Jonathan Coe is this summer’s literary double threat, with the publication of The Closed Circle (Knopf, $25), the sequel to The Rotter’s Club, which follows a circle of friends coming of age under Thatcherism and coming to power under New Labor, and his dazzling study of experimental writer B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant (Continuum, $29.95). Elephant is an examination of the conventions of literary biography as well as a fascinating study of Johnson, who advocated truth over imagination even in fiction—a challenge for any biographer.
1 Are there any biographers you admire? I’m a great fan of Michael Holroyd, whose biographies are real and brilliant works of literature. I do take several potshots at literary biography in the book, but this was because Johnson’s mind-set colonized mine. I became as hostile toward the conventions of biography as he had been toward the conventions of the novel. I ended up admiring good biographers more than I did before, having found out for myself how difficult their job is.
2 Did Johnson’s suicide over-determine the process of writing the biography? There was always a danger that I would go looking for clues. His family was adamant that Johnson wasn’t a depressive personality and the suicide was an aberrant episode—an accident, almost. What I tried to convey were the intriguing paradoxes in this area of his personality: the deep pessimism about the human condition combined with an amazing conviviality and love of life.
3 Do you think writing Elephant informed The Rotter’s Club and The Closed Circle at all? The adult Benjamin [Rotter and Circle‘s pro-tagonist] and Johnson share many character traits: an inability to break free from the past, an obsession with former sexual glories and romantic betrayals, a tendency to build small emotional episodes up into grand, tragic narratives.
4 Elephant contains multiple attempts to locate Johnson. Do you think you succeeded in finding him? I probably didn’t—I realized, by the end of the writing process, this was always going to be an impossible task. The most I could do would be to build up the most complex composite portrait I could manage and hope that something approximating the truth might emerge.
5 What would Johnson’s reaction to the book be? I think he would have thumped me over the head with it. At the same time—convinced as he was of his literary immortality—he’d have felt immensely vindicated that someone had erected this vast paper monument to him. He always said he would be more famous after he died and now it seems to be coming true.