Eleven Sources of Inspiration by Jonathan Coe
Jonathan Coe is renowned for writing the raucous social satire What A Carve Up! Here he discusses his aptly titled eleventh novel, Number 11, which is both a smouldering sequel to his nineties classic and our Book Club title this week.
What a Carve Up! is considered one of the most brilliant and the most vicious satires of Thatcherism, a book that "arraign[ed] a whole gaggle of gargoyles, and delivers a comeuppance with pungent brio" (The Independent).
So, how did Jonathan Coe come to write Number 11, its "slippery" sequel? The author lets us glimpse his creative process as he lists eleven of the images, characters and styles that influenced him.
1. What a Whopper (British film, 1962)
As soon as I started thinking about the idea of a sequel to What a Carve Up!, I asked myself what kind of a sequel I wanted it to be. I wanted the relationship between the two books to be oblique, slippery. (And besides, there could be no question of a straighfroward sequel, because all the main characters in What a Carve Up are dead by the end of the book.) So I jumped on the fact that the original film What a Carve Up – the inspiration for the first novel – had its own sequel of sorts, rejoicing in the name What a Whopper! (The exclamation mark seems to be optional.) The main problem, on tracking it down and viewing it, turned out to be that it was utterly terrible. So instead, looking for some hints as to what form the new book should take, I turned to …
2. Dead of Night (British film, 1945)
This cult masterpiece is the darkest film to come out of a studio more often associated with heartwarming comedy. The archetypal British portmanteau horror film, it consists of five interlinked stories, the fourth one being played for comic relief – a structure which I copied exactly for Number 11. The fifth story is the most famous, and sees Michael Redgrave doing a brilliant turn as the ventriloquist who is driven mad when his dummy comes to life and starts tormenting him. I liked the idea of this loose, open-ended form (is Number 11 really a novel, or an anthology of linked novellas?), because I believe ‘state of the nation’ novels should be structurally ambiguous, just like …
3. Lanark, by Alasdair Gray
… which is one of the greatest examples of all. Part social realism, part dystopian sci-fi. It is in four parts, but they are presented in the order 3,1,2,4. A great counter-example to the idea that state-of-the-nation fiction should always be neo-Victorian, à la Trollope or Thackeray.
4. Beverley Minster
As well as a structure, I needed something – some encounter, some overheard fragment of conversation, some backdrop or location – to encourage the first sparks of inspiration. I found it in a place, and an atmosphere. In 2013, I was lucky enough to be asked to take part in the Beverley Literature Festival. It was a cold afternoon in autumn. After my event, with a bit of time to spare, I went to explore the famous Minster. Dusk was falling. The building was silent, and eerie shadows were starting to descend. I knew that it was time to revisit the comic-Gothic-horror mode I had used in What a Carve Up, and now I had my first scene…
5. Psycho (American film, 1960)
I also decided to go back to my own very first memories of being scared by a piece of narrative art. No doubt it seems tame to today’s teenagers, but Psycho was a legendary film when I was growing up. There were no DVDs or streams. Did you dare watch it on the rare occasions when it popped up on television? Would your parents let you? I wanted to tap into those youthful, primal fears, so the two young girls at the centre of the first story in my book are haunted by the idea of Psycho, and eventually find themselves caught up in their own version of it. Is the figure in the cellar really Mrs Bates …?
6. Sink and Swim, song by Louise Le May
My second story concerns a faded pop singer attempting a comeback. (British movie buffs will also notice a reference to the 1978 Pete Walker schlock-fest The Comeback, starring perennially unfashionable crooner Jack Jones.) She is supposed to have written a beautiful new song, but I found that I couldn’t imagine this song solidly enough in my head – I needed something real to base it on. Thankfully, my friend Louise Le May had been recording her debut album, A Tale Untold, which contained a wonderful, haunting and melancholy song called Sink and Swim, and she was happy for me to borrow it and assign it to my luckless heroine, Val Doubleday. Hear Louise’s song.
7. The Door in the Wall, short story by H G Wells
My third story is a warning about the perils of nostalgia. About the perils, too, of having a calm, happy childhood (as I did), and how hard it might be to find an adult life that lives up to it. I’ve always loved Wells’s story The Door in the Wall, which tells of a successful middle-aged politician tortured by memories of a day when, only five years old, he discovered a green-painted door in the wall of an ordinary London street and, passing through it, found that it led into a paradisal garden. Ever since then he has never been able to locate the door, or recapture the memory. In my re-telling, a slightly nerdish academic is obsessed by memories of a mythical film he might once have seen at the age of six, in flickering black and white on his parents’ television.
8. Marina Abramović
There were two other chance finds, quite late in the writing of the book, which had an enormous effect on it. Both discoveries were made in Switzerland, on a visit to the amazing Michalski foundation in the hills outside Lausanne. First of all I was shown a picture of a dinner staged by the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović, in which the menus, instead of being printed, were read aloud by performers who had stuck their heads through holes in the diners’ tables.
It struck me as being such a wonderfully surreal image that I couldn’t resist making it the climax of my fourth story, an absurd detective parody. And then the same person took me to visit …
9. The Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne
… which completely blew me away. This is a museum devoted to artworks produced by those on the fringes of society: paranoiacs, obsessives, inmates of long-term penal and mental institutions. Some of the work there, in its fanatical attention to detail and texture, is simply astonishing. When I visited, in addition to the permanent collection, there was also a temporary show devoted to Josep Baqué, who besides being a parking warden in Barcelona spent a lifetime creating a massive artistic bestiary – thousands upon thousands of weird, colourful, mutant mammals and insects. And when I saw his spider paintings, another part of my novel’s puzzle clicked satisfyingly into place.
10. Quatermass and the Pit (British film, 1967)
I love British cinema. Not so much its canonical auteurs (Lean, Reed, Loach, Leigh etc) but the more disreputable figures who operate on its fringes. Not that there is anything really disreputable about Nigel Kneale, the prolific film and television scriptwriter. Kneale specialised in horror and sci-fi with an intellectual edge, sometimes stretching the genre so that it became a form of social comment. I particularly like his 1957 version of The Abominable Snowman, starring Peter Cushing, which starts out as an eerie adventure story and ends as a plea for pacifism. But his most famous creation was Professor Quatermass, who starred in a series of cerebral thrillers first on television and then on film. In Quatermass and the Pit he is played by Andrew Keir. The plot involves the discovery of something unexpected and terrifying during excavations at a London tube station, and it kept coming back to me, over the last couple of years, as I read numerous newspaper articles about London’s super-rich digging deeper and deeper basements beneath their Kensington and Chelsea homes in order to expand their already generous living spaces. Supposing Nigel Kneale was writing a story about this, I thought. What would they uncover by the time they had dug down to the fifth or sixth storey? Or even storey number 11 …?
11. David Nobbs
David is the dedicatee of Number 11, but he never lived to know this, or indeed to read the book. He died in August this year, at the age of 80. I’ve loved his work ever since I was fifteen years old and first read The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, his classic novel which was adapted into a (lighter and more frivolous) TV sitcom. Reading that novel, at that impressionable age, was a revelatory moment for me: it was the moment when I realised that a book could be serious, melancholy and riotously funny at the same time; that humour is sometimes the way to capture the gravest as well as the most absurd aspects of the human condition. I became friends with David towards the end of his life, and had the joy and the honour of being adapted by him when he turned What a Carve Up into an eight-part Radio Four series. Like Nigel Kneale, he was never quite admitted into the upper echelons of the British cultural hierarchy, probably because too many people believed that you couldn’t be a serious novelist and also write sketches for Les Dawson. But you could, and he proved it, and his example continues to inspire me.
A novel about the hundreds of tiny connections between the public and private worlds and how they affect us. It is about: the legacy of war and the end of innocence; how comedy and politics are battling it out and comedy might have won; and living in a city where bankers need cinemas in their basements and others need food banks down the street.