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Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe is an English satirical author who has won international acclaim and numerous awards for his novels. He is best known for The Rotters Club trilogy (20012018) and The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (2010). He is also an award-winning biography writer and the author of collections of fiction and nonfiction short stories. As the recipient of the Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Jonathan Coe is regarded as a classic contemporary writer.

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Jonathan Coe

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Jonathan Coe is an English satirical author who has won international acclaim and numerous awards for his novels. He is best known for The Rotters Club trilogy (20012018) and The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (2010). He is also an award-winning biography writer and the author of collections of fiction and nonfiction short stories. As the recipient of the Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Jonathan Coe is regarded as a classic contemporary writer.

Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres is a French award that honours artists who have excelled in their particular field or have contributed significantly to the Arts in general.

Jonathon Coe: biography

Born in Lickey, Birmingham, in 1961 to Frank, a physicist, and Mary, a school teacher, Jonathon Coe attended King Edwards School. While an eight-year-old student, he began writing his first novel, The Castle of Mystery (1969). Parts of it were published in What a Carve Up! (1994). The school was also the setting for his later novel, The RottersClub (2001).

He was educated at Cambridge University, graduating with a BA in 1983. His Masters and PhD thesis on Henry Fieldings Tom Jones (1749) were completed through the University of Warwick. His band, The Peer Group, was pretty short-lived, but he did succeed in publishing his first novel, The Accidental Woman (1989), as a student. He then taught poetry at Warwick, as well as being a professional musician, writing music for jazz and cabaret. His career before becoming a full-time novelist also included stints as a legal proofreader and a journalist.

Most well known for his satirical novels on English culture, he has also written biographies of the actors Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart. The most famous is his biography of novelist B. S. Johnson, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize. His collection of short stories includes the works 9th and 13th.1

Jonathan Coe currently lives in North London with his wife, Janine McKeown. They have two daughters, Matilda and Madeline.

Jonathan Coe: books

The accidental Rotters Club trilogy consists of three novels, The Rotters Club (2001), The Closed Circle (2004), and Middle England (2018). Linking the novels together is a group of characters who first meet at King Edwards School. The Rotters Club is a coming-of-age novel, but overall the trilogy is considered to be political satire.

A coming-of-age story generally focuses on a protagonist who is approaching young adulthood. Their mental and emotional growth are often highlighted. Famous examples include The Catcher in The Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee.

Featuring many elements of postmodernism and some of realism2, his books are sociopolitical satires with a focus on Britain, specifically England.

Postmodernism is a movement that followed modernism. It features intertextuality, non-linear plots, and subjectivity. Other famous postmodern authors you will have studied are Arundhathi Roy, Toni Morrison, and Ian McEwan.

Literary realism portrays the everyday mundane life of ordinary people, often written using commonplace speech.

A sociopolitical satire uses humour to ridicule or highlight issues with the current social and political systems.

Jonathan Coe: The Rotters Club (2001)

The first novel in Coe’s unplanned trilogy, The Rotters Club, is mainly set at King Edward School in Birmingham in the 1970s. In a coming-of-age story, the central characters are a group of four friends, Ben Trotter, Phillip Chase, Doug Anderson, and Claire Newman. Ben is the protagonist who experiences a conflict of worldview that is a defining aspect of the plot.

The novel relates the social, popular culture, and political realities of Birmingham. Terrible pop music, failed Prog Rock bands, first love, and community life are mixed with themes of a shifting cultural landscape, class struggles, social injustice, and the IrishBritish conflict.

IrishBritish conflict: on 21 November 1974, two Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombs exploded in Birmingham pubs, killing 21 people. These were part of an ongoing struggle between the IRA and the British government. Although the IRA claimed responsibility, the Birmingham Six who were charged were later acquitted after pressure from the British and Irish public.

In Birmingham during the 1970s, Progressive and Punk Rock became popular with the youth. English Prog Rock bands included Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. Punk bands of the time included The Sex Pistols and The Clash. Both genres are linked to themes of social change and rebellion.

Jonathan Coe, a wall with Pink Floyd wish you were here written on it, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Rotters' Club and Prog Rock are used as a form of escapism.

For the four teenagers, music, particularly Progressive and Punk Rock, becomes a refuge from the complexity of their era. Music also functions as a catalyst for social change.

It was the world, the world itself that was beyond his reach, this whole absurdly vast, complex, random, measureless construct, this never-ending ebb and flow of human relations, political relations, cultures, histories How could anyone hope to master such things? (The Rotters Club, Chapter 9).

Consider the music you listen to and whether it has any influence on your political or social views. How do you think that current music or subcultures differ from the Prog and Punk Rock of the 1970s? Are there any similarities?

The Closed Circle (2004)

The second instalment of Coe’s trilogy, The Closed Circle, is set in the years between 1999 and 2003. The four friends have become prosperous but are essentially unhappy. Ben, the protagonist, is an accountant. He is still trying to write his novel while making music on the side. Trapped in an unfulfilled marriage, he pines over the memory of Ceciley, the long lost girl crush of his teenage years.

Philip and Doug are both journalists, with Doug having married and divorced Claire. Disappointment or disillusion is a thread that runs through the lives of the four original characters.

The Closed Circle maintains the aspects of satire and irony that feature in The Rotters Club. Themes of young love set within the context of contemporary politics, terrorism, and social conventions recur. As the original cast is now middle-aged, the focus, while current, is also reflective of their past.

Im a middle-aged, middle-class, white, public-school-Oxbridge-educated male, he frets, self-reflexively. ‘Am I kidding myself that Im doing something important? Am I not just raking over the embers of my own little life? (The Closed Circle, Chapter 10).

Middle England (2018)

Spanning the years 2010 to 2018, the third novel in The Rotters Club trilogy sees Ben getting longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Set mainly in the worlds of British media, academia, and politics, the build-up to Brexit and the EU referendum is a key aspect of the novel. The author and journalist Sathnam Sanghera described it as:

The first great Brexit novel.3

Without losing the sense of the satirical comedy of the first two novels, Middle England looks at the interplay between personal decisions and the broader economic and political climate of the time. Although ostensibly a political satire, the novel equally focuses on the relationships and personal journeys of the central characters. The links and disconnect between these levels of the novel are highlighted by the following quote, which is taken from a dialogue between a marriage therapist and a couple who voted differently in the referendum.

What’s interesting about both of these answers is that neither of you mentioned politics. As if the referendum wasn’t about Europe at all. Maybe something much more fundamental and personal was going on. This is why this might be a difficult problem to resolve. (Middle England, Chapter 4)

Middle England is a sociopolitical term that generally refers to the middle and lower-middle classes of Britain who hold more right-wing views. In this context, it could also refer to the Midlands, which are literally in the middle of England and where Birmingham is located.

Jonathan Coe's importance to contemporary literature

As the winner of many literary prizes, from the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in 1995 to the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2005, Jonathan Coe is recognised by parts of the literary world as a classic contemporary author.

He is also credited with satirically portraying the most pressing issues of contemporary civilisation. As an English author, he has ambitiously attempted a State of the Nation approach with his The Rotters Club trilogy, combining elements of broader issues with political and social themes that are distinctly British.

A State of the Nation novel tries to capture the realities from the political to the social aspects of a certain nation. This can be used as an insult for authors who have tried to achieve too much or for those that have captured the zeitgeist.

Although he sells many more books in France than anywhere else, The Rotters Club has recently been made into a BBC series. This has brought his work into the British mainstream. The French translations of his novels have been criticised for simplifying British class signifiers and creating cultural misrepresentations.4

Jonathan Coe is important to literature because he satirises the political and social landscape, providing a starting point for reflection on power structures that is contemporary and current. The well-known author Nick Hornby has referred to him as the best English novelist of his generation.5

Jonathan Coe - Key takeaways

  • Jonathan Coe is a satirical sociopolitical author who has been variously described as a postmodernist and a realist.

  • His The Rotters Club series was an accidental trilogy, as he did not plan on writing the second or third books when he wrote the first one.

  • Key themes include politics and social conventions or injustice, as well as how these realities affect the personal lives of his characters.

  • His novels have been described as State of the Nation themed works that question current British realities.

1 Jonathan Coe Biography, https://jonathancoewriter.com/biography/.

2 Denisa Dumitrașcu, Power in Politics and Academia in Jonathan Coes Novels (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017).

3 Theo Tait, Review: Middle England by Jonathan Coe, The Times (2018)

4 Helena Chadderton, Translating Class in Jonathan Coe, The Translator. 2017

5 Jonathan Coe, Expo58: A Novel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

Frequently Asked Questions about Jonathan Coe

He was born in 1961.

Jonathan Coe attended King Edward School in Birmingham.

Jonathan Coe was born in Birmingham, England.

Jonathan Coe is a British novelist who writes sociopolitical satires, biographies, and short stories.

Jonathon Coe’s agent is Caroline Wood.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Who is the protagonist in The Rotters' Club trilogy?

What music do the friends in The Rotters' Club like to listen to?

What is the main political event that features in Middle England?

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