Monthly Archives: November 2020

Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe

I have long had a fondness for the work of Billy Wilder, the Austrian-born American filmmaker who moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s. The Apartment (1961) is my all-time favourite film – I watch it at least once a year, often on New Year’s Eve – while Double Indemnity (1945) and Some Like It Hot (1960) would almost certainly make my top ten. So a novelisation of Wilder’s quest to make his 1978 movie, Fedora, was always going to be literary catnip for me. It’s a wonderfully charming, warm-hearted book – at once a gentle coming-of-age story and an affectionate portrayal of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors – a compassionate, bittersweet novel about ageing, creativity and what happens when an industry changes, leaving a respected artist somewhat high and dry.

The novel is narrated by Calista, a fictional figure looking back to the days of her youth to a time when a chance encounter with Wilder during a backpacking holiday in America shaped the direction of her life. She is now a composer of music, predominantly for film – a passion fuelled by a lucky break, courtesy of Mr Wilder.

Rewinding to the late ‘70s, Calista – an intuitive musician who also speaks multiple languages – is hired by Wilder’s production team to act as a translator for the Greek leg of the Fedora shoot. The role brings her into close contact with Wilder and his inner circle – most notably Iz Diamond, Billy’s longstanding writing partner and friend.

Through the lens of Calista, Coe portrays the relationship between these two men with great warmth and affection. Like every great couple, Billy and Iz have their differences, blowing hot and cold with one another throughout the shoot. While Iz favours the bittersweet comedy of their earlier films, Billy is keen for Fedora to be a more serious drama, one with a melancholy, poignant tone. And yet the film should also retain a sense of elegance and beauty, qualities that seem to be falling out of fashion with the US studios as a new wave of directors begins to emerge.

[Billy:] ‘… I know that this picture, the one I’m making now, it’s one of my most serious pictures, of course – I want it to be serious, I want it to be sad – but that doesn’t mean, when the audience comes out of the cinema, they feel like you’ve been holding their head down the toilet for the last two hours, you know? You have to give them something else, something a little bit elegant, a little bit beautiful…’ (p. 214)

With the focus shifting in favour of the ‘kids with beards’ (the new generation of brash filmmakers including Spielberg and Scorsese), the Hollywood studios have refused to back Fedora, forcing Billy and Iz to make the film in Germany. This is not something that Billy is entirely comfortable with, particularly given his family history. As an Austrian Jew, he moved to the US in 1933, where his work as a screenwriter went from strength to strength. Nevertheless, this success was tinged with sadness as Billy lost touch with his mother, stepfather and grandmother – all of whom most likely perished in the concentration camps during WW2. While Billy is mostly portrayed as a genial, wisecracking figure – albeit one underscored with a discernible seam of tragedy – there is a steeliness to some of his humour, a degree of seriousness that can pierce and bite.

[Billy:] Well, you know, it was difficult to raise the money for this picture in America. So I was very glad when my German friends and colleagues stepped in. And now, I think it puts me in a kind of win-win situation.’

[Reporter:] ‘What do you mean by that?’ the woman asks.

‘I mean,’ Billy says, ‘that with this picture I really cannot lose. If it’s a huge success, it’s my revenge on Hollywood. If it’s a flop, it’s my revenge for Auschwitz.’ (p. 183)

Commercially, Fedora ultimately turns out to be the latter, but that’s somewhat by the by. It’s clear from this novel that Coe holds a great deal of affection for the film, a feeling reflected perhaps in Calista’s thoughts on Fedora as she looks back from the viewpoint of middle age.

So it’s a film I struggle to see clearly. But when I do see it clearly, it remains, for me, a thing of great beauty. Great beauty and determination. Billy’s urge to create, to keep on giving something to the world – a fundamentally generous impulse – had been as strong as ever when he made it. And, as I had tried to convince him at the time, the film shows such compassion for its characters: for its ageing characters, in particular – be they men or women – struggling to find a role for themselves in a world which is interested only in youth and novelty. (p. 240)

At the heart of the novel are themes of ageing, transition and a heartfelt longing for times past – some of which are echoed in Fedora itself which features Marth Keller as an ageing movie star at the end of her fame.

What Coe does so well here is to convey a portrait of Wilder in the twilight of his career, a man who clearly feels a deep sense of disappointment that the film world has moved on, no longer valuing the style of work he wants to create. It is also a love letter to old Hollywood, to values of elegance, beauty, romance and soul – the kind of qualities embodied in Wilder’s films. There is even a sort of homage to Wilder and Iz’s scripts, as a vignette from Billy’s past is presented as a mini screenplay within the book. It’s a poignant, evocative piece, perfectly capturing the cultural milieu in which Billy circulated in the early ‘30s.

A CAPTION reads: ‘BERLIN, 1933’.

The camera takes in the whole interior of the café – waiters as in tuxedos weaving their way between busy tables, old guys, playing chess, businessmen reading newspapers, friends exchanging gossip and young couples lost in each other’s company – before zooming in on one table near the window, where a boisterous group of young men are engaged in a loud discussion. The air is clouded with cigarette smoke and the steam from innumerable coffee cups. (p. 127)

You’ve probably gathered this by now, but if not – I loved this novel. There is so much warmth and generosity here, qualities that seem lacking in many aspects of our external world right now. It’s also a real treat for fans of Billy Wilder, with nods to some of his other movies such as Sunset Boulevard and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Finally, it offers an insight into the world of a creative genius, reminding us of the lasting value of art, irrespective of the fads and fashions of the day. A wonderful book, very highly recommended indeed.

Mr Wilder and Me is published by Viking, Penguin Random House; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Minna Zallman Proctor)

Last August, for Women in Translation Month, I read Voices in the Evening (1961), an episodic, vignette-style novel by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. It’s one four books by this writer recently reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books (you can find more details here). While Happiness, As Such is a later novel than Voices, it explores similar themes – centred as it is on the lives and loves of the members of an Italian family in the mid-20th century. If anything, I think it’s an even stronger (better integrated?) work than Voices. Nevertheless, both books are well worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in the messy business of families and the insights into humanity novels can offer us.

Set in the early 1970s, Happiness, As Such takes the form of a series of letters interspersed with brief passages of exposition written in the third person. Central to the novel is Michele, the grown-up son of an Italian family, his parents having separated some years earlier. Michele – who appears to have been actively involved in politics – has fled to England leaving several loose ends in his wake. His mother, Adriana, writes letters to her son, berating him for various things – not least the fact that his former lover, Mara Martorelli, has turned up with a son who may or may not be his. The default tone of these letters is passive-aggressive, highlighting Adriana’s disenchantment with her former husband as well as her son.

If this Martorelli baby is yours, what will you do, you don’t know how to do anything. You didn’t finish school did you. I don’t think your paintings of owls and falling-down buildings are that good. Your father says they are and that I don’t understand painting. They look to me like the paintings your father did when he was young, but not as good. I don’t know. Please tell me what I should say to this Martorelli and if I need to send her money. She hasn’t asked but I’m sure that’s what she wants. (pp. 8–9)

Mara for her part is a bit of a mess – careless, unreliable and promiscuous, she flits from one place to another, unable to settle or establish any degree of stability.

When Michele needs to call in various favours, he writes to Angelica, his long-suffering sister and closest confidante within the family. At various points in the narrative, there are books to be sent, papers to be procured and guns to be disposed of – the later adding to the possibility that Michele’s disappearance may well have been politically motivated.

Also in the mix is Osvaldo, Michele’s close friend and possibly lover – there several reflections on the ambiguity surrounding Osvaldo’s sexuality throughout the book. Through his relationship with Michele, Osvaldo is drawn into the extended family, supporting Mara by finding her a job and a place to live, neither of which last very long due to Mara’s inherent fickleness and instability. Furthermore, Osvaldo proves himself to be a strange kind of comfort for Adriana when her former husband dies, particularly as Michele fails to return home for his father’s funeral.

Like Voices, Happiness, As Such can be though of as a novel of tensions – in this case between former lovers and the different generations of an extended family. On the surface, Ginzburg’s prose seems unadorned and straightforward, but this apparent simplicity belies the complexity of emotions running underneath. Evasion, resentment, grief, spitefulness, confession and compassion all come together to form a richly textured, multi-faceted narrative. Moreover, the nature of the largely epistolary form means that many of the novel’s key incidents and conversations take place outside of the letters, requiring us to read between the lines of the various missives to piece together a more nuanced picture of the family dynamics.

While Ginzburg’s tone is often very amusing – there is a wonderfully rich vein of wry humour running through the book – the impression we are left with is one of palpable melancholy. There is a sense that we are all fragile and at risk of finding ourselves stuck in a form of stasis, unable to break free without assistance.

[Letter from Angelical to Michele:] Your friend Mara has left Colarosa. She wrote to me from Novi Ligure where she is staying with her cousins’ maid. She’s not doing well, she doesn’t have anywhere to live, and has nothing to call her own, except for a black kimono with sunflower embroidery, a fox-fur coat and a baby. But I feel like all of us are vulnerable to the gentle art of ending up in terrible situations that are unresolvable and impossible to move out of by going either forward or back. (p. 153)

At the heart of the book are various reflections on happiness, particularly the idea that we may not be cognisant of this feeling as and when it is happening to us. Happiness is often fleeting and best appreciated in retrospect when we can look back on events from a distance. In other words, ‘we rarely recognise the happy moments while we’re living them. We usually only recognise them with the distance of time.’

In creating Happiness, As Such, Ginzburg has crafted a beautiful, wryly humorous, deeply melancholy novel of family relationships. Her characters are complex, flawed and nuanced – qualities that make them feel real and humane as they navigate the difficulties of family life. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates something of the book’s biting humour as Adriana passes judgement on her sisters-in-law, Mathilde and Cecilia, following the death of their brother, Michele’s father.

[Letter from Adriana to Michele:] Your father left you a series of paintings, the ones he did between 1945 in 1955, and the Via San Sebastianello house, and the tower. I get the impression your sisters are going to come out of this with much less than you. They’ll get those properties near Spoleto, many of which have been sold off, but there are some left. Matilde and Cecilia are going to get a piece of furniture, that baroque, Piedmontese credenza. Matilde immediately observed that Cecilia gets the better end of that deal because Matilde wouldn’t know what to do with a credenza. Can you just imagine. What joy will half-blind, decrepit Cecilia get from a credenza? (pp. 94–95)

My thanks to the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website). 

Fell Murder and Checkmate to Murder – two vintage mysteries by E. C. R. Lorac

Over the past few years, the British Library have been reissuing some of E. C. R. Lorac’s vintage mysteries as part of their marvellous Crime Classics series. (I jotted down a few thoughts about Fire in Thatch last summer, a book I very much enjoyed.) Lorac was the main pen-name adopted by Edith Caroline Rivett, who produced more than 60 novels between the 1930s and 1950s. Many of them featured the perceptive detective Chief Inspector Macdonald of the CID, including the two I’m reviewing here.

Fell Murder (1944)

The setting for this charming, unhurried mystery is the Lancashire countryside in the midst of World War Two, where the elderly Robert Garth is the head of one of the leading farming families in the district. Robert – a stubborn, hot-headed man by nature – is rather set in his ways, eschewing progressive developments in favour of more traditional farming methods. The old man’s obstinacy is a source of frustration for his daughter Marion, an industrious, hard-working woman who is keen to ensure that the estate remains profitable.

Also living at the farm are Robert’s second son, Charles, recently returned to England from Malaya, having lost pretty much everything; and a younger son, Malcolm, who is considered to be something of a weakling, more interested in poetry than working the land. The household is completed by Elizabeth Meldon, a switched-on Land Girl who helps with the farming activities.

Elizabeth Meldon studied her Garth kinsfolk with a cool dispassionate judgement. She saw the grim obstinacy of old Robert, for ever setting his face against any change: the energy and optimism of Marion, intent on learning new methods of farming and developing the land to its greatest fertility. In addition to the tug of war between Marion and her father was the constant irritation of the two ill-assorted brothers—Charles from Malaya, accustomed to native labour and as many cocktails as he cared to swallow, and Malcolm who was by nature more a poet than a farmer. “Never such a family of incompatibles,” said Elizabeth. (p. 32)

The novel opens with the return of Richard Garth, Robert’s oldest son, who left the district twenty-five years earlier following a disagreement with his father. The old patriarch had disapproved of his son’s choice of wife (now deceased), a rift that prompted Richard to move to Alberta to start a new life. Now Richard is back in England on a short break between sea voyages, not to see his family but to reconnect with the land he still loves very dearly. Nevertheless, when Robert Garth is found dead in one of the farm’s outbuildings, the sudden reappearance of the prodigal son seems all too suspicious…

Before long, Chief Inspector Macdonald of the CID is called in to investigate what clearly appears to be a murder. As is typically the case in these mysteries, there are plenty of potential suspects with various reasons for wanting the old man out the way – from Marion with her desire to have a greater say in running the farm to Richard with his long-standing grudge against his father to Charles who seems ill-suited to life on the estate.

What makes this mystery particularly engaging is the way Lorac portrays the farming community and local landscape. She writes lovingly about the details of day-to-day rural life during the war years, the rhythms and principles of working the land, and the blend of beauty and ruggedness of the terrain.

In Macdonald, Lorac has created a character with a deep understanding of country folk, particularly their fierce sense of community and suspicion of strangers. The detective seems to have an innate ability to connect with the locals, adapting his approach to gain their understanding and trust.

“…As I see it, coming here as a stranger, this crime is conditioned by the place. To understand the one you’ve got to study the other.” (p. 136)

In summary then, Fell Murder, is an enjoyable, leisurely mystery with a strong sense of place. Some readers might find the pace a bit slow and understated in tension, but I found it all rather charming. A very worthwhile entrant in the BLCC series.

Checkmate to Murder (1944)

Another wartime mystery, this one set in Hampstead on a miserable, foggy night.

As the novel opens, Lorac sets the scene in an artist’s studio where five individuals have gathered together for the evening. At one end of the main room, the temperamental artist Bruce Manaton is painting a portrait of his friend, André Delaunier, an actor dressed as a Cardinal, resplendent in his scarlet robes. Meanwhile, at the other end of the studio, two men are playing chess, wholly absorbed in the strategy of their game. Also present is Manaton’s sister, Rosanne, who shares the studio with her brother. Roseanne is preparing a meal for the party in the adjacent kitchen, slipping in and out to check on the blackout curtains and suchlike. It’s a scene somewhat reminiscent of the set-up in Hitchock’s Rope, where the housekeeper, Mrs Wilson, is helping with the preparations for the dinner party that forms the film’s centrepiece.

The Manatons’ gathering is interrupted by a Special Constable – a rather unpleasant chap named Verraby – who claims to have uncovered a murder on the premises. The victim is Mr Folliner, the owner of the building that houses the studio. Moreover, Verraby believes he has apprehended the perpetrator – Neil Folliner, the old man’s great-nephew, a Canadian soldier who just happened to be on the premises at the time.

At first, Verraby believes it is an open-and-shut case with Neil Folliner being the only possible suspect. However, when Chief Inspector Macdonald in brought in to investigate, the net of potential perpetrators widens, with the activities in the artist’s studio soon becoming the focus of attention. There are reports of old Mr Folliner having accumulated a lot of money before his death, all stashed away in a cash box in the house. However, there is no sign of the loot in the old man’s flat or on the alleged perpetrator, thereby creating another perplexing detail to add to the mix.

This is a very clever mystery in which points of detail prove crucial to unravelling the crime. From the position of the guests in the studio to the history of the building’s occupants to the weather and background noises – all these things play their part in the puzzle.

In Macdonald, Lorac has created a very engaging character, a detective who combines a thorough, dogged approach with a fair degree of humanity and sympathy. It is a delight to watch him go about his work. During his investigations, Macdonald is ably assisted by his colleagues, Jenkins and Reeves, both of whom add an element of camaraderie to the inquiry.

Finally, the wartime setting is beautifully evoked, creating an environment of suspicion, uncertainty and constrained resources – a situation well-suited to opportunistic crime. All in all, this is an absorbing, atmospheric mystery for a dark and foggy night – a most enjoyable contrast to the gentleness of Fell Murder.

My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing review copies. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via these links here and here to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website). 

Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay

The English writer Rose Macaulay – whose work spans the first half of the 20th century – seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment. First with the Virago reissues of Crewe Train and The World My Wilderness, and subsequently with the more recent publication of some of her earlier work by Handheld Press and the British Library. Dangerous Ages – recently reissued by the BL as part of their beautiful Women Writers series – falls into the latter category. It is novel that considers the lives of women at various points in the lifecycle, the perpetual trajectory from birth to death.

Macaulay takes as her canvas various generations of one middle-class family, alighting on each of the women in turn to explore their hopes, preoccupations and in some cases their disappointments. It’s a novel where characterisation plays a prominent role, with emotions and outlook being more important than plot.

Central to the novel is Neville, who at forty-three is considering resuming her studies to be a doctor – an ambition she sidelined in favour of marriage and motherhood some twenty years earlier. Now that her children – Kay and Gerda – have grown up, Neville is conscious of not wanting to end up like her mother, Mrs Hilary, a woman whose life seems empty and purposeless.

Neville looked down the years; saw herself without Rodney, perhaps looking after her mother, who would then have become (strange, incredible thought, but who could say?) calm with the calm of age; Kay and Gerda married or working or both. …What then? Only she was better equipped than her mother for the fag-end of life; she had a serviceable brain and a sound education. She wouldn’t pass empty days at a seaside resort. She would work at something, and be interested. Interesting work and interesting friends–-her mother, by her very nature, could have neither, but was just clever enough to feel the want of them. The thing was to start some definite work now, before it was too late. (p. 21)

At sixty-three, Mrs Hilary is both too old and too young – caught in the no-man’s-land of middle age with little to focus on. Gardening, knitting or other such activities hold no interest for this woman – likewise parish work or other charitable pursuits. It is notable she is rereferred to as ‘Mrs. Hilary’ (and not ‘Emily’) throughout the book, a point that emphasises just how much of her identity has been defined by marriage and motherhood. Stuck in the fusty provincial resort of St. Mary’s Bay, Mrs Hilary bemoans the fact that no one seems interested in her life anymore. This lack of visibility feeds a degree of jealousy, particularly toward Nan, her younger daughter, whose life by comparison seems busy and vivid.

He was interested, thought Mrs. Hilary, in Nan, but not in her. That was natural, of course. No man would ever again want to hear stories of her childhood. The familiar bitterness rose and beat in her like a wave. Nan was thirty-three and she was sixty-three. Nan had men all about her, all being interested; she had only the women of St. Mary’s Bay. Nan could talk about Workers’ Education, even though, being selfish, she mightn’t want it, and Mrs. Hilary could only talk about old, unhappy, far-off things and fevers long ago, and the servants, and silly gossip about people, and general theories about conduct and life which sounded all right at first, but were exposed after two minutes as not having behind them the background of any knowledge or any brain. (p. 72)

Nan is a particularly interesting character in the book. A writer living in rooms in Chelsea, she is by nature an intelligent, cynical, sardonic creature – someone who goes her own way in life irrespective of conventional expectations. Nevertheless, there is a man in Nan’s life – an idealistic socialist by the name of Barry Briscoe, who manages a Workers’ Education Association in the city. Nan has long been the object of Barry’s affections; however, just when Nan decides that she will finally agree to marry Barry, he falls for Gerda (Neville’s daughter), who at twenty represents the modern face of womanhood.

Also featured in the novel is Grandmamma (another woman referred to only by her role), who in the twilight of her life is content for nature to take its course. In her own particular way, Grandmamma is cleverer and more fulfilled than her daughter, Mrs Hilary, with whom she shares a home.

Then there is Rosalind, the spiteful woman who is married to Mrs Hilary’s son, Gilbert – a literary critic of some note. Rosalind – whom Mrs H considers to be ‘fast’ and immoral – seems to delight in taunting her mother-in-law, preying on her obvious weaknesses and insecurities.

She [Rosalind] was pouring out tea.

“Lemon? But how dreadfully stupid of me! I’d forgotten you [Mrs Hilary] take milk…oh, yes; and sugar…”

She rang, and ordered sugar. Mothers take it; not the mothers of Rosalind’s world, but mothers’ meetings, and school treats, and mothers-in-law up from the seaside. (p. 75)

Rosalind has a habit of taking things up and dropping them just as quickly when they bore her, psychoanalysis being her current preoccupation. In short, she wishes to use the technique to analyse her mother-in-law’s ‘case’ with a view to identifying any underlying complexes. Initially, Mrs Hilary is disgusted by the notion; although ultimately, she experiments with analysis herself in the hope that it might illuminate a path to personal fulfilment.

What Macaulay does so well here is to capture the interactions between these individuals, with all their nuances and subtleties. She really is very skilled at conveying the challenges for women at different stages of their lives – the ‘dangerous ages’ of the book’s title.

In essence, the novel explores how best to find fulfilment in life, especially for a woman in middle age. Along the way the narrative touches on several topical issues of the day from the desirability or not of marriage (Gerda and Barry have opposing views on this point) to free love and lesbianism to the value of psychoanalysis. The novel was first published at a time when Freudianism was in fashion.

It’s lovely to see this engaging novel back in print as part of the ongoing Macaulay revival. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.