October 21, 2010 at 4:59 am #801uppaMember
Well, Paolo, I do not see the contradiction here. Jonathan is certainly consciously interested in and very good at using all the tools at his disposal for building masterful plots; he uses different narrational techniques and different narrative voices, he keeps track of comings and goings in time and of stories within stories… I enjoy that, I love it in fact. But if his plots were not alive with People they would just feel contrived, and they do not. This does not mean I would like to answer the question about "my favourite character". I can recognize that I empathise with this or that one at different times and in different places but it’s the whole pack that makes Jonathan’s books work so potently for me.
I was struck by the comment made by the young lady I met at Jonathan’s meeting in Milan: talking about the HoS she said "You wrote about me". That’s it, Jonathan writes about me too, though I could never say "I am that character or that other".
And now I’ll have breakfast and go to school 🙂October 21, 2010 at 3:12 pm #802
I see your point, Uppa. But what I wanted to say is just that the characters of Jonathan’s novels do not impress me for their psychological depth, or for the realism of their inner lives. Their depth and significance is a side-effect of the profundity of the stories, that make them, so to speak, “alive” for us and easy to empathize with. But it is the story that really makes sense, not the characters themselves. This is how I interpret the disrupting act of narrative detachment at the end of Maxwell Sim. Jonathan is saying us: “Hey, look, they’re not real. But who cares?”. For he is not telling us that their stories aren’t true or meaningful. It is just the opposite way around. And, by the way, it is also the exact opposite of what B.S. Johnson wanted to have: one veeeery real and veeeery deep character (himself) and an irrelevant web of stories.
Well, deep psychology can be interesting. But it doesn’t always make for good novels.
This is only my opinion, of course. So I am looking forward to your reply.October 21, 2010 at 11:12 pm #803shosho-alexandraMember
The House of Sleep is my favorite also. What I love mostly about it is the way it illustrates the fact that fiction is a lie. I learned it the hard way when I ‘googled’ after Terry’s favorite director and realized he didn’t exist! His biography and the technique employed in the novel to describe him made him seem so real. However, Chalk and Cheese does exist!
I also like how Jonathan Coe uses various styles (such as reviews or poetry) and goes into other forms of expression (such as cinema) and at the same time stays faithful to the traditional novel. His novels are like a beautiful puzzle and the pieces fit so perfectly together in the end. (However this doesn’t happen in The accidental woman; nevertheless the open ending there made a lasting impression on me and I obsessed about Maria for a while).
I also loved Sarah! And Terry! Even Gregory(it reminded of my ex bf). Terry made me fall in love with movies and ever since I have been devouring French cinema.
The story had a nostalgic, sad feel to it. It made me cry and happy at the same time..It wasn’t the story that was eerie but the feelings it conveyed..I felt i was on a different planet while reading it.. It is a great escape from life, The House of Sleep, just like sleep itselfOctober 22, 2010 at 5:45 pm #805
Paolo wrote :
> Well, deep psychology can be interesting. But it doesn’t always make for
> good novels.
That’s true. Take Pynchon, for instance. His characters are as flat as a pancake. At least most of them are. Tyrone Slothrop (in Gravity’s Rainbow) may take on a myriad avatars, but that doesn’t mean his psychology is deep or even meaningful. But the novel itself is the work of genius. It is very moving as well as highly interesting in all of its aspects, going from technology to intertextuality to the use of elaborate puns.
But I don’t think that Coe’s characters are like this. They may not be Clarissa Dalloways or Leopold Blooms, but they move me much more than the above mentioned protagonists. But you did raise an interesting question: What does move us in Coe’s novels?
The stories and situations? Fiona as the victim of the health department’s mistakes, Robert as the boy who would do anything to win the heart of the only girl he can possibly be in love with, the true behind the relationship between Benjamin/Paul and Malvina?
The characters? I do believe that they are pretty well developed. There are Benjamin Trotter’s musings about Cicely and Claire as he drives home after his visit to Claire (in TCC), when he compares the yellow moon to this yellow balloon, an emblem of lost opportunity, and he reveals that, since 1979, he has been counting the time in ‘full moons’. There is some sort of inherent fatality about many of Coe’s characters. Robert is also one of them. A Romantic hero. Of course, if you don’t think that someone like Victor Frankenstein has a deep psychology, then Coe’s characters certainly don’t have that. But according to my idea of characterization, they really do.
There are also some sentences that are really beautiful and moving. Even a sentence as simple as "I don’t think I can go on.", but it’s the context that makes this sentence this moving. It’s the final sentence of a chapter in What a carve up!October 22, 2010 at 5:46 pm #806uppaMember
@Paolo: I still can’t see a real contrast in what we say; you are more technical in your analyses while I feel safer trying to draw out what I get from reading Jonathan’s books, but we both seem to agree that he is a great narrator. To go back to the characters, I don’t think that it is necessary to go in depth in their psychological or even outer description to make them seem alive. What comes to my mind is "less is more": it is enough to give Sarah, Ben or Maxwell their voices in dialogue and sometimes in thought, and to make them act; the reader does the rest. Your interpretation of a character could be different from mine, but don’t we do the same with real people, in a Pirandellian (???) sort of way, from what they say or the way they move or the objects they surround themselves with? I wouldn’t call this a "side effect" as if it was something that could be done without. It certainly is the positive effect of proficiency in writing but also a deep interest in humanity. At least that’s what I get.
Anyway, I really admire the way you write and how much you seem to know about how literature works and I thank you (like I thank Gert) for giving me the opportunity to think about these aspects more.
PS I wonder what Jonathan thinks of two Italians arguing in English!October 22, 2010 at 5:50 pm #807
Such moving words, shosho alexandra. That’s exactly what I think of Coe’s fiction! The fact that his novels are like a puzzle and a collage seems very "postmodern" to me. I don’t know if Coe would like this term, but the "great masters" of postmodern fiction use these techniques as well, and it just reminds me of them. I also felt that The Rain Before It Falls was written about my family. In part, that is. I don’t think Coe actually mentions the word in the novel (otherwise, I have forgotten), but Vanessa (that’s her name, right?), must really suffer from borderline. Terrible mental disease, but a great source for tragic stories … sadly.
Uppa: Thanks 😀 Maybe I will could up with some more, haha :pOctober 25, 2010 at 8:00 am #809
Thank you Gert and Uppa for the additional musings. I surely need time to ponder them. The only thing that I would add concerns the distinction between character-driven and story-driven novels. This seems to me to be relevant in our case. My opinion is that you may, and probably you must, have solid characters also in a plot/story-driven novel, but their inner lives should never be the narrative focus. The story must resonate in their inner selves, but it is not there, deep inside, that it unfolds. This is the secret behind any (in broad sense) comic novel and, more generally, of humans’ sense of humour: detachment. In some way, you can empathize with Maxwell falling in love with the soothing voice of his GPS system (Emma), but it is a sort of detached empathy, because it is Maxwell as the exemplar of our contemporary crazy situation you are identifying with. And that makes you (bitterly and shrewdly) laugh. There is no room for laughing in Proust’s Recherche and that does not seem to me to be accidental. There is too much psychological realism, there. But, of course, Jonathan’s brilliance lies in his ability to turn a plot-driven narrative into an illuminating inward experience. As Uppa said, we all agree that he is a great storyteller.
@Uppa: yes, you’re right: two Italians arguing in English about Jonathan’s novels (and in front of an audience that, as far as I can see, is mostly composed of Italians) sounds queer enough. It makes me think of what a debate must have looked like in the Middle Ages. All those Germans, Frenchs, Italians speaking a (putatively) common language with hilarious different accents and mindsets. Jonathan could surely make something amusing out of this (and, actually, it did something very funny in his short story “V.O.)October 25, 2010 at 10:40 am #810
Still, I think that you can both empathize thoroughly with other aspects of Maxwell (for instance his failed marriage, his Poppy blunder and his relationship with his father) and at the same time laugh with them. There is a lot of laughing involved in What a Carve Up!, but it would never be number 1 in my Top 100 of the Best Novels if there wasn’t this huge room for empathy with Michael Owen and other characters. I never heard of this distinction, but Coe’s work might indeed be an example of story-driven novels, although characters and empathy remain are still very important in his novels. Maybe it’s too difficult to make such a distinction? Where, for instance, would you place Ulysses? Joyce offers us a very deep intimacy with his characters, but still we don’t feel that we necessarily know much about them, and there is a lot of room for laughter and even slapstick. What do you think of the distinction round/flat characters? Do you agree that Coe’s main characters would be "round"? 🙂October 25, 2010 at 2:38 pm #811
That’s an interesting point you make, Gert. And of course, my dichotomy is a stylization, a sort of ideal-type distinction that applies only in broad outline. But, still, it seems to work fine for me. Let us dwell on the assessment level for a moment. For me, the crucial question here is the following: how high would you value Jonathan’s novels if you should only take the characters’ “weight” into account? Not very high, indeed. Their extraordinary narrative quality rests on the wonderful web of stories whose one and only character (as in every comic novel) is human nature in its multifacetedness. The same seems to me to hold true for other contemporary “comic” novelists such as Milan Kundera (or, for what is worth, older ones as Henry Fielding). To indentify oneself with the characters (through the story) is easy here because the underlying understanding of human nature is sooo good and realistic.
As to your last point, Ulysses is an intriguing case, indeed. But, we should never forget that we are dealing here with an avant-garde attempt to deconstruct the novel structure from within. As many other modernist efforts, it is parasitic on pre-existing genres. And since, in this case, the pre-existing narrative structure which it depends upon is epic, if I were forced to classify it, I would (maybe paradoxically) put it within the comic genre (stream of consciousness notwithstanding!).
Thanks for the opportunity to mull over such fascinating problem, Gert! October 25, 2010 at 7:37 pm #812
Thank you as well. But maybe Coe’s characters are so humanlike and so real because of their deep psychology. But that’s not the same as detailed characterization, that’s true. Characterization is a difficult matter indeed. Once you’ve finished a novel, it’s difficult to make out which aspects were already there, in the novel, and which ones you have unconsciously put there yourself, as a reader filling in the gaps.
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