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Jonathan Coe: Mr Wilder and Me

If you follow Jonathan Coe on Twitter, as I do, you will know he is very keen on the cinema and, in particular, some of the obscure classics. Indeed, the English (but not US) title of his seminal novel on Thatcherism, What a Carve-Up! comes from a film title. It is therefore not surprising that he plunges into the world of the cinema for his latest.

Billy Wilder is certainly not obscure, having directed some of the finest films between the end of World War II and the late 1960s, as well as scripting some excellent films from before that. However, his career took a downturn after that and his later films are not nearly so well-known. I have seen all his films from 1948 to 1974 and enjoyed most but found the last three less interesting than his earlier work. However, I have not only not seen his 1978 film Fedora, I had not even heard of it till I read this book, where it plays a key role. As he says in this interview Coe has been a Wilder devotee for many years.

The heroine/narrator of this book is Calista Frangopoulou. Her mother was English, her father half-Slovenian, half-Greek and she grew up in Athens. As the book starts she is nearing sixty. She writes music for films though has not had a commission for some while. Her husband, Geoffrey, is also in the film business but has to make his living teaching as his work has also dried up. They have two daughters. Francesca (Fran) is about to leave for Sydney to study at the Conservatorium. Her youngest daughter is Ariane who is about to go up to Oxford but has, in the meantime, got pregnant and plans on having an abortion. The mother-daughter relationship is somewhat strained at this time. Indeed, Calista says two things that give me a reason to go on living. I’m a good composer, and I’m a good mother but now I’m basically being told that neither of these skills is required any more.

We then dive back to when she was twenty-one and planning on travelling to the United States. She meets Gill at a Greyhound bus station and they head for Los Angeles. Gill has been invited to dinner with an elderly film director who was an old friend of her father. We have, of course, guessed who this film director is. Gill, however, has also met Stephen and would far rather be with him than with an elderly film director, so Calista is left with Wilder, his wife, I. A. L. Diamond, Wilder’s scriptwriter, and his wife. Calista knows little about cinema – she had not heard of Wilder, for example, and to Wilder’s disgust, likes Jaws – but she is young and Wilder wants to know what the young want to watch.

When, by chance, she comes up with an idea for the film, she is given the book to read and asked if she might have any other suggestions. She does not, returns the book, with her address, and heads off back home. To her surprise, some time later, she learns that the film is to be partially made in Greece and Wilder wants her as the interpreter. She is naturally very enthusiastic but somewhat surprised, when she gets there, that things are not going smoothly. Diamond, in particular is not happy with the project.

We follow the story of the making of the film which is, inevitably, fraught with problems. Calista remains involved in various capacities till the bitter end, both learning a lot (as do we) about how films are made and the trials and tribulations of all involved – actors, crew, director, money men and so on. Coe keeps the story interesting and we are often left guessing what might happen next, even if we know the outcome of the film and its lack of success. We also learn, of course, how and why she became a film composer.

Every week in its ever-diminishing Review section, The Guardian has an item called Books That Made Me where they take an author and ask him/her more or less the same questions as they have asked others. Herem for example, is the one for Coe from February 2018. One of the questions that they invariably ask is The last book that made me laugh. I always try to answer the questions for myself (yes, the answers do change for me) and I have to think hard to find an answer to this question because, quite frankly, the books I read generally do not make me laugh. I now have an answer. This book has made me laugh out loud far more than any other book I have read for a while. Obviously writing about Wilder and Diamond, humour was always going to be a big part and it certainly is here.

However, it is not all humour. Well into the book, when much of the filming had been completed, Wilder and some other key people have lunch in Munich (the money is coming from Germany) with Miklós Rózsa, the film composer, who is writing the music for the film. Calista sits next to him. Present at the meeting is a young German man – we do not who he is or why he is there – and when Wilder comments that it is strange but he has been unable to find any German who supported Hitler. Indeed, some claim they had barely heard of him and were unaware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The young man retorts that recent research in the US as well as in Germany, shows that claims of Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust have been exaggerated.

Wilder was Jewish and his mother, grandmother and stepfather were all murdered in the Holocaust. His response is a devastating put-down of Holocaust denial. It is given (to us) in the form of a film script and he describes his personal experience, in Nazi Germany, his return to Germany and, in particular, his making of the film Death Mills about the death camps and the Holocaust. The young man leaves the room.

Coe makes an interesting and clever point about the difference between art that is intended to cheer you up and art that is intended to make you think, or, as Matthew (Calista’s boyfriend for a brief while) puts it You feel like someone’s beaten you to death. Your soul is crushed. Your faith in humanity has been shattered. You’ve never seen such ugliness, such horror on the screen before.

Calista and Matthew (the son of make-up artist on the film) are now in Paris, as final filming is taking place in France, and they make a deal to see two films, one selected by her and one by him. He chooses Taxi Driver (hence the comments above) and she chooses a favourite film of Billy Wilder, The Shop Around the Corner, which she finds cheering. (I have seen both films at least three times and enjoyed both immensely.). The discussion both between Calista and Matthew and Calista and Wilder is about the purpose of film. Wilder argues (which he later denies) that those like him who lived through a world war want something cheering and uplifting while the young US directors he calls the beards, such as Scorsese, Coppola and Spielberg, do not feel the need for such films.

Of course, as I have shown, it is possible to do both. Wilder tries, in Fedora, to be serious and fails, as the film was a critical and commercial flop. However, in this book, as I have mentioned Coe writes a funny book and tells a fascinating tale of film-making but does not neglect the serious part, particularly Wilder’s tale of Holocaust denial.

The other key issue in this book is people, particularly artists, getting old and finding that their contribution is out of date and no longer welcome. We see this with Wilder and Diamond, both of whom mention it more than once, but we also see it with Calista and her husband Geoffrey, both of whom are out of work and are unable to find suitable work. Early on in the book, Calista meets an old friend who is in a similar position, trying to get a film made (he has been trying for years) based on a Kingsley Amis novel. He has consistently failed to get backing and Coe even manages a devastating dig at Amis, whom he describes as someone nobody ever talked about any more and who was now so out of fashion that you might as well try to get an adaptation of the Yellow Pages onto the screen.

Coe was approaching sixty when he wrote his book (like Calista Frangopoulou in this book). I wonder if he thought that he might be falling into this category. He must be well aware that the previous generation of English novelists, such as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Graham Swift, clearly have started the descent of the slippery slope. However, I can assure him that this is not the case with him. While What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy) remains, in my view, his best book, there is no doubt that his last two books – this one and Middle England – are superb novels which both provide uplifting entertainment as well as a discussion of important, serious ideas and which I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, whether they are Taxi Driver fans or The Shop Around the Corner fans or, like me, both.

Publishing history

First published 2020 by Viking