Jonathan Coe: ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin is a modern classic’

The author on double entendres in Morecambe & Wise, Nikesh Shukla, and the book that overturned his assumptions about relationships

The book I am currently reading
I’m about to start reading The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla, which comes out in April. Both as a writer and campaigner he is one of the most important literary figures in Britain today.

The book that changed my life
I remember reading Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin in the 1980s and finding that it overturned most of my assumptions about relationships between men and women.

The book I wish I’d written
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. So eerie, so disturbing, and not a wasted word, it has the kind of economy I wish I knew how to achieve in fiction.

The last book that made me laugh
Off the back of Neil Forsyth’s fine TV play Eric, Ernie and Me I have been dipping into The Best of Morecambe and Wise by Eddie Braben, a book I almost knew off by heart as a teenager. It still makes me laugh. Braben was brilliant at writing writing double entendres that had a kind of innocence about them, which makes his work much more palatable today than most 70s comedy. If you spot a sexist gag on The Morecambe & Wise Show it probably wasn’t written by him.

The book that is most underrated
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs is one of the great British novels of the 1970s – as a piece of comic fiction streets ahead of anything by Kingsley Amis, in my opinion – but it has never received its due because it was overshadowed by the TV adaptation (also brilliant in its own way). It should be republished as a modern classic.

The last book that made me cry
I don’t believe a book has ever made me cry.

The book that influenced my writing
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. I was about 17 when I read it, and loved everything about it: the baroque plotting, the narrative energy, the bubbling good humour. It made me realise a novel can be intimate and panoramic at the same time, and that one of the most attractive qualities in a book is generosity of spirit.

The book I couldn’t finish
The books I couldn’t finish are too numerous to mention. There is also one book I couldn’t finish writing, a novel called Paul’s Dance, which I abandoned in 1984 when I realised I had grown too far apart from the (autobiographical) central character.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I’m saving it up for later, honest.

The book I give as a gift
I used to give people The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann, a haunting, decades-spanning melodrama I still think is one of her best books, but then I noticed that nobody else seemed to like it.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
Researching my BS Johnson biography meant trawling the TLS archives from the 1960s and reading glowing reviews of people acclaimed as major writers who are all now completely forgotten. Somehow I suspect that’s the fate that awaits most of us, me included.

Contributor

Jonathan Coe

The GuardianTramp

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