Expo 58 (Anglais) Broché – 12 juin 2014
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Présentation de l'éditeur
A comic spy caper and international love story, set in Europe in the middle of the last century, Expo 58 is the latest sublime creation by Jonathan Coe, hailed by Nick Hornby as “probably the best English novelist of his generation.”
Handsome, unassuming Thomas Foley is an employee at the Central Office of Information whose particular biography (Belgian mother, pub-owning father) makes him just the man to oversee the “authentic British pub” that will be erected at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. It’s the first major expo after World War II, meant to signify unity, but there’s inevitable intrigue involving the U.S. and Soviet delegations. In the shadow of an immense, imposingly modern structure called the Atomium, the married Foley becomes both agent and pawn—when he’s not falling head over heels for Anneke, his Belgian hostess.
Funny, fast-paced, and genuinely moving, Expo 58 is both a perfect evocation of a moment in history and the welcome return of one of today’s finest novelists.--Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Relié .
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L'intérêt du livre est également historique car il analyse très bien le vernis optimiste des années 50-60 dans le contexte particulièrement puéril et sordide de la Guerre Froide. On ne peut que sourire de lire certains discours et certaines prédictions quand on regarde l'état de notre monde actuel...
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British author Jonathan Coe has used that Fair as the subject of his new novel, "Expo 58". More pointedly, it is the focal point of some low-key spying and high-blown diplomacy, along with human interaction of the more personal sort. Coe's lead character, a British bureaucrat named Thomas Foley, has been assigned by his office to oversee the British pub being set up at the Fair. Foley has a wife and new baby at home, but, more importantly, he's the son of a Belgian mother and an English pub-owner father. He leaves his wife and babe at home for six months in 1958 and goes to Brussels. Now, Thomas Foley is up for an adventure and finds it of a sort in Brussels that summer. He gets involved with sneaky spies (are there any other kind?) and ladies looking for some adventure themselves.
Look back to the year 1958. It was the height of the Cold War; the Russians had just launched their space program with Sputnick 1 the previous year and tensions were flaring between the US and the USSR. The close quarters of the Fair, with the US and Soviet exhibit halls placed next to each other, proved to be irresistible to agents of both countries, as well as those from Great Britain. Somehow, middle-aged and mid-level bureaucrat Thomas Foley finds himself at the epicenter of the agents' work.
Jonathan Coe has written a fun book with a serious back story. Some of the characters - the agents, in particularly - are caricatures, but the others are written with a nuance lacking in conventional spy books. Thomas Foley and his Belgian friends are real people, people who you might know or want to know. Sylvia Foley, Thomas's left-behind wife, is a particularly well-written character. The reader can almost feel her desperation as her marriage seems to be lacking in any sort of excitement or love.
"Expo 58" is a good read, with an interesting cast of characters and plot.
The story is told from the point of view of Thomas Foley, who is a fairly bland middle-aged British suburbanite with a fairly dull life, but who lives inside his own head quite a bit. He wishes his life were more exciting, but he can't seem to escape the fact that he himself is not very exciting. He gets assigned to work at the World's Fair in Belgium, and gets rather inadvertently caught up in international intrigue, without really even knowing it, or knowing his part.
The book is suffused with a marvelous dry British humor. Overall the story is sentimental and mildly sad (as in, you feel sorry for the characters because of the choices they make for the wrong reasons). The characters are well drawn. The characters of Mr Radford and Mr Wayne and Mr Wilkins, the "secret agent" types, are quite silly. I rather laughed out loud when Mr Foley begins reading Ian Fleming's novels as he feels he's being drawn into the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage, and of course his experiences turn out to be rather the opposite of Mr Bond's.
The author does a good job of capturing how I, as an American, imagine the British of the 1950s. Little phrases like "a rum do" and characters calling each other "old man". Everybody is perpetually self-effacing and understated. Pots of tea and goldfish ponds with bronze statues and suburbs called Tooting and gripe water and packages of crisps with little sachets of salt. I think this would make a good art house movie.
Thomas is a paper-pushing clerk in the British government information office stuck in a lower middle-class lifestyle with a loveless marriage and a colicky baby. He is plucked from the ranks of the bureaucracy to oversea a typical English pub which is part of the British exhibit at the Brussels show. The author has done impeccable research to ensure that all the details of this forgotten event are accurate, down to the buildings erected by the various nations, their furnishings and some of the more interesting exhibits.
Thomas leaves his family behind for six months and is soon thrust into an more exciting world peopled by the attractive Belgian hostess Anneke who takes a shine to him and the mysterious Soviet journalist Alexei who may be a KGB agent. Two British spooks, played strictly for comic effect, are also interested in Thomas' doings. He is soon entangled in a complicated plot to prevent the defection of a beautiful American girl to the Soviet Unions, although all is not what it appears to be.
The book brilliantly captures the particularly dull, insularity of Britain in this time, still clinging to the illusion of Empire, conservative and constricted, before the swinging sixties liberated us all. The incessant smoking, the difficulties of travel from London to Brussels, the fact that people actually had to write letters to each other to communicate, etc etc
This is an amusing read tinged with sadness. Thomas wants to break free but ultimately lacks the courage. The plot is well-constructed and the background interesting. The characters don't quite engage our commitment enough for the book to be truly compelling in a way that would remain with us -- but it's still a very skillful piece of storytelling.
His task is to supervise a “typical” English pub at the British stand and the reason he is chosen is because his father used to be a pub landlord (although he knows nothing about running a pub himself) and his mother was born in Belgium (although he has never been there).
I imagine this is meant to be a cue for laughter and we readers are supposed to expect a delicious joke like William Boot, the nature notes writer in Waugh's “Scoop”, unwittingly becoming a war correspondent or Wormold, the vacuum cleaner salesman in Greene's “Our Man in Havana”, becoming a spy.
The character is followed by two spies and he falls for a Belgian girl although he has a wife and baby waiting for him back home in dear old England. It reads like an outline for a sitcom.
You'll get an idea of how excruciating it is from some examples of the dialogue: “Rum sort of cove”, “I'm ready for a gasper myself” and “Tickety boo”.
How piffle like this gets published amazes me.
I was looking forward to Jonathan Coe's tale of a low-level civil servant, Thomas Foley, sent to oversee The Britannia pub in Britain's pavilion at Expo 58 in Brussels, who gets tangled up in Cold War shenanigans between east and west. I expected it to be handled humorously, but I didn't expect the humor to be so labored.
The two British agents, Wayne and Radford, who keep popping up to give Foley mysterious heavy hints and mildly threatening instructions, are depicted as a sort of music-hall double-talk-act version of Charters and Caldicott, from the movie The Lady Vanishes. (The Charters and Caldicott comparison seems very intentional, since the actors who depicted them in the film were named Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford.) Unfortunately, their routine wears thin almost immediately, though they continue to pop up from time to time throughout.
Other lame attempts of humor include a series of accidents at The Britannia, double entendres, and and pun groaners like the barmaid named Shirley Knott. Then there is the parade of digs at English types, like the stuffy prep-school types planning the British pavilion, whose idea of modern music is a military tattoo; the bumbling enthusiast of progress who proposes an exhibition on the history of the WC and Britain's proud role in the fight against "number twos"; and Foley himself, who is too English to follow his heart or to tell Wayne and Radford to bug(ger) off.
So, fine, it's not funny. What's far more disconcerting is that it's hard to tell what it's all about. Is there a point in satirizing the Britons of 1958? I suppose there could be, since Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana is still well worth reading, but this is no Our Man In Havana.
At the end, Coe suddenly turns serious and thoughtful, as Thomas Foley looks back on his time in Brussels and regrets the opportunities he turned his back on. It's like there are two different books here. I could have been happy with either one--the Cold War satire or the Englishman-who-didn't-dare story--but a half-hearted combination of the two fails the reader.