Category Archives: Coe Jonathan

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).

What a Carve Up! (The Winshaw Legacy) by Jonathan Coe (review)

Back in September, Guy (at His Futile Preoccupations) reviewed Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58, and in the comments thread a few of us expressed interest in joining a readalong of this author’s 1994 novel What a Carve Up! / The Winshaw Legacy. Marshalled by Seamus (at Vapour Trails), we settled on a December read with reviews to go up today.

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What a Carve Up! is a very skilful combination of two main narrative threads, the first of which centres on the infamous Winshaw family.

The prologue to the book opens with a mystery reaching back to the days of WWII when Godfrey Winshaw, a British pilot, was shot down by the Germans while on a top-secret mission over Berlin. His distraught and devoted sister, Tabitha, is convinced that her elder brother, Lawrence, is behind Godfrey’s death. In the frenzy that follows, Lawrence consigns Tabitha to a nearby asylum where she is to remain indefinitely, only to be granted a fleeting release for a family reunion some nineteen years later. The occasion is the fiftieth birthday of Mortimer, another brother to Tabitha and Lawrence, and the only other member of the Winshaw clan who appears to possess a decent set of moral values. (More on the rest of the Winshaws later.) Tragedy strikes the family once again as an intruder breaks into Winshaw Towers only to be killed in a violent altercation with Lawrence. There’s a suggestion that the intruder may have been out to get Lawrence, but the circumstances and motive surrounding the attack are far from clear.

These mysteries prove central to the Winshaw family history which brings me to the second strand in the story: that of a young writer named Michael Owen. The timeline shifts to 1990, and we discover that during the 1980s Michael was commissioned to document the official biography of the Winshaws (Tabitha, still residing in an institute for the actively insane, instigated the project despite the opposition of her family). With a sizeable chunk of the family’s history already documented, the manuscript has been festering for the past few years due to Michael’s withdrawal from society – the young writer has been suffering from depression due to difficulties with the book and a painful disagreement with his own mother. But in a chance meeting, Michael befriends and falls for his neighbour, Fiona, and with her encouragement he resumes work on the text in the summer of 1990.

Returning to the Winshaws now, here’s Michael as he reflects on his impressions of the family:

…for it was quite obvious to me, from the very beginning, that I was essentially dealing with a family of criminals, whose wealth and prestige were founded upon every manner of swindling, forgery, larceny, robbery, thievery, trickery, jiggery-pokery, hanky-panky, plundering, looting, sacking, misappropriation, spoliation and embezzlement. Not that the Winshaws’ activities were openly criminal, or indeed ever recognized as such by polite society. […] But because every penny of the Winshaw fortune […] could be said to have derived, by some route or other, from the shameless exploitation of  persons weaker than themselves, I felt that the word ‘criminal’ fitted the bill well enough… (pgs 88-89, Penguin Books)

Quite a bunch, then. As Michael picks up the threads of his research, Coe focuses on each of the Winshaw children in turn, a collection of power-hungry, self-advancing hypocrites who seem to have infiltrated every major area of public life. In fact, they appear to have ‘pretty well carved up the whole bloody country between them.’

The author uses a variety of different literary forms to reveal their stories. For instance, we get to know Henry, the politician, by way of a series of extracts from his diaries. Henry’s story commences with a few snippets from 1942 (the time of Godfrey’s death), but the majority of diary entries focus on his time in parliamentary circles during the 1970s and 1980s. Henry started political life as a Labour MP (it was his best chance of getting elected at the time), but underneath it all he’s a Tory at heart. Here’s an extract from Henry’s diary in 1982 which illustrates just how the Winshaws use their family connections to pull strings in pursuit of their aims. Thomas, Henry’s brother, is a merchant banker in every sense of the phrase:

Thomas has agreed to help us out with the flogging-off of [British] Telecom. Took a little persuading at first, but I convinced him that if he and the bank were going to prosper under Margaret’s government then they were going to have to be a little more robust in their business practices. It helped, of course, when I told him the kind of fees he could expect to collect. Also predicted that there was going to be any number of these sell-offs over the next few years, and if Stewards wanted a good slice of the action they should get in early. He asked me what else was going to come up in the near future and I told him that it was basically the lot: steel, gas, BP, BR, electricity, water, you name it. Not sure that he believed me about the last two. Just wait and see, I said. (pgs 134-135)

Henry’s diaries expose the key tenets of Thatcher’s political strategy: the privatisation of Britain’s core utilities; the introduction of business thinking and targets into the NHS; the attachment of a financial value to quality of life; the cutting back of the welfare state…many more. And we see how these policies touch the lives of real people as the financial constraints imposed on the NHS end in tragedy for one character in Coe’s story.

In another chapters we meet Hilary, the right-wing television-producer-turned-tabloid-journalist. Hilary writes a weekly column, entitled ‘PLAIN COMMON SENSE,’ providing a platform for her rants on ‘issues ranging from the welfare state and the international situation to the length of hemline sported by members of the royal family on recent social outings.’ Hilary’s chapter is peppered with newspaper reports and magazine articles, including a toe-curling Hello! feature designed to present the perfect public face. It’s all a façade of course, a mask to hide her train-wreck of a marriage and immoral lifestyle.

Then there’s Roddy, the art dealer, and Mark who deals in a more dangerous commodity by supporting Saddam Hussein in the development and stockpiling of illegal weapons. Perhaps the most horrific chapter of all is reserved for Dorothy: a merciless pioneer in the development of intensive farming methods, a woman with no regard for animal welfare. Coe doesn’t pull any punches in this section as he exposes the ‘solutions’ to the ‘problems’ Dorothy encounters in her efforts to maximise the yields and profits from rearing chickens and pigs. The details are truly shocking.

These characters are so vile and unlikeable that the reader might start to feel somewhat worn down by their nastiness. But Coe counterbalances this by adopting a satirical tone and by alternating the Winshaw chapters with Michael’s own story. As a narrator and as a character, Michael is very easy to engage with as he tries to get his life back on track by forming a connection with Fiona. And we will him on in his attempts to unravel the mysteries surrounding the Winshaw family history.

Michael is damaged, preoccupied with events and stories from his own past. In particular, he continues to reflect on memories of an ill-fated birthday visit to Weston-super-Mare and a trip to the cinema to see the 1961 comedy-horror film, What a Carve Up! Michael recalls being transfixed by Shirley Eaton, the film’s leading lady, but to his dismay his mother hauled him out of the cinema at a key moment: a scene where Kenneth Connor shies away from spending the night with Shirley despite his obvious attraction to her. As a result, Michael has developed a somewhat unhealthy fixation with the film, Shirley Eaton and the story behind the scene in question.

On a couple of occasions, Michael’s own life appears to mirror the crucial scene from the film, the one that has haunted him for many years. The first time it happens, Michael hesitates; like Kenneth Connor, he seems frightened of spending the night with an attractive woman. When the opportunity presents itself again, with a different woman this time, will Michael choose to commit or turn away once more? And as the novel progresses, Michael comes to realise that his connection to the Winshaws may run deeper than simply his role as their biographer. At one stage he ponders something terribly prescient:

I wondered what it would actually feel like, to be present at the unravelling of some terrible mystery and then to be suddenly confronted with the falseness of your own, complacent self-image as disinterested observer: to find, all at once, that you were thoroughly and messily bound up in the web of motives and suspicions which you had presumed to untangle with an outsider’s icy detachment. Needless to say, I could not imagine the circumstances in which such a thing might ever happen to me. (pg 303)

I thoroughly enjoyed What a Carve Up! It’s a wonderful blend of mystery, satire and socio-political commentary on the period, very cleverly constructed and plotted. Coe’s range is impressive as he switches between different forms and styles to present the story. For the most part, the political messages are conveyed in an engaging way, and it’s easy to forgive the occasional soap-box moment when the author’s heart is firmly in the right place.

The closing section feels like an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery as the key players in the story return to Winshaw Towers for the reading of a will. The ending is satisfying yet poignant, the mysteries and connections are unravelled, but to say any more would only spoil the surprises in store should you decide to read this novel for yourself.

This novel is ambitious and rich in detail, so much so that I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I’m looking forward to reading the reviews by Seamus, Guy and Kim – I’ll add links once they’re available. It’s also my book group’s choice for January, so plenty of discussion to come.

Click here to read Guy’s review and Seamus’s review.

What a Carve Up! is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Source: personal copy. Book 2/20 in my #TBR20.