Jonathan Coe and Justin Cartwright: Fictional prime time

The British novel, at its best, is engaged, liberal, highly informed, secular, sceptical and above all humane.

Author Jonathan Coe. Image: Getty
Author Jonathan Coe
 
One of the few things that makes life bearable nowadays is that we have so many good novels to comfort us. This profusion of world-class British fiction is something we take for granted. But we are better at it than making cars, fighting wars, playing football or doing the tango. We have talent. 
 
Fiction, as statistics confirm, is booming bigger every year. Newspaper circulations dwindle by 10 per cent per annum. Anglican church attendance, per nave, has probably sunk below the two spinsters cycling through the morning mist about whom John Major used to get dewy-eyed. University philosophy departments are closing. Modern languages departments will accept people with Cs. But English departments turn away more people than they can take in. If you interview applicants, as I did for 30 years, you will find that most of them are banging at your door because they “love literature”, which usually means inspirational novels or novelists.
 
My own belief code, so to call it, was formed in my undergraduate years, during a period in history when D H Lawrence was God. For me, the meaning of life was “affirmed” (we loved that sub-Leavisite word) by the beginning of The Rainbow: the men delving in the rich soil, the women – antennae of the race – mystically regarding the spire on the distant horizon. It made the affirmation stronger that the novel had come to one through the flames of censorship.
 
My brain has never been big enough for Wittgenstein, quantum mechanics or an Althusserian-correct reading of Das Kapital. Deconstruction (like Italian) I can read but not talk. I look at OUP’s Very Short Introduction drum-rack and sigh. Not even if they were shrunk to the size of an intellectual aspirin tablet could I master those subjects.
 
Most of what I know about science comes from science fiction and history from historical romance. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The British novel, at its best, is engaged, liberal, highly informed, secular, sceptical and above all humane. On the side of life, as we Lawrentians used to say. My long life has been a foretaste of that heaven the Frenchman described – a soft sofa and an endless supply of new novels. I’d thank the owner of heaven, if I believed in him (the English novel largely doesn’t).
 
The two novelists under review are at their strong mid-career points: novels behind them, novels in front of them. Justin Cartwright’s last novel, Other People’s Money, is the best seminar in print on the supranational grand larcency that damn near did for us all in 2008. Having done Mammon, Cartwright has now turned to the vexatious issue of God. Logical.
 
His protagonist, Richard Cathar, was so renamed by his hippie, professionally droppedout father, before he prematurely “shed his vehicle” to join Timothy Leary up there in the infinite. Having taken a brilliant history degree from Oxford and broken up with his partner, Cathar follows the nominal signpost his dad has lumbered him with and sets off to find what happened to the “True Cross”, the last genuine relic of Calvary.
 
The narrative thereafter runs on two lines, denoted by italic and Roman script, respectively. One plotline is a chronicle, which turns into an Ivanhoe-like fantasia, on the life, battles and death of Richard the Lionheart and his campaigns to rescue the Holy Land and the Holy Cross for Christianity.
 
The pivotal scene is a conversation between Cathar and his wise old tutor, who tells him that archaeology and historical research are dead ends – the path to truth is imagination. Write a novel, he advises. Cathar’s quest takes him to Jerusalem, where Christianity began and where the world, when it finally explodes, might well end. In between, he gets a lot of sex and finally finds a mate and some home truths about Dad.
 
I can recommend this book as a good history lesson and two rattling good stories. Most important, it’s a convincing apologia for what it is.
 
Expo 58 offers a different kind of history lesson. Jonathan Coe is the David Kynaston of fiction, forever cranking up his time machine to travel back to some past decade (memorably the 1970s in The Rotters’ Club). His latest title alludes to the 1958 World’s Fair in Belgium where grotesquely – or presciently – Britain chose to construct a pub between the super-potent pavilions of the US and the USSR called the Britannia.
 
Coe, who has two doctorates in literature, is manifestly, at a deep subtextual level, interrogating the Bakhtinian notion of the carnivalesque (I throw that in for anyone contemplating the inevitable PhD on Coe).
 
Coe’s Pooterish hero, Thomas Foley – a selfconfessed deeply confused man – is seconded to Brussels by the Central Office of Information to keep tabs on the Britannia. Off the marital leash – he gets caught up in the great games of the cold war – and adventures ensue. He, too, is gamed, as he ultimately discovers. But, as we used to say in the 1950s, he finally gets his end away. A bit of the other. Something on the side. His oats.
 
When Walter Scott invented the historical romance with Waverley, he subtitled his pioneer work ’Tis Sixty Years Since. It indicates “lifespan”, after which point the eyewitness memory fades away. Coe was born in 1961. In 1958, while Jonathan was still a sparkle in his mother’s eye, I was doing my national service. As Kurt Vonnegut recurrently interjects during Slaughterhouse-Five, “I was there.”
 
The plot hinges on one of the great ignes fatui (along with the Tanganyika groundnut scheme and the Brabazon airliner) of the 1950s. “Zeta” (zero-energy thermonuclear assembly) was proclaimed with screaming tabloid eurekas as a machine – British to its atomic core – that would extract energy from seawater and save the world. And it was so displayed at the Belgian festivities. Halfway through, it was exposed as unscientific bollocks, like Jonathan Swift’s Lagadans trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.
 
Coe inserts the necessary date markers: the Aldermaston marches, striped Crest toothpaste, Sputnik. And, neatly, the denouement turns on the internal architecture of a Smith’s Crisps packet. The historical fabric is, to my ancient eye, sound. Expo 58 is a jolly good novel; or, if you like, a good jolly novel.
 
Life, alas, is too short to read all the good novels and, who knows, at the rate good fiction is coming out in Britain, eternity might not be long enough. Wallow gratefully. 
 
John Sutherland’s “A Little History of Literature” will be published in October by Yale University Press