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Jonathan Coe

Biography

Jonathan Coe (1961), the author of books such as What a Carve Up, The Rotters' Club, The Closed Circle, The Rain Before It Falls, is one of the most important British novelists of his generation. His fascinating biography of the experimental British cult author B.S. Johnson received the Samuel Johnson Prize for the best non-fiction book of 2005. Among Jonathan Coe's other awards are the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger for What a Carve Up in 1995, the Prix Médicis Étranger for The House of Sleep in 1998, and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for The Rotters' Club in 2001. In 2004 he was made Chevalier l'Ordre des Arts and des Lettres.

During his residency in May 2009, he worked on his latest novel The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, which was published in the UK in May 2010. In 2011 he shall be working on the early stages of his 10th novel. This will be a satirical work, looking at questions of how national identity were being constructed in Britain, and across Europe generally, in the late 1950s.

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Authors' text

I am writing these words in the British Library, in the centre of London. There is a kind of quietness all around me here, but only a superficial one. It is not the occasional sounds and movements of the other users that disturbs me, but the knowledge, inescapable and oppressive, that I am in the centre of a big city. My journey here today was typical. I left home at 7.30 with my daughter, and sat with her on a long, crowded tube train before dropping her off at school. Then I went to a local café to revive myself with coffee and cholesterol-laden food, and then I walked to the library along roads choked with traffic, where cyclists wearing crash helmets and face masks weaved in and out of the paths of gigantic trucks, police cars and ambulances screamed past every few minutes with their sirens blaring, and the air was thick with the roar of engines and the stench of traffic fumes.

In these circumstances, it is hard to remember that there exists such a place as the Villa Hellebosch.

And yet, it occurs to me that I could easily be there again in a matter of hours. The library desk at which I am sitting is little more than 100 metres from the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras. (In fact, I can see the building at this very moment.) If I caught a train now, I could be in Brussels in less than two hours, and then it would simply be a question of changing platforms at Midi station and catching the local service to Enghien. Exactly what I did, in other words, for the first time on April 27th this year. And since it is obvious that I won't be making any such mad, impulsive journey, today or any other day, let me do the next best thing and try to remember what it was like to arrive there, all those long months ago.

Well then. My first impression, disembarking the train at Enghien, was of an overwhelming stillness. There had been a slight change to my travel plans and at first there was nobody at the station to meet me. I had a heavy suitcase containing one months' worth of books and not one but two laptop computers. I waited for a few minutes on the platform. The sky was an uninterrupted grey. Although the station was surrounded by heavy construction machinery and appeared to be in the process of renovation, no work was going on. All was quiet, but it was not the kind of quiet that unsettles you or makes you uneasy. It was a profound, resonant quiet that stemmed partly from the silence all around me, but more importantly from the knowledge that for the next month I was going to leave everyday life behind, and have the amazing privilege of living a different kind of life altogether, a life composed entirely from the elements of my imagination.

Yes, Enghien was quiet, that day; but I discovered that, in the grounds of the Villa itself, an even more tranquil atmosphere reigns. The house stands at the edge of the village of Vollezelle, approached by a winding path through a wood carpeted with bluebells. It is a secret and mysterious place - the atmosphere charged, I felt at once, with ghostly memories of all the stories and poems and books that have been written there. All the strange acts of imagination that it has witnessed. I was shown the kitchen, the dining room where I was to eat, the garden where I could feel free to walk wherever I wanted (as long as the dogs didn't chase me). I was shown the little studio where I would sleep, and the desk where I would write. And then, within a few moments of arriving, I had unpacked, and was sitting down to work.

As I get older, I've found that my brain starts to work in different ways. Back in my early thirties, I can remember writing parts of my novel What a Carve Up wherever I could: in cafés, on trains and planes, at the table of our one-room flat while my wife watched TV and I listened to music on the headphones of a Sony Walkman. Never once did it occur to me to go away to a cottage in the country - let alone a ‘writer's retreat' - in search of rural isolation and mental space. Unfortunately, things aren't so simple now. Nowadays, I find that a big city is still the perfect place to inspire new narrative ideas; and towards the end of the writing process, when the words are coming so freely that the book almost seems to be composing itself, I can also write in the city, block off the doors that lead into my head and shut myself off completely from the constant flow of human traffic. But somewhere in between these two phases comes a period when city life becomes a real obstacle to creativity. The ideas are there - or at least some of them are. Perhaps even a few pages have been written. But although your head might be filled with scenes, characters, themes, images and lines of dialogue, the painstaking process of deciding how all these different elements will relate to each other has only just begun, and trying to make such decisions while city (and, I regret to say, family) life proceeds around you in all its distracting chaos is like ... well, like trying to complete an infinitely complex and intricate model of a cathedral out of matchsticks, while sitting in the cabin of a ship which is being flung backwards and forwards on storm-tossed seas.

After a day or two - no, after a few hours, to be more precise - at the Villa Hellebosch, I already felt those seas calming down and sinking into repose. For weeks in London I had been telling myself that I was going to resume work on this book, that it was just a question of sitting down at the computer and writing. And so, for weeks, I had been sitting down at the computer and ... not writing. Staring at the screen. Trawling the internet at random. Playing on-screen card games. Unable to work out why the words wouldn't appear at my bidding. In Vollezelle, I sat down at the computer screen and within a couple of hours I was ... writing? No, of course not. It only took an afternoon of that magical stillness to make it blindingly obvious to me that I was not ready to continue writing this book yet. I had not yet done enough thinking - or imagining, or daydreaming, or whatever it is that writers do when they are sitting in a chair all day staring into space. A simple realisation - the simplest of all, really. And yet, up until this moment, it had managed to elude me.

And so, for the first few days, I was able to enjoy the greatest luxury of all - the luxury of doing nothing. Nothing, that is, but sitting still, or walking through the garden, and allowing the pieces of my novel to rearrange themselves inside my head, at their own pace - a pace which cannot be forced. After which, things fell into place, and I was able to write at last. But none of the 30,000 or so words which I wrote over the next four weeks would have been possible without that interlude for reflection. And if I have not said anything about the graciousness of my hosts, the generous friendship of the other writer in residence during my stay, the pleasure of being served good food every evening without having to think about its preparation, the kindness of Het beschrijf in choosing to invite me and making all the necessary arrangements, this does not mean, I hope, that I took all these things for granted. It's just that the thing for which I feel the most gratitude, to which I am most indebted, is the silence of the Villa Hellebosch. That absolute silence which provided me with something that is occasionally necessary for every writer (indeed, for every human being, if truth be told): a chance for the churning waters which fill up our souls to settle, and become still, so that for once we can see down clearly into the depths beneath, to the point where all creativity must start.

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Villa Hellebosch
27.04.09 > 22.05.09
Villa Hellebosch
10.10.11 > 24.10.11

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