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March 11, 2011

Book Notes - Jonathan Coe ("The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

As a satirist, Jonathan Coe has few equals, a point he proves yet again with his latest novel The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. Following the novel's namesake after his wife leaves him, the book spectacularly depicts Sim's unspectacular life and his detachment from society and modern culture.

The New Statesman wrote of the book:

"Coe has always been a virtuoso of voice. He is the master of the kind of distinctively English comedy that has its roots in Fielding and Sterne."

In his own words, here is Jonathan Coe's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim:

Music is usually very important in my novels. My central characters are often musicians (William in The Dwarves of Death) or aspiring musicians (Benjamin Trotter in The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle). In The Rain Before It Falls, the narrator's feelings for her lover are crystallised in their shared passion for a song ('Bailero' from Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne). I have collaborated live and on record with musicians such as The High Llamas, Hatfield and the North, Louis Philippe and Alex Maguire. But my new novel contains no direct references to music at all. This time, for a change, I wanted to write from the point of view of a man for whom culture has no importance whatsoever. My hero, Maxwell Sim, is a travelling salesman who doesn't read, doesn't listen to music, doesn't go to the movies. He doesn't see the point of any of this. Art doesn't speak to him. I wanted to attempt the challenge of exploring the inner life of someone whose attitude to these things was so different to my own.

Nonetheless, as always I listened to a lot of music while writing the book, and took some of my inspiration from it. Here are twelve of the songs which are associated – to my mind – with the novel:

Caravan: "Memory Lain, Hugh"

This is the first track from their 1973 album For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night, and it has one of the greatest guitar riffs I have ever heard. It should have become an iconic classic, but has somehow slipped into obscurity. The first line of the song, 'If you get on the road that takes you back …' could be one of the epigraphs to The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, which portrays a man embarking on a car journey which is also a journey into his own past.

Brian Eno: Music for Airports

This would probably be Maxwell's favourite kind of music: music which is designed not to be noticed. Like the George Clooney character in Up in the Air, he feels most at home in the anonymous spaces – airport transit lounges, motorway service stations – where music like this seeps out of hidden speakers as part of the furniture.

Stevie Wonder: "Summer Soft"

From my favourite among his albums, Songs in the Key of Life. Maxwell's journey begins in February, but his story begins the previous summer, when his wife walks out on him. I can imagine him playing this song (with its hauntingly simple chorus of 'She's gone') over and over, while getting progressively more drunk and maudlin.

Orwell: "Lonely Ride"

Orwell are a wonderful French band (and, without meaning to be culturally offensive, how often do you hear that phrase?) based in Nancy, and centering on the voice and compositions of Jérôme Didelot. Jérôme is a strong melodic songwriter in the classic mould, with overtones of Bacharach and Brian Wilson. But his band can feel quite rocky and very contemporary: they make a big sound. I think this is a track Maxwell might play when he sets out on … well, on his lonely ride.

Gentle Giant: "I Am a Camera"

One of the most maligned and misunderstood bands of the 1970s. This is from their last album – maligned and misunderstood even by their fans! Recorded in LA in 1980, it saw them going for a simpler, heavier sound. Nowadays, I think it stands up as well as any of their work, and the lyrical emphasis on urban alienation make it seem a very prescient record. This song is an early attack on the ubiquity of CCTV – a phenomenon which preoccupies Maxwell in my novel, as he realises that, even as he begins to drive alone through the English countryside, there are satellites trained on him 24/7, monitoring his every move.

Dusty Springfield: "Goin' Back"

Beautiful song, beautiful voice – doesn't need any more commentary from me. In the film of the novel which I'm beginning to shoot in my head as I write these notes, this is the song that's playing when Maxwell makes the first detour on his trip: back to the suburbs of Birmingham where he spent his childhood.

Sufjan Stevens: "Chicago"

As his trip progresses, Maxwell slowly and painfully begins to acquire some self-knowledge. Sufjan's lyrics (and especially his titles) are often so obscure and oblique, so perhaps that's why I like this song so much, with its very simple and direct repetition of the phrase, 'I made a lot of mistakes in my life.' I'm sure Maxwell could relate to that. I'm sure we all can, for that matter. Fantastic song with an epic feel.

Louis Philippe: "The Wonder of It All"

From the album of the same name. OK, I must declare an interest here – I wrote the lyrics to this song. Everything but the first verse, anyway. It's about a couple of ex-lovers meeting again after many years, both now married with children. A song about regrets and paths-not-taken. 'Could and would and should always were my favourite words', Louis sings. Maxwell's wife uses the same phrase in my novel. As always, Louis has written a beautiful melody to go with the words, and the arrangement is simple but perfect.

Stackridge: "Cheese and Ham"

Never heard of Stackridge? Then you've been missing out. Then again, they are not very well-known even in their native country. They made five strange but delightful albums in the 1970s – a unique mélange of pop influences (Beatles, Beach Boys, Zappa), modern classical, progressive, even with a bit of vaudeville and music hall thrown in. A distinctively and unmistakeably English band, in a way which would take pages and pages of analysis to define. And then, in 2009, the core members of the band reformed and surprised everyone with one of their very best records, A Victory for Common Sense. This is one of my favourite cuts on that album – it cleverly plays on the different voices of their two lead vocalists, James Warren and Andy Davis (also known as The Korgis, of 'Everybody's Got To Learn Some Time' fame) to create an intriguing little five-minute drama about a wimpy kid and his domineering father. A flawed father-son relationship is also at the heart of my novel. That's my excuse for putting this one in.

Gilbert O'Sullivan: "Alone Again, Naturally"

As time goes by (and yes, I will be fifty in a few months' time) you become less interested in what people think of you, and can finally own up to liking stuff that is terminably unfashionable. So let me now put my hand on my heart and declare my love for this utterly great song. A hit back in … 1972, was it? … it might seem like the ultimate in self-pity, but look past that and you've got a rock-solid, almost perfect piece of songwriting. Surely this tune would be going through Maxwell's head as he reaches the end of his journey and realises that almost everyone has abandoned him. No wonder he starts hallucinating conversations with the voice on his GPS.

Louise Le May: "The Only Fish"

To my ears, Louise is one of the great new and – so far – not fully discovered talents. This is from her EP Tell Me One Thing That Is New. An elegantly pared-down arrangement for voice and piano by Danny Manners. I first heard this song in August 2009, about a week after finishing the writing of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. 'It's time to be a man, to rise above the sand' could be the very phrase that's running through his head in the penultimate scene of the book, as he sits alone on a beach in Sydney, Australia. The coincidence really struck me. But then my novel has one more trick up its sleeve …

John Cage: "In A Landscape"

Our last real glimpse of Maxwell Sim – before he disappears, inevitably, into the vortex of his author's own egotism – is on that beach in Australia. He sits there for several hours watching the sunset unfold. This piece would have to be the soundtrack music for that scene. Written in 1948. Nine minutes long. No changes in tempo or dynamics. Just nine minutes of limpid, repeated notes like drifting petals. I sometimes think that this, not 4' 33'', is Cage's most radical musical statement. Isn't this the very combination of movement and permanence that all composition aspires to? Really, there could be no more classical music after this. Which is why it also ties in (thematically) with what happens to the hero, the reader and the author at the end of my book. A killer blow that is also (I hope) shot through with love and tenderness.

Jonathan Coe and The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the book's Wikipedia entry

Bill Purdue's Book Blog review
Bookforum review
A Common Reader review
Daily Mail review
Dovegrey Scribbles review
Forani on Books review
Guardian review
Herald Scotland review
IcyDaylight review
Independent review
Independent review
New Statesman review
Observer review
Spectator review
Sunday Times review
Telegraph review (by Mark Sanderson)
Telegraph review (by Philip Womack)

BrodartVive's Blog interview with the author
Newtonville Books Community Blog interview with the author
The Takeaway interview with the author
Telegraph profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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