Home > 2010, British Literature, Coe Jonathan, EU Book Tour, Novel > You know what I love about aeroplanes? They are the last place left to us where we can be totally inaccessible.

You know what I love about aeroplanes? They are the last place left to us where we can be totally inaccessible.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe. 2010.

14 February 2009. Maxwell Sim, 48, is in Sydney, Australia. His ex-wife Caroline had booked him a plane ticket to visit his father Harold in Australia. Caroline left Max six months ago, moving from Watford to Kendal with their daughter Lucy. Their departure led Max into a depression so powerful he hasn’t been able to work for months. Max is lonely, desperately yearning for human connections. He misses physical and direct contacts with other people. He misses them so much because he has buried himself at home for the last months and also because he has never been good at it. Caroline left him because she couldn’t live with someone who likes himself so little and because of their lack of communication. Max never managed to build a close relationship with Lucy. His father Harold is like him and they never had open-hearted conversations.

So when Max observes a warm and cosy meal between an Chinese woman and her daughter in a Sydney restaurant, he finally admits to himself he’s been craving for such a bond with someone for a long time now. Things have to change.

On his flight home, he chats with Poppy who seems to understand him and makes him read a letter from her uncle Clive about Donald Crowhurst. In 1968, this amateur sailor took part in the Golden Globe Race. He left England on a brand new boat, ill-prepared. He was a fraud and knew it but could not stop the process of participating. Other people were expecting him to take this tour around the globe and when his boat encountered problems shortly after his departure, he could not face his failure and come back. He fabricated faux book entries and reported wrong positions on the radio. He disappeared and it is assumed that he committed suicide.

This story impresses Max on different levels. Why did the man choose to lie instead of facing defeat? Was it because he didn’t want to disappoint his friends and family? How did he cope with that terrible privacy on his little boat? Max wonders as he knows a fair bit about loneliness. Max is also fascinated that at the time, Crowhurst had the possibility to lie because there was no SatNav and cell phones to reveal where he really was. He gradually becomes obsessed by Crowhurst.

Back to England, after a dreadful moment of intense loneliness when he checks his mail, e-mails and Facebook account and realises he has only three meaningful messages, he meets his friend Trevor in a fancy restaurant. Trevor persuades him to join him as an employee for a small English company which launches environment-friendly toothbrushes. Max accepts to take part to the advertising campaign and starts a road-trip from Readingto the Scotland.

This road trip will give him the keys of the closed doors of his past and live him ready to open the one of his future. These keys are delivered through four personal tales: Clive, telling the story of the fake sailor; Caroline, writing a short-story about a painful event of their marriage; Alison, a childhood friend of Max’s, writing an essay about an episode of their common family holiday and Harold’s confession about Max’s conception.  

Max’s story is an opportunity for Jonathan Coe to look at our societies in a critical light. We are a society of the virtual. Relationships can be disembodied through the Internet via blogs, forums and social networks. (Hello Book Pals, how are you today?) The economy is based on services and finance, immaterial, contrary to the making of goods. Max’s road trip could be called “back to basics”: he wants physical relationships made of eye contacts, smiles and touches and he’s going to sell toothbrushes made in England.  

“Privacy”, obviously, is a key word in this book and a pure British concept just like “plaisir” is a French one. Jonathan Coe, in an interview with the French news magazine L’Express (1) said he was fascinated to discover that his translators had difficulties to translate the title of his novel because the concept of “privacy” doesn’t exist in their own language. I recently travelled to England and therefore bought a tourist guidebook. In the chapter “Understand England and Wales”, it is written: “The importance of privacy can be illustrated through houses. If public places are dedicated to socialising and dating, the house is the territory of a well defended privacy. Even very friendly meetings are seldom followed by an invitation at home. The architecture itself, be it in the suburbs or in the country, shows this need of privacy and quietness through its walls and bushes” . That was a discovery for me. According to the no-privacy granted to famous people in the British press, I thought that the concept of “vie privée” (“private life”) as opposed to “vie publique” (public life) was more French than English. But privacy seems to be something else that I struggle to grasp, something about having boundaries to keep people at arm’s lenght. I’d be grateful if someone could give me an explanation in the comments.  I understand that Internet disturbs “privacy” as strangers enter into your home.

I enjoyed this book, I thought it well crafted and thought-provoking. It’s all about frauds and forgetting who you are.

The first fraud would be England. Jonathan Coe raises questions about his country and what it has become since the 1980s. The 2008 collapse of the financial markets revealed that the chore of the country, the City,  was living on an economy that makes money out of thin air. I thought that the chapter drawing a parallelism between complicated bets on horses and market finance was fascinating. The analogy was good and I wonder if complicated financial instruments such as options really started this way. According to Jonathan Coes, by turning to services and destroying its industry, England has lost its identity.

Then the characters are frauds because they turn their back to who they are to meet other people’s expectations. They lose themselves in the process and are not well in their lives. By that I mean Harold, Clive, Caroline and of course Max.

The last fraud could be Jonathan Coe himself as a writer. At least, that’s what I thought when I read the last chapter. Not everyone can be Martin Amis. But then, Money had opened the 1980s and Thatcherism. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim closes these years of wild capitalism and deregulation after the 2008 financial crisis, sort of pointing at the failure of the system. Like Max, the country needs to reinvent itself.  

It was my first Jonathan Coe, it’s effective but I thought sometimes that the craft was too obvious for the reader. (And again I wonder, does it have something to do with Martin Amis’s style?) In the end, I could almost imagine Coe in front of a paperboard, drawing the map of the novel and the interactions between the characters and the different steps leading Max to his epiphany. It also reminded me of This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes, for the middle aged lonely character who struggles to connect to other people again and of Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland, for the exploration of loneliness. Both are better that The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim for their central character but Coe’s novel is better on the social aspects he wants to put forward.

I chose to read this book after reading Guy’s review and following the comments at the end of my review of Gut Gegen Nordwind (translated as Love Virtually)


(1) I can’t translate the interview back, it wouldn’t be fair to Jonathan Coe. Here is the passage about “privacy”: “Le Britannique aime garder son quant-à-soi. Maintenir sa privacy, c’est partager avec les autres uniquement les aspects de soi-même que l’on veut bien partager. C’est très important dans la psyché britannique : il faut protéger avec un soin extrême son espace personnel et maintenir une forte barrière invisible autour de soi. J’ai trouvé fascinant que tous mes éditeurs étrangers aient été embarrassés par la traduction du terme. Je pensais que tout le monde partageait ce concept.

  1. June 6, 2011 at 12:13 am

    Glad you liked it. I think we both felt the same way about it–a good read but not perfect and at times a little laboured. I read a Coe short story that I really liked (it appears in the novel) and that’s what lead me to Coe in the first place.


    • June 6, 2011 at 8:24 am

      “A little laboured” : exactly.
      Another indicator : this was really easy for me to read which means the style isn’t very sophisticated.


  2. June 6, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Coe’s The House of Sleep is one of my all time favourite books but I was very disappointed by The Rain Before it Falls. I think I might like this one and already bought it after Guy’s review. I see what you mean about the writer’s craft being too visible. That wasn’t the case in The House of Sleep but a bit in THe Rain…
    Privacy, yes, that is not at all the same as vie privée. That’s more the realm of “that’s non of your business”. The press may provide the outlet that people do not usually have. British people don’t ask many personal questions and are quite inhibited… A bit like the Swiss. I bought the book Watching the English when it came out but never read it. I’m sure there is a paragraph on privacy in it.
    Privacy may be one of the key concepts why British and American people have a hard time getting along. There is hardly such a thing as privacy in the States. Tht doesn’t say anything about the depth of relationships though but you could ask an American almost anything withouth making him frown. Not so in the UK: That’s privacy. But I’m sure a British reader will be able to add more.


    • June 6, 2011 at 10:31 am

      Thanks. I’ll have a look at The House of Sleep.

      I think “privacy” is linked to what we would call “pudeur” when applied to intimate thoughts and feelings. (That’s a word I have difficulties to translate into English). I get it now and totally share this. Culturally the region I come from is close to that. (German influence probably) And the “privacy” thing is why I don’t use social networks.


      • June 6, 2011 at 11:37 am

        PS, Caroline :

        “Quand quelqu’un parle de sa vie privée, j’ai souvent envie de demander “vie privée de quoi ?”
        Romain Gary


  3. June 6, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    I liked The TPOMS well enough to try another Coe. I didn’t like the ending–even though I knew what the author was trying to do. I felt as though he was winking at us as he wrote the last words. But in spite of its flaws, I liked it.


    • June 6, 2011 at 3:44 pm

      Same for me: I’ll read another one.
      Do you think the last chapter was a reference to Martin Amis? I thought about it when I read it and later I saw he mentionned Money in his interview.
      I liked the beginning better, his analysis of the internet age was interesting (the 70 Facebook “friends”, the Liz Hammond Internet ID, his meal with his daughter and her BBY…)


  4. June 6, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    That’s a good one… Gary, I mean.
    I’m not totally sure that you would like The House of Sleep.


    • June 6, 2011 at 5:06 pm

      Why wouldn’t I like The House of Sleep? It’s fantasy?

      I have a whole notebook of quotes by Romain Gary. Here’s a good one from Clair de Femme, a novel you may like. Gary also talked a lot about loneliness.

      “Comment veux-tu distinguer le faux du vrai, quand on crève de solitude? On rencontre un type, on essaie de le rendre intéressant, on l’invente complètement, on l’habille de qualités des pieds à la tête, on ferme les yeux pour mieux le voir, il essaie de donner le change, vous aussi, s’il est beau et con on le trouve intelligent, s’il vous trouve conne, il se sent intelligent, s’il remarque que vous avez les seins qui tombent, il vous trouve de la personnalité, si vous commencez à sentir que c’est un plouc, vous vous dites qu’il faut l’aider, s’il est inculte, vous en avez assez pour deux, s’il veut faire ça tout le temps, vous vous dites qu’il vous aime, s’il n’est pas très porté là-dessus, vous vous dites que ce n’est pas ça qui compte, s’il est radin, c’est parce qu’il a eut une enfance pauvre, s’il est mufle, vous vous dites qu’il est nature, et vous continuez ainsi à faire les pieds et des mains pour nier l’évidence, alors que ça crève les yeux et c’est ce que l’on appelle les problèmes du couple, le problème du couple, quand il n’est plus possible de s’inventer l’un l’autre, et alors, c’est le chagrin, la rancune, la haine, les débris que l’on essaie de faire tenir ensemble à cause des enfants ou tout simplement parce qu’on préfère encore être dans la merde que de se retrouver seule.”

      PS : if someone who doesn’t speak French reads this comment and wants a translation, please ask.


  5. June 7, 2011 at 9:36 am

    I can’t say… No, it isn’t fanatsy but it could easily have been transformed into a fantasy novel. We will see. I know some books that I really like and am sure you would too but with this one I’m not sure, that’s all. It’s a 50% chance.
    It’s a great quote. The whole dance from enchantment to disenchantment.
    Has a lot of Gary been translated? Probably not…


    • June 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm

      We’ll see but I don’t know when, my TBR is huge.

      I think Gary’s most famous books are translated into English or were written in English (Promise at Dawn, The Roots of Heaven, Life before us, White Dog, Lady L, The Ski Bum…). David Bellos wrote his biography, it was published last year.


  6. June 15, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    I’ve read his What a Carve-Up!, which might not even be that accessible if you’re not British as it’s very much a critique of Tory values of a certain period.

    That said, it would make an interesting companion piece against Money.

    My wife likes Coe more than I do. I believe she read House of Sleep and thought it very good. My suspicion is that it’s his best so far, so it probably is worth giving a try.


    • June 15, 2011 at 10:11 pm

      I’ll try House of Sleep. thanks.
      I’m not sure I can understand What a Carve-Up! if there are too many political references. That said, I’ve read The Line of Beauty and it was alright.


  7. January 4, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim was made into a film in 2015.

    It’s a French film directed by Michel Leclerc. Maxwell Sim becomes François Sim and is played by the French actor Jean-Pierre Bacri.

    I think it’s a terrific adaptation of the novel. It’s transposed in France but it’s still faithfull to the novel. Jonathan Coe is lucky that it was made in such a good film.


  1. January 4, 2016 at 10:00 pm

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