A short reading from Jonathan Coe’s latest novel Expo 58 brought chuckles and snorts from an enthusiastic audience at the new Library of Birmingham.
He read a section of dialogue in which his characters debated whether a toilet should form part of the British exhibition at the Brussels World Fair or Expo 58 of the title.
How typically British when the Cold War superpowers were beginning to assert themselves and make bold statements about their national identity just a few feet away.
It’s perhaps this very British humour that makes Coe so accessible and enjoyable to continental readers. While the superpowers of the US and Soviet Union vied for supremacy at Expo 58, dear old Britain opened a pub called the Britannia which turned out to be surprisingly popular with visitors.
As he noted, ‘The British were a bit of a hit with their self-deprecating sense of humour.’
The Germans aren’t so keen on his work, he says – excepting his previous novel The Rain Before It Falls – but he has a strong following in Italy and France.
‘The Italians have an interest in Englishness,’ he says and smiles before adding: ‘They’re curious and need my books to understand the English.’
Coe’s works have been translated into many languages and he went on to describe the perils: a castration scene was added to one of his novels without his knowledge; What a Carve Up! simply wouldn’t translate as a title and, perhaps with a nod to the atmosphere of espionage that runs through Expo 58, the German publishers have opted for From Brussels with Love instead.
Asked by a member of the audience if he would write a book about the funny experiences in translation Coe replied: ‘It wouldn’t translate.’
Throughout the talk he made reference to films and comedy that have been major influences.
The Two Ronnies have provided character names and he adores Porridge (he worked with its writers Clement and La Frenais on the TV adaptation of The Rotters’ Club.
He’s a fan of Eddie Braben – whose prolific output featured everywhere from Round the Horne to The Morecambe and Wise Show – and the Ealing Comedies.
I was able to ask him if he felt comic literature wasn’t taken seriously enough, giving the example of David Nobbs’ often-overlooked novel The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.
He said he would like the book to be made a Penguin modern classic, especially as Morrissey’s forthcoming Autobiography was apparently going to be released as a Penguin Classic, ‘elevating him to the class of Swift and Ovid.’
‘There is a bit of snobbery, about what is high art and low art,’ he said, referring to the reception comedy often receives.
Coe grew up in south Birmingham, but has lived in London for 25 years. He said he still feels like an outsider writing about the capital and doesn’t believe he could write with the confidence of Londoners such as Peter Ackroyd or Zadie Smith.
His mother still lives in the Midlands and he hinted he was thinking of returning, with the new library being an attractive selling point.
I’d like to thank him for drawing my attention to the 1961 film What a Whopper – it’s now on my catch-up list.
Last night’s event (October 10) was part of the Birmingham Literature Festival, which has also featured Benjamin Zephaniah, Lionel Shriver, Carol Ann Duffy and Germaine Greer among others.
For further information visit http://www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org/