Books: A book that changed me

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The Independent Culture

Samuel Beckett

When did you first read it?

In the mid-Eighties, in my first year as a PhD student at Warwick University. I was doing an MA on Beckett and I was ploughing my way through this book not really knowing what to expect. I had chosen Beckett through an interest in comedy - I reckoned that there were lots of hidden references to modern comedy in Beckett's early novels.

Why did it strike you so much?

I thought then and I still think now that it's the best comic novel I've ever read, which was the last thing I was expecting. Everyone thinks of Beckett from Endgame onwards as a complete doom merchant but it's endlessly funny. It makes authors such as P G Wodehouse and Tom Sharpe seem like amateurs. It's very hard to describe what was so hilarious. I think it's to do with a kind of extremism which you get in his later books for serious effect, which is also present in this book. So you have characters which are showing extremes of incompetence, the inability to feed themselves, the inability to look after themselves but instead of being a terrible comment on how we all end up, on the human condition, it's played largely for comedy. It's tremendously good. I was tremendously influenced by it. My first novel The Accidental Woman is, to me now, almost embarrassingly indebted to Beckett's prose style.

Have you re-read it?

I used to think that this was how all novels should be. My feelings about it have changed in that I don't want to imitate it any more. Now that I've found my own voice, I re-read it in a slightly more detached, objective way. It's a demanding book; the landscape he describes is rather strange. He was working for the French Resistance at the time he wrote it, hiding out in farms, and the landscape of the book reflects that. It's not the kind of book you pick up lightly just to skim through. I dip into it now and again, but it's not a comfort book or security blanket. You need to have your wits about you to read this book.

Jonathan Coe's fifth novel 'The House of Sleep' is published by Penguin at pounds 6.99