges us to take the necessary steps towards a deeper and more complex understanding of our own lives.
Huge, grey and imposing...
"Huge, grey and imposing": the three adjectives appear two-thirds of the way down the opening page of Jonathan Coe's fifth novel, introducing the story's main setting, a house shared by a group of university students, in some indeterminate location on the English coast. Twenty-three pages later, those same words reappear, introducing an identical description of the same house, now the house of sleep of the title, a private clinic treating patients suffering from various sleep-disorders. The narrative has now moved forward some twelve years, the original student inhabitants have moved on - although most of them, in various guises, will be back... From there on the novel, in alternating chapters, moves backwards and forwards between undergraduate days in the eighties and "post-undergraduate" days - in many respects post-innocence days - in the mid-nineties.
There is equally something huge and imposing about the novel itself, which I have just reread in the space of an afternoon. Its atmosphere is from the start uncomfortably sinister; whereas other reviewers have tended to insist on the comic elements of the story, it should also be pointed out that the characters are, each in his or her own private way, both unhappy and unstable. And the novel's undoubted strength lies in the way it draws the reader inside these different versions of unhappiness and instability, forcing him or her to question the very nature of identity, and also to ask to what extent we can - or should - attempt to change it.
The novel is also grey - though not in any conventionally negative way. Dealing not only with the nature of dreams, the narrative also examines those awkward, Proustian grey areas between the conscious and unconscious minds. In the case of one character, Sarah, whose dreams are so vivid that she can no longer reliably distinguish between the things she has said and done and those she has only dreamt about, the nature of reality itself is tantalisingly questioned.
And yet Jonathan Coe's novel is not one of those postmodernist works like Auster's New York Trilogy in which the narratological pyrotechnics are such that the actual story-line - assuming there is one - becomes an irrelevant detail. Coe's non-linear complexity is complexity in the best tradition of Wuthering Heights. And I defy any sensitive reader not to sprout a few goose-pimples when they reaches the overwhelmingly moving conclusion to what is, again like Wuthering Heights, one of the most hauntingly unconventional of love-stories.
More generally speaking, I'm an avid Coe fan and have read all his novels; I also taught a class last year and the year before on The Closed Circle.
Following the partial ranking proposed on the thread for The Rotters' Club, I would propose this as my own:
1 What A Carve Up! ***** +
2= The Rotters' Club *****
2= The Closed Circle *****
4 The House Of Sleep *****
5 The Rain Before It Falls *****
6 A Touch Of Love ****
7 The Dwarves Of Death **
8 The Accidental Woman **
I think Jonathan Coe himself would freely admit the status of 6, 7 & 8 as apprentice-works... I've been fortunate enough to speak to him briefly twice, and he seemed somewhat surprised that I'd liked A Touch Of Love...
His biography of the relatively unknown B.S.Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant, is a work of literature in its own right. See here.
A highly literary biography
I'm not generally speaking a keen reader of biographies of any kind, but being persistently fascinated by experimental fiction, I picked up this biography of B.S.Johnson not because of its subject [whom I'd never previously heard of] but because it was by Jonathan Coe, a novelist I admire for his combination of tradition and innovation, but also, and especially, for what he refers to on the final page of this biography as "our belief in the moral integrity of `fiction', our belief in the usefulness of storytelling".
Jonathan Coe alludes several times to a metaphor, borrowed from the seminally innovative French writer Nathalie Sarraute, and quoted by Johnson, according to which literature is to be conceived as "a relay race, the baton of innovation passing from one generation to another" - but a relay race at which most British novelists seemed, to Johnson, singularly inept.
Coe's biography enables us to witness a lap in the race that many fiction-readers must have missed when it was run: B.S.Johnson [1933-1973] was an experimental writer, a fervent disciple of Joyce and Beckett, whose innovations in both subject-matter and form he set out to emulate, and even extend, to the point of publishing his second novel with a hole cut through two pages, enabling the reader to know in advance what was theoretically still to come, and of having his fourth novel, The Unfortunates, presented in a box with twenty-seven sections to be shuffled and read in a random order, thus simulating the essential randomness of all human experience.
Jonathan Coe has refrained from being quite so radically experimental in his own presentation of this relatively unknown writer. But the form he adopts is not conventional: starting with an overview of the seven published novels, he then bases a generally chronological account around 160 fragments, taken from the novels, but also from letters to agents, publishers, friends, poems published and unpublished...
Then comes a collage of brief extracts from interviews conducted nearly thirty years after Johnson's death. These are painstakingly arranged so as to cover different aspects of Johnson's personality, and, more signifcantly, to jutapose clear differences of opinion.
Finally, the coda: what would chronologically have constituted fragment 46 is held back until the end of the biography, the reason for this being that the fragment in question was, Coe explains, "almost the last thing that I found while going through Johnson's archive". This fragment, in Coe's interpretation of it, throws a radically new light on Johnson's life and on the circumstances leading up to his suicide. Coe explicitly points out the possibilty that "this tells you more about me than it does about him".
It would spoil the biography as a whole to reveal the nature of Coe's contention in his analysis of this final fragment. But here is surely the clearest indication there could be of the role of subjective interpretation. In Johnson's provocative words, this subjectivity implied that "telling stories is telling lies"; in slightly less provocative terms, it clearly means that all meaningful fiction can only arise from the balance which is to be sought between general human experience and what is specific to one person. Between truths universally acknowledged and the doubts and speculations which each writer and reader brings to the writing/reading experience which characterises the novel.
Which brings us to the contention of one interviewee, Anthony Smith, "we are driven (by a sense of identity/dignity) to make stories of whatever happens, like Greek myths". This is clearly an opinion that Jonathan Coe adopts as his own in this fascinating book: that the very notion of "real life" (and consequently books and films based on so-called "true stories") is a dubious one. Rather, we construct our understanding of what it means to be alive, and that fiction is one of the ways in which we attempt to communicate life's joys and despairs.