Jonathan Coe, Evelyn Waugh and P G Wodehouse

An interview of novelist Jonathan Coe for Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines has been posted on the internet. The interview, published as “Laughing Out Loud with Jonathan Coe”, was conducted in October 2015 and deals with the comic content of Coe’s fiction. He is best known for his comic novel What a Carve Up! (1994) and the linked autobiographical novels The Rotter’s Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004). The interviewers asked what authors had influenced Coe:

Q: You wrote in an essay included in Marginal Notes, Doubtful Statements. Nonfiction 1990-2013 that P.G. Wodehouse was ‘the elephant in [your] comic room’ because you had been reluctant to read him for a long time. On the other hand, Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh have been sources of inspiration for the very first novel that you wrote at the age of fifteen and which was never published (All the Way). Do you still feel connected to that literary tradition of comic writers?

A: Yes, I do feel connected to it, particularly to Evelyn Waugh, whom I first read as a schoolboy when I was fifteen or sixteen. I loved the combination which I detected in Evelyn Waugh of comedy and social commentary. Politically, Waugh and I come from opposite ends of the spectrum, but that didn’t stop the way he imported satirical ideas into his novels from being a huge influence on me. I think that was always the problem I had with Wodehouse: I felt that Wodehouse’s comedy, from what I knew of it—which is only very superficial knowledge—had no edge. It was too light and airy to me, too much of a soufflé rather than a main course. Gradually I grew up and matured and realised that that is exactly what is so wonderful about Wodehouse, that he is to comedy almost what Bach is to music: what he does is so pure and so formally perfect and linguistically perfect that the content of it is really beside the point. You don’t read Wodehouse because you’re interested in the social mores of the English upper classes in the twenties and thirties; you can find that out from anywhere. You read his books because they are intensely pleasurable, pleasurable in an almost abstract way, and it took me a long time not just to understand that, but to appreciate it.

Coe goes on to identify other writers and works that influenced him, including Henry Fielding, novelist and TV script writer David Nobbs and the TV comedy series The Two Ronnies (for which Nobbs wrote sketches).

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