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).

40 thoughts on “Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe

  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Literary catnip indeed, this sounds wonderful and what an interesting diversion for Coe to have entered the creative film making world and all of its penchant for drama behind the scenes.
    French reader’s who are such huge fans of Coe will be delighted with a book that will require them to also seek out the films, the perfect distraction from what is otherwise curated by today’s various media. This sounds so promising, a lovely review Jacqui, I’m intrigued too now by your favourite film!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I hadn’t realised that Coe is quite so popular in France until Helen (Stanton) mentioned it recently. It’s interesting, particularly as some of his other books (e.g. What A Carve Up!) are quite British in terms of humour with their sideswipes at our government and social classes. I’d often wondered how well they might ‘translate’ in other countries, but from what you say that clearly hasn’t been an issue! Anyway, I doubt it would be a consideration with this new one as it’s very transferable in style, reflecting perhaps the European sensibility of émigré director such as Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Emeric Pressburger…

      As for The Apartment, if you’ve never seen it you must. It’s such a wonderfully bittersweet film, perfect viewing for the rapidly approaching season!

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        Jonathan has visited here a couple of times and I went to one of his readings, which was quite amusing, as he says he has to prepare in advance and read up on his novels before facing a French audience, because nowhere else on his book reading travels is he likely to encounter so many readers who’ve read all his works and then present him with such scholarly questions. It’s reading on a whole other level and as you can imagine, can be quite intimidating even for the author himself!

        Reply
  2. Pierre

    The Apartment is such a potent cocktail of the cynical and the romantic. As the co-writer/director of Sunset Boulevard, Billy entirely understood the territory of fading relevance. Buster Keaton, a king during the silent era, was 55 when they made SB. “The phone had stopped ringing”; old Hollywood was dead—sound killed the silents just over 20 years before.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. It’s that combination of cynicism and romance that makes it so insightfully bittersweet. And you’re right to mention the parallels with the demise of silent films. The themes of progression and fading relevance reminded me of Singin’ in the Rain, another wonderful film that I really must revisit soon!

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    I am also a fan of Wilder. His time were impeccable. Everything about this book sounds fascinating. Like all such novelization s of real events, I do wonder how my child this reflects reality.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s always a consideration, but in this instance I found it best to just view it as a piece of art in it’s own right, a fictional story where the characterisations of the two creative forces – Wilder and Diamond – are grounded in reality. In other words, those two characters felt very true/authentic to me, even if the specific scenes we see in the novel never actually happened in real life. It’s an excellent book, a real delight to read!

      Reply
  4. A Life in Books

    I’ve had several disappointments with Jonathan Coe’s recent novels but will now look forward to this one with confidence! Writng about cinema suits him. I seem to remember he was the New Statesman’s film critic back in the day.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous! I really hope you like this one, Susan. This is my first Coe since What a Carve Up!, so I can’t compare it to the intervening novels; nevertheless, it does feel very accomplished to me. And yes, he certainly seems to have a flair for writing about cinema. As I was saying to Brian earlier, Wilder and Diamond feel very authentic and ‘real’ as their personalities on the page seem grounded in reality. Coe has definitely done his research here; and yet, he wears it very lightly, avoiding any tendency to labour this on the page. I’ll be interested to hear what you think when you read it!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say! I think it does give the reader an insight into Wilder’s creative values and approach at a time when the industry had started to move on. It must have been soul destroying for him in a way, to see the push for a new, more forceful style of filmmaking lacking in subtlety and elegance. I hope you get a chance to read the book at some point. It really is rather touching.

      Reply
  5. MarinaSofia

    I thought of you at once, Jacqui, as soon as I heard about this novel. I remember our conversation about The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. Having rewatched The Apartment recently, I’m even more tempted to read the book. Have you read Prater Violet by Isherwood? Although it is based on Isherwood’s experience with a different filmmaker, I always associate it with Billy Wilder, similar biography of the director.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes! It’s absolutely my kind of thing. Even though I’m usually a bit nervous of reading novelisations involving real people, in this instance I just couldn’t resist…

      As for the Isherwood…no, I haven’t read it! Only the Berlin novels and A Single Man. As a writer, he’s somewhat unfairly neglected these days, so it’s great to see you recommending it. I shall add it to the list forthwith! X

      Reply
  6. Tredynas Days

    Some Like it Hot is one of my favourites, too. I enjoyed The Apartment many years ago, and see it was on UK tv the other day – might still be available for streaming. This novel sounds good – better than A Theatre for Dreamers (Polly Samson’s recent novel about the lit/art set in 60s Hydra) that I read a few weeks back.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the BBC screened The Apartment on Sunday, and – as you say – it’s on the i-Player for a week. Luckily I have it on DVD, a copy that has seen quite a bit of use! Anyway, it doesn’t matter how many times I watch that film, I never tire of it. What chemistry Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine had together, even in the scenes when Miss Kubelik’s heart was elsewhere…

      As for Coe’s book…yes, it’s excellent, and a more successful novelisation of real-life characters than the Polly Samson, I suspect. Maybe Theatre for Dreamers tapped into our need for a bit of escapism during lockdown, when travelling to the Greek islands in person was clearly not an option? Either way, it does seem to have attracted some mixed reviews…

      Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    I’m not sure I could ever get tired of watching Billy Wilder films and would have a hard time pinning down a favorite. This book sounds marvelous, almost as good as a Wilder film. There’s so much here that appeals, from Calista’s voice to the director’s struggle find a voice in the new era, I do look forward to this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous! I’m so glad to hear you like the sound of it. And yes, Calista comes across as both wise and thoughtful, especially as she looks back on this incredible time in her youth. I probably haven’t done her justice in this piece, particularly as much of the focus is inevitably directed elsewhere. Nevertheless, she makes for a charming companion – a keen observer of people and their interactions with others.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      When I joined Twitter, back in 2009, I wanted to use ‘Miss Kubelik’ (from The Apartment) as my Twitter handle, but sadly someone had beaten me to it!

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    How wonderful – the perfect novel for a film lover for you! It’s wonderful when a book hits the spot like that! The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is one of Mr. K’s favourite films ever so I shall mention this to him – although he doesn’t tend to read nowadays!

    Reply
  9. gertloveday

    Lovely review and what a fascinating discussion. I haven’t really been interested in Jonathan Coe before but this sounds a good place to start.If I could have another life I’d like to be born again with the talents Calista has, ‘an intuitive musician who also speaks multiple languages.’ Sigh…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s such a warm, affectionate book. the sort of novel that restores your faith in humanity without any hint of sugariness or sentimentality. Plus the ‘screenplay’ section in the middle is an interesting aspect – certainly from a structural perspective.

      Reply
  10. Caroline

    I love Jonathan Coe. He has written one of my vet favorite novels. It was even in my top ten if all times. “The House of Sleep”.
    I’m not a particular Wilder fan but this sounds lovey. I know I’ve seen the apartment but can’t remember it. I did love Sunset Boulevard if that’s the one about the aging actress.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s the one. The Apartment features Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in the lead roles. You’d know it if you saw it., I’m sure. Plus, it has one of the moist memorable closing lines in movie history. I’d better not say any more in case you decide to watch it….

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    I’ve only read one of Coe’s novels, but I love his biography of B S Johnson so much I feel I should read more. I really like the sound of this, but will obviously wait for the paperback!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. I’d temporarily forgotten that he had written that biography of Johnson, but now you’ve mentioned it the reports are flooding back. I think it illustrates Coe’s versatility as a writer – his ability to move from political satire to biography and back again to fiction is very impressive!

      Reply
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  13. buriedinprint

    This sounds like the perfect match for you. And I do love that quotation about how he wants the film to be sad and serious but no sticking heads in toilet feeling at the end of it all. Some of what you’ve said reminds me of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, but it’s quite a different intent overall (I gather, not having read this one), though still quietly beautiful and still surprisingly sad underneath it all.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. I recall seeing quite a lot of buzz about Beautiful Ruins when it came out a few years ago. Quietly beautiful and bittersweet sounds just my type of thing!

      Reply
  14. Pingback: My books of the year, 2020 – part 2, the novels | JacquiWine's Journal

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