Jonathan Coe was born on 19 August 1961 in Lickey, a suburb of south-west Birmingham. His first surviving story, a detective thriller called The Castle of Mystery, was written at the age of eight. The first few pages of this story appear in his novel What a Carve Up!.
He continued writing fiction throughout his schooldays, his three years at Trinity College, Cambridge and his postgraduate years at Warwick University where he was awarded a doctorate for his thesis on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. While working on this thesis he also completed The Accidental Woman, the first of his novels to be published.
In the late 1980s he moved to London to pursue his literary and musical enthusiasms, writing songs for his short-lived band The Peer Group and a feminist cabaret group called Wanda and the Willy Warmers. The Accidental Woman was published in April, 1987, and was followed by A Touch of Love (1989) and The Dwarves of Death (1990), but it was not until the publication of his fourth novel, What a Carve Up! that he began to reach a wider audience. It became his first international success, with translations in sixteen languages.
It was followed by The House of Sleep (1997), and then The Rotters’ Club (2001) and its sequel The Closed Circle (2004). The Rotters’ Club was adapted as a BBC TV series in 2005, scripted by two of his boyhood heroes, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, creators of Porridge and The Likely Lads. Also in 2004, he published Like a Fiery Elephant, a biography of the British experimental novelist B S Johnson, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for best non-fiction book of the year.
The Rain Before It Falls (2007) marked a move away from his trademark humour and political satire, while The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (2010) was a comedy about loneliness and disconnection in the social media age. Especially popular in France, this novel was later filmed as La vie très privée de M. Sim. It was followed by Expo 58 (2013), a comedy-thriller set against a background of Cold War espionage, and Number 11 (2015), a sequel of sorts to What a Carve Up!. In his latest novel Middle England (2018), the characters of The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle return to navigate the choppy waters of British life in the years before and immediately after the Brexit referendum. It has been described by the author and journalist Sathnam Sanghera as ‘the first great Brexit novel’.
His work has received many prizes and awards, including both Costa Novel of the Year and Prix du Livre Européen for Middle England. In France he won the Prix Médicis for The House of Sleep and has been appointed Officier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres. In Italy he has also won the Premio Flaiano (for Number 11) and the Premio Bauer-Ca’ Foscari. The citation for the latter prize concluded that ‘for his keen interest in the most crucial issues of contemporary civilization, Jonathan Coe may be considered a complete novelist and a classic of our times’.