15.10.2013 - jonathan coe

Jonathan Coe, The Rotters’ Club (Viking)

Report of the meeting club

In our first Read & Meet we spoke to Jonathan Coe about his major socio-political novel The Rotters’ Club. Although Coe said he did not often reread his own work, the barrage of questions from the reading group soon refreshed his memory and so we were able to place both the novel and our reading experiences in context.

The Rotters’ Club contains numerous autobiographical elements (‘Benjamin Trotter is who I am and Doug Anderton is the boy I always wanted to be’), which led to digressions into growing up in the seventies, the influence the pop music of that time had on the novel, and the decline of Old Labour.

The Passa Porta Read & Meet has the enticing advantage that it is attended by the author of the book under discussion, which meant that we had the privilege of talking to Jonathan Coe about his writing technique, the use of what are called ‘found texts’, and the novel’s ambitious structure. A question about a particular comic passage led to an analysis of British satire and the fact that it is for the most part a conservative tradition, which Coe wanted to counter with a progressive voice.

Jonathan Coe also took the time to clear up several misunderstandings about the novel. For instance, he did not conceive The Rotters’ Club as an historical novel, which is made clear by the fact that its many storylines continue to develop in The Closed Circle. In fact, this book (often wrongly described as a sequel) and The Rotters’ Club together form a single novel. Coe also resists the notion that it is a young reader’s novel (despite the ages of the characters) which led to some consternation among the Italians present. It appears that in Italy the book has a large cult following among teenagers.

His memory having been refreshed, and having answered the many questions, Coe ended with the mischievous remark that it seemed to him to be a marvellous book. ‘You made it sound marvellous; I think I should read it one day.’

For those who would like to know more about Jonathan Coe and this novel, Steven Van Ammel recommends the following links:

  • An interview with Coe on the occasion of the BBC screen adaptation of The Rotter's Club.
  • Music plays an prominent part in The Rotter's Club and The Closed Circle. Especially so in the life of Benjamin Trotter, who has dedicated his whole life to "composing" a Great Novel like a piece of music. Jonathan Coe comments on the often complicated interactions between music and words and on his love of the High Llamas.
  • Among the favorite novels of the first guest of Read & Meet @ Passa Porta is a novel by the Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, who inspired Coe to write the last chapter of The Rotter's Club. The whole chapter consists of a single sentence of 1355 words. 
  • After Margaret Thatcher passed away, The Guardian asked Jonathan Coe to share of few of his memories of the Iron Lady.
  • Finally, Passa Porta had the pleasure of receiving Jonathan Coe earlier this year: as writer-in-residence and on the stage.

If you yourself have any comments on The Rotters’ Club that are worth reading, you can contact us at info@passaporta.be. Your reactions will be posted on this page.