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Coe pictured at the Humber Mouth Festival on 19 June 2006
19 August 1961|
Bromsgrove, England, UK
Jonathan Coe FRSL (//; born 19 August 1961) is an English novelist and writer. His work has an underlying preoccupation with political issues, although this serious engagement is often expressed comically in the form of satire. For example, What a Carve Up! reworks the plot of an old 1960s spoof horror film of the same name. It is set within the "carve up" of the UK's resources which some feel was carried out by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative governments of the 1980s. One claim to fame that Coe has is writing the longest sentence in the literature of the English language, one that appeared in The Rotters' Club and appears to hold the record at 13,955 words (ahead of James Joyce's soliloquy by Molly Bloom in Ulysses).
Early life and education
Coe was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. He was born on 19 August 1961 to Roger and Janet (née Kay) Coe. He studied at King Edward's School, Birmingham and Trinity College, Cambridge. He taught at the University of Warwick, where he completed an MA and PhD in English Literature.
Coe has long been interested in both music and literature. In the mid-1980s he played with a band (The Peer Group) and tried to get a recording of his music. He also wrote songs and played keyboards for a short-lived feminist cabaret group, Wanda and the Willy Warmers.
He published his first novel, The Accidental Woman, in 1987. In 1994 his fourth novel What a Carve Up! won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in France. It was followed by The House of Sleep which won the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Best Novel award and, in France, the Prix Médicis. As of 2016, Coe has published eleven novels.
Besides novels, Coe has written a biography of the experimental British novelist B. S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2005. Also in 2005 Penguin published his "collected shorter prose", a volume consisting of only 55 pages, under the title 9th & 13th. The same collection was published in France in 2012 under the title Désaccords imparfaits.
He has written a short children's adaptation of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, and a children's story called The Broken Mirror. Both titles are published in Italy only, as La storia di Gulliver (2011) and Lo specchio dei desideri (2012).
A handwritten manuscript page from The Rotters' Club was displayed as part of the "Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands" exhibition, running at the British Library from 11 May to 25 September 2012.
Coe read an excerpt of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim to crowds at the Latitude Festival in July 2009. The central character was to be "a product of the social media boom", and "the sort of person with hundreds of Facebook friends but no one to talk to when his marriage breaks up."
Film and TV adaptations
Both What a Carve Up! (1994) and The Rotters' Club (2001) have been adapted as drama serials for BBC Radio 4. What a Carve Up! was adapted by David Nobbs. The Rotters' Club was adapted for television by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and broadcast on BBC Two in January–February 2005. The Dwarves of Death (1990) was filmed as Five Seconds to Spare in 1999, for which Coe himself co-wrote the screenplay.
Jeremy Dyson, author of The League of Gentlemen, was reported to be adapting What a Carve Up! for Channel 4. This TV project was in development with Big Talk (Black Books, Free Agents) but has yet to be formally commissioned.
The Very Private Life of Mister Sim, a French film based on The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, directed by Michel Leclerc and produced by Delante Cinema and Kare Productions, was released on 16 December 2015.
Music is a constant thread in Coe's oeuvre. He played music for years and tried to find a record label as a performer before becoming a published novelist. He had to wait until 2001 to make his first appearance on a record with 9th & 13th (Tricatel, 2001), a collection of readings of his work, set to music by jazz pianist/double bass player Danny Manners and indiepop artist Louis Philippe.
Coe is a lifelong fan of Canterbury progressive rock. His novel The Rotters' Club is named after an album by Hatfield and the North. He has contributed to the liner notes for that band's archival release Hatwise Choice. He once said: "I'd love to find a pianist to collaborate with – maybe Alex Maguire, who is now playing with the reformed line-up of Hatfield and the North". In fact this collaboration did come to fruition, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2009, where Maguire performed a suite of piano pieces to accompany readings from the novel The Rain Before It Falls. Coe has also performed live with flautist Theo Travis.
Coe wrote the sleevenotes 'Reflections on The High Llamas' for the 2003 compilation of The High Llamas Retrospective, Rarities and Instrumentals. He has also written lyrics for songs on the albums My Favourite Part of You and The Wonder of It All by Louis Philippe, and Earth to Ether by Theo Travis, for which the vocalist was Richard Sinclair.
In 2008 Coe wrote Say Hi to the Rivers and the Mountains, a 60-minute piece of what he calls "spoken musical theatre", with dialogue to be delivered continuously by three actors over a sequence of songs and instrumentals by The High Llamas. The work was premiered at the Analog Festival in Dublin that summer, and subsequently performed at various venues in the UK and Spain. The most recent performance was as part of the Notes and Letters Festival at Kings Place in London in September 2011, with Henry Goodman in the leading role of Bobby. The piece is inspired by the proposed demolition of Robin Hood Gardens, an East London council estate designed by Alison and Peter Smithson.
In March 2011, at the City Winery in New York, Coe took the keyboard solos on a live version of "Nigel Blows A Tune" from the Caravan album In the Land of Grey and Pink, along with the musician/novelist Wesley Stace and his band The English UK.
Coe married Janine McKeown in 1989, and they have two daughters born in 1997 and 2000.
In 2009, Coe took part in Oxfam's first annual book festival – 'Bookfest'. Along with William Sutcliffe, Coe volunteered for the Oxfam Bloomsbury Bookshop in London on Thursday 9 July. Coe and Sutcliffe were each asked to choose a theme, and to find books from the stockroom to set up in the shop's window. Coe chose satire as the theme for his display. He chose books about or by Michael Moore, Bill Hicks and Steve Bell, and Tragically I Was an Only Twin: The Comedy of Peter Cook. He also unearthed a script of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil.
Honours and awards
- 1994, John Llewellyn Rhys Prize
- 1995, Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger
- 1997, Writers' Guild of Great Britain Best Fiction Book
- 1998, Prix Médicis Étranger
- 2001, Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize
- 2004, Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
- 2004, Premio Arcebispo Juan de San Clemente
- 2005, Samuel Johnson Prize
- Honorary degrees: DLitt, University of Birmingham (2006); DLitt, University of Wolverhampton (2006); DUniv, Birmingham City University.
- 2012, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
- The Accidental Woman, Duckworth, 1987
- A Touch of Love, Duckworth, 1989
- The Dwarves of Death, Fourth Estate, 1990
- What a Carve Up! or The Winshaw Legacy Viking, 1994 (winner of the 1994 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize)
- The House of Sleep, Viking, 1997 (winner of the Prix Médicis)
- The Rotters' Club, Viking, 2001 (winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize).
- The Closed Circle, Viking, 2004
- The Rain Before It Falls, Viking, 2007
- The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, Viking, 2010
- Expo 58, Viking, 2013
- Number 11, Viking, 2015
- Middle England, forthcoming.
Books for children
- La storia di Gulliver, L'espresso 2011
- Lo specchio dei desideri, Feltrinelli 2012
- Humphrey Bogart: Take It and Like It, London: Bloomsbury, 1991
- James Stewart: Leading Man, London: Bloomsbury, 1994
- Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson, London: Picador, 2004 (winner of the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction)
- Debrett's People of Today 2005 (18th ed.). Debrett's. p. 329. ISBN 1-870520-10-6.
- Laity, Paul (29 May 2010). "Jonathan Coe: A Life in Writing". The Guardian., The Guardian, 29 May 2010
- Katie Scott, "Jonathan Coe on how to build a better e-book" Archived 30 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine., Wired Blog, 28 July 2009
- Hatfield and the North website
- Oxfam books blog: Jonathan Coe and William Sutcliffe create window displays for the Oxfam Bloomsbury Bookshop Archived 8 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
- Oxfam: Ox-Tales Archived 18 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
- Coe, Jonathan (18 August 2007). "Deadly Legacy". The Guardian., The Guardian, 18 August 2007
- Sally Vincent, "A Bit of a Rotter", The Guardian, 24 February 2001, Pg. 36.
- "List of honorary graduates since 2000" (PDF). University of Birmingham. Retrieved 28 January 2015.
- "Honorary doctorates for 2006". University of Wolverhampton. Archived from the original on 28 January 2015. Retrieved 28 January 2015.
- "Honorary Graduates of Birmingham City University". Birmingham City University. Retrieved 28 January 2015.
- Jonathan Coe's website and blog
- Closing the Circle: Jonathan Coe In Interview
- Online discussion about Jonathan Coe and B.S. Johnson
- "Letter from England: A Blairite Novel" Review of Coe's The Closed Circle in n+1 magazine.
- Jonathan Coe at British Council: Literature
- A one-hour interview about his writing (France-Culture, Bibliothèque étrangère, Francesca Isidori)
- Jonathan Coe on Writing
- Audio Podcast on BBC4's Bookclub
- Jonathan Coe reading from "The Rain Before It Fall" at writLOUD
- Cleared Ground Demining official website