September 13, 2010 at 4:26 pm #562raffaellaMember
Hello, Mr Coe – erm, Jonathan (can I really call you that?)
I’m yet another Italian fan of yours and I had the pleasure of reviewing your latest two books for a magazine called "Pulp libri", which you might know already. I translated both into English in the hope that you find them clever enough. I’m looking forward to read your comments, but please be kind. 🙂
(The original versions can be found at http://raffaella-arnaldi.blogspot.com/)
The Rain Before It Falls
Coe has recently released in the UK Like a Fiery Elephant, a ponderous work which is both an essay and a biography of B. S. Johnson, writer in the 60-70s who rejected the traditional medium of novel as unnatural and biased, and spent his life searching for the truth through words, well aware that, after Joyce and Woolf, “serious” literature can’t be content with nineteenth-century-style plots and neat, well defined characters. Clearly the Birmingham author has been influenced by this, since in TRBIF he has given up the surprising plots of his most famous novels in favour of a more linear narrative form – while substituting for the most part the third person omniscient p.o.v. with the voice of an old lady who’s remembering past facts connected with the people who’ve been important to her. She addresses the young woman whose very existence is the result of all the friendships, sentimental relationships, accidents and breakups which have constituted fifty years of her own life.
It can be hardly said the result is true avant-garde, and the device used by Coe is not new. His formal research is just partially successful, but there are other reasons to love the book. True, we miss a bit the acrobatic abilities of the creator of such plots as What a Carve Up or The House of Sleep, with their seemingly implausible mix of sharp humour and emotion: in TRBIF prevails an existential melancholy which feels more bitter than in Coe’s previous novels (at least until The Closed Circle). What is still intact is the author’s ability at drawing out fated characters, at making the places come alive, infusing each story with a true sense of ineluctability, the same ineluctability which the narrator, Rosamond, ascribes to the story of young Imogen, the recipient of her narrative. The refusal of novel conventions becomes more evident at the end, in a terse declaration of intents: life is larger than fiction, despite any attempt at giving it order through writing – it’s complex, confused and lacks the sense of closure that is so reassuring for the reader of narrative. Don’t believe in the meaningful coincidences my novels used to abound in, Coe seems to tell us. Always believe, though, in the characters’ authenticity.
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim
Jonathan Coe, with his previous work titled The Rain Before It Falls, had apparently put aside irony in favour of a more melancholy and gloomy vision of life. That’s why The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim marks a welcome return to the mix of drama and deadpan humour – so British – which gave fame to novels like What a Carve Up and The House of Sleep. Just like in the abovementioned works, Coe has invented a clever plot linking the past and the present, where some elements come to light and reveal long-buried truths as in a mystery tale.
Maxwell Sim is an everyday man in present Great Britain: ditched by his wife and daughter, in leave of absence from work because of his clinical depression, he suddenly feels urged to be back in the world and get connected with new people. He grasps a (dubious) job opportunity which leads him through the whole country on a Prius full of ecological toothbrushes, but some detours from the planned route will make him go over his personal history.
Whoever loves Coe’s sincerity, emotional involvement and faith in the power of narrative will not be disappointed by the book. Maxwell Sim, at age 48, still has much to find out about himself and he’ll accomplish this discovery through the point of view of some other characters who act as narrators as well. One of them really existed: it’s Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor who in 1968 feigned to circumnavigate the globe in order to win a race, but only found death and insanity. Max progressively identifies himself with Crowhurst: his own journey means he’ll leave the familiar routes, but without the sailor’s tragic epilogue. In order to find himself he has to lose himself first, while learning to make peace with technology, which, playing a significant part in every character’s relation with reality, is the object of Coe’s ironic remarks.
Maxwell is an anti-hero who appears like a loser, perhaps just because he’s always seen himself as one, who will learn to open himself to the world and who is finally going – maybe – to stop “not liking himself enough”, which his ex wife reproves him for. He’s a man who thinks he’s not leaving a trace and will undergo a challenge full of humiliating trials and destiny’s tricks.September 24, 2010 at 8:08 pm #760jonathanKeymaster
Very eloquent and thoughtful reviews: thank you, Raffaella.
I don’t re-read my old books so I don’t have the kind of overview of my novels which you show here; but it’s interesting that you feel a note of bitterness entering The Closed Circle and The Rain Before It Falls, and that you find Maxwell Sim something of a relief from that. It was certainly fun (and a relief), while writing Maxwell, to discover that my sense of humour had just been lying dormant for a few years, and hadn’t died altogether.
The thing I’m writing at the moment is quite funny – I hope! That’s if I ever finish it …
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