The outsider characters, meanwhile, give Coe plenty of scope to engage with the political themes that readers most associate with his extensive satirical oeuvre, from What a Carve Up! to Middle England. Who better to observe the paradoxes of postcolonial and (in the contemporary context of the book’s writing) post-Brexit Britain than foreigners? Calista, Wilder and Diamond variously describe Britain as “not Europe”, with its “island mentality” and “its strange people, with their strange ways of pronouncing words and their strange codes of behaviour and their strange class system... its occult, eccentric, indeed, incomprehensible customs”.
Coe recently described his novel as “a close-up portrait of the artist late in life”, and it sometimes feels like Calista is little more than a conduit for this project. When Coe allows Wilder to narrate his own story by telling his dinner guests how he came from Europe to America, a 50-page section which takes the form of a screenplay, the result is the most compelling piece of writing in the book.
The novel, like Wilder’s films, is bittersweet – and Coe finds a satisfying way to end this masterful tale. And even if you know little about Wilder, this thought-provoking book will hopefully prompt you seek out Wilder’s sensational catalogue of movie work.
By the end of his novel, Coe elegantly brings together Calista’s and Wilder’s worlds with the use of a single word. Calista is inspired by Wilder’s “fundamentally generous impulse” to create Fedora in the teeth of disregard, and she decides that her family must also find the “impulse … will and energy” to solve their domestic problem. These impulses to give to one another, whether in everyday acts of kindness or in those of transcendent creativity, are not so different, Coe suggests. In this way, he collapses his habitual divisions, reuniting mortals with the gods of art.
The presentation of that material in the form of a 50-page fantasy screenplay makes this generally light and simple novel the most formally experimental of Coe’s later books. Stylistically, though, the prose is unusually relaxed about word repetitions. It also feels unlikely that, as a young single woman on a 70s movie set, Calista suffers no unwanted sexual attention. Coe may have been restricted here by using largely real-life characters, whose vivid plausibility is a great achievement. Wilder, charismatically wise-cracking but haunted by history, and Diamond, agonised by the lengthy complexity of turning words into pictures, give the book the feel of a real movie memoir.
Mr Wilder & Me is not in any way a state- of-the-nation novel — and thank goodness. Brilliant as Jonathan Coe’s last work, Middle England, was, I’m not sure I could stomach a fictional barometer of pandemic Britain. Coe’s new book is instead a comfortingly nostalgic coming-of-age novel, or rather, a coming-of-old-age novel, probing the twilight years of a Hollywood great.
In Jonathan Coe, the film director Billy Wilder has long had one of his fiercest cheerleaders. For decades, at every chance he gets, in articles and interviews,Coe has cited the director of classics like Some Like it Hot as his “greatest influence”. Coe even admits to having sent the gravely-ill Wilder a fan letter, desperate for Wilder to know how much he loved the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes before he died. Wilder dictated a response from his sick bed, dismissing the flick as “not a success,” but adding, in a very Wilder way, “It is wonderful to see that for somebody it has become an obsession.”
At the novel’s centre is a rather extraordinary film script, presented as an autobiographical account of Wilder’s experiences of the Holocaust. This shapes our understanding of him, and the novel’s interest in how to respond artistically to atrocity, more than anything observed by Calista, who proves a thoroughly underwhelming narrator.
It’s all pleasantly ruminative, but I suspect this novel, like the Wilder film, will be seen as a footnote in Coe’s impressive career.
Well, it’s still sunshine for Jonathan Coe. Everybody who has seen the movie, and many who haven’t, can quote the last line of Some Like It Hot: “nobody’s perfect.” Well, that’s true of life but not always of art. That movie is perfect and the same may be said of others Wilder made with a bit of help from Diamond. So too is this lovely, bittersweet novel perfect.
Following up a success is never easy and yet the life and light that flooded Middle England is preserved and multiplied in Mr Wilder & Me. This is a book that looks back to Coe’s brilliant early period, engaging, like What a Carve Up!, with cinema in a formal as well as a thematic way, delivering the reader a satisfyingly sweeping novel that still manages to push the form in new directions... It’s hard not to feel that this is also a book about the shape of careers, from a novelist moving confidently into his seventh decade. Wilder never managed to regain the majesty of his mid-period masterpieces, but in Mr Wilder & Me, Coe has done more than that. This is as good as anything he’s written – a novel to cherish.
For such an obviously intelligent writer, however, Coe seems frustratingly loath to think his readers will keep up. A clever plot joke linking this novel to Wilder’s film about Sherlock Holmes (a reference to The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter) is repeated, in case we missed it the first time. An awkward conversation with a young German, sceptical about “the numbers” killed during the war, has to end by spelling out that this is Holocaust denial. Most infuriating is the tendency of foreign-born characters to make irrelevant passing compliments on the exceptional qualities of the British. Coe is playing what he thinks the crowd wants to hear, only without a very high regard for the people out there in it.
This story of a young Anglo-Greek woman plunged into the last gasps of old Hollywood is as effortlessly pleasurable and deceptively simple as the plates of brie, washed down with pinot noir, that our heroine ends up sharing at a farm outside Paris with the great Billy Wilder... So Mr Wilder & Me doesn’t lack resonance, yet stays light on its feet. The whole book feels like some marvellous party where you ricochet from one good conversation to another. A wish-fulfilment fantasy laced with a sure sense that no dog’s day goes on for ever.