Review: Bittersweet (Jonathan Coe and Catherine O’Flynn)

It was in a grand but incongruous setting that the Durham Book Festival brought together Jonathan Coe and Catharine O’Flynn, two apparently different novelists with, it turned out, rather a lot in common.

The venue was the town hall, a beautiful space of wood-lined walls and heraldic hangings, asserting a very present history. In contrast, Coe and O’Flynn had been billed as thoroughly modern “state of the nation” novelists, although it soon became clear that neither of them quite agreed with this description.

Both began by reading a short extract from their newest novels – Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim and O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are – introducing their characters in voices which were a combination of pathetic and comical which they both relished, with Coe’s excerpt featuring his eponymous character actually boring someone to death. Both extracts showed a great affection for their rather ordinary characters, vividly drawn by O’Flynn’s clever prose and Coe’s realistic dialogue, and it was this fascination with the ordinary which was the main theme of the hour.

Both authors pressed the importance of celebrating the mediocrity of everyday life, bemoaning the contemporary obsession with extraordinariness. O’Flynn made the wry observation that when she was younger the reality television programme young people wanted to be on was Stars in Your Eyes, aspiring to be simply a tribute act and never the famous person themselves.

A distinction made by the authors – in both their novels and the discussion – between the banality of private lives and the excitement of exterior lives (or vice versa) raised interesting observations. Both writers praised the novel as a form for the natural way it presents both an interior life and a wider context, but also spoke of the misplaced emphasis on “state of the nation” writing, as people and relationships are the main focus of both novelists – depicting the social context of their characters seemed to be a secondary purpose, if a purpose at all.

O’Flynn spoke of her fascination with what it is to be “underestimated by the world at large”, to be considered less than you are because of your appearance, and how to reconcile that perception with your own self-awareness. A tension between privacy and solitude was referred to by both authors; Coe’s novel depicts a man whose “privacy”, or aloneness, seems to him a badge of failure, whereas O’Flynn’s novel takes a public character who relishes his privacy, and takes an interest in the private lives of others. This theme was returned to during the question and answer session, as a question came about the impact of Facebook, and how it encourages public affirmations of private lives. Young people, Coe commented drily, “don’t care what they do as long as everybody knows about it”.

Unsurprisingly, it was on the subject of comedy that Coe and O’Flynn spoke most eloquently, with Coe making a case for the inaccuracy of the phrase “the comic novel”. As humour is part of everyday life, he argued, and novels should depict that everyday life, then humour and comedy are inherent in the form itself. This marriage of the ordinary and the comic was clearly something both authors used and valued, citing instances in their books which were inspired by actual events, as in Coe’s novel where a character is mugged, only to have the mugger return to ask for directions. O’Flynn recalled an interview when a journalist seemed to think her odd for having a sense of humour, and echoed Coe’s point that humour is a part of life and therefore will (or should) be something all writers use if they want to depict life and human relationships as they truly are.

A final conversation ensured Coe and O’Flynn lived up to their thoroughly modern reputation: a discussion of technology in everyday life. In his novel Coe incorporates Facebook and Mumsnet, totems of modernity, depicting their influence on human relationships. He has his title character register on Mumsnet in order to speak to his ex-wife, becoming closer to her as a virtual friend than he ever was as her husband, illustrating one deft way Coe uses technology in his fiction.

The event finished with one last reference to modern culture from the ever-joking Coe, as the audience was asked to let the authors leave first – “Don’t mob us!”, he said, feigning mock terror. Of course Coe and O’Flynn had nothing to fear; although they were funny, thoughtful, and eloquent throughout, there was nothing of the celebrity about them. They were entirely ordinary. If there was one thing learned over the hour, it was that this should be taken as a compliment.

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