Marianne: Victory in 1945, the 1966 World Cup final, Diana’s funeral… seven dates articulate your story. Are they, in your view, the key dates in recent British history?
Jonathan Coe: Through the character of Mary Clarke, the heroine of my novel, I wanted to tell the story of my mother’s life. This allows me to pay homage to him. For that, I needed a literary device. Devoting a chapter to each of these dates and to the way the protagonists experienced them seemed logical to me. May 8, 1945, the coronation of Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953 or the final won by England on July 30, 1966 were easy to choose. The other events – the investiture of the Prince of Wales, the marriage of Charles and Diana… – took longer to establish themselves. I don’t know if these are key milestones in recent British history, but they are important.
You are 61 years old. Which of these dates marked you the most?
I vividly remember Charles and Diana’s wedding in July 1981. I would stay away from my family watching television, and I would ostensibly read a book to emphasize that I was not interested. In my novel, Peter, the youngest son of Mary Clarke, does the same thing. Like him, I was an introverted rebel.
Three of these events concern the royal family. Why ?
Because if there was a referendum, 80% of people would prefer to keep it. That’s a fact. Personally, I am not a monarchist – and besides, if I became a dictator, I would abolish the royal family. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the series. The Crown (smile)… I still consider myself a patriot. I love my country the same way you love your family: you don’t choose it. There are some things you love, some things you hate, but it’s yours and you’re loyal to it. I will never leave my homeland because of its government, even if the current one does not suit me. You have to stay and fight: governments always end up changing.
Was your mother’s death in June 2020 the trigger for writing the book?
Once the shock passed, my first impulse was actually to start writing about her, about her life. The circumstances of his death make me angry. Because of the confinement, my family was not allowed to be with our mother when she was sick. My brother went to her house but was only able to talk to her on the phone, behind a window in his house. She died shortly afterwards. A year later, we learned that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Cabinet were breaking the rules they had put in place and hosting parties at 10 Downing Street. Many other British families have experienced this type of tragedy and it made us very angry.
Since English will (1994) until heart of england (2018), you often use the exploration of the past as a narrative engine.
It’s not systematic, but looking back allows me to understand how the present we live in was modeled. I’m not a nostalgic person and I don’t think life was any easier in the 1950s or 1960s. Especially for gay people, women, or people of color. I also admit to having the fantasy of reliving past experiences by transcribing them. It was a comforting exercise in remembering my own childhood and projecting it into The disunited kingdom. It’s a kind of therapy. Writing allows you to block the passage of time and make it last for a while.
Is devoting a book to the past a snub to the nostalgia nurtured by the Conservative Party in your country?
It is true that, in recent years, many of the policies put in place by the British power have been dictated by nostalgia and by the legends maintained around an alleged “Anglicity”. For example, we still have a strong tendency to summon the memory of the Second World War. And it’s not because of those who lived it but rather the generations that came after who grew up with this mythology. This observation could make me pessimistic for our future but I think it will pass with the younger generations. I also think a lot of my compatriots are starting to question their recent choices. And I’m not just talking about Brexit.
Do you have the feeling that a majority of your fellow citizens regret having left the European Union?
Those who truly believed in it regret nothing. Those who did it to upset David Cameron, our ex-Prime Minister, regret it. They understood that this was not the best way to express their dissatisfaction. The British very gradually begin to lament that we have left Europe. If the referendum were held tomorrow, the votes would certainly be reversed: 52% to stay, 48% to leave. The explanation is particularly demographic: part of the Brexiteers were elderly and have been dead since 2016.
One of your characters has this sentence: “There is a time when everyone has to choose sides. » Is this your feeling today?
I wrote this sentence last March and I was mainly thinking of the war in Ukraine. I still can’t take in the fact that modern European cities are being bombed as we speak. For me it is obvious that Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine the victim. But there are representatives of the old left and the far right in Britain who do not think like me.
The disunited kingdom Jonathan Coe, Gallimard, 489 pages, €23.