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5 November 2020

Review - Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe

Mr Wilder and Me
Jonathan Coe
Viking, 5 November 2020
Available as: HB, 256pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via Netgalley
ISBN: 9780241454664

I'm so grateful to the publisher for access to a free advance e-copy of Mr Wilder and Me via NetGalley.

Jonathan Coe's new novel imagines an encounter between legendary film director and writer Billy Wilder and a young woman from Greece, Calista Frangopoulou, which takes place in 1977 as Wilder is shooting Fedora, one of his last films. The story is told by the present day Calista now married and living London and is prompted by a crisis - of sorts - in her family.

It's a gorgeous story. Wilder's life is fascinating and at times heartbreaking, and Calista is a shrewd and engaging narrator with an existence of her own - she's not just there to describe Wilder and his circle.

The book is structured around three meals. The first, a sort of prelude, takes place in Los Angeles, shortly before the main events begin. Calista is on her first independent holiday, travelling in the US and she makes friends with another young woman who has an invitation to meet Mr Wilder (he's an old acquaintance of her father) and his writing partner, Mr Diamond, for dinner. Neither girl really knows who Wilder is. Gill is mooning over a boy she's met and, half way through the meal, makes her excuses and leaves to chase after him. Calista gets drunk. Basically the evening is a roaring success, giving her a glimpse of fascinating people and circles she'd never imagined. (Coe nerds will be pleased to note Gill's family connection to, among other of his books, Expo '58).

The second meal is in Munich. Have shot external scenes in Greece, Wilder has gone on to film in a German studio (later we'll go to Paris - a tax driven schedule if ever I saw one...) Calista has been working as an assistant on the production and she's been invited along to dinner mainly to meet distinguished film composer Miklós Rózsa expressed an interest in writing music for films. Provoked by a remark from one of the financiers who's in attendance, Wilder - a refugee from the Holocaust - gives an account of his life that is rendered by Coe (or, by Coe as Calista, our witness) as film script. It shows him, careless and young, in Berlin; fleeing to Paris accompanied by his girlfriend; dumping her to go on to the US; and picking up his life in the ashes of Europe after the War. The sequence is so sad, bringing home what Wilder lost and what he, perhaps, spent the rest of his life searching for.

Finally, towards the end of filming on Fedora, and the end of the book, there's quite a different occasion when Wilder and Calista (who's despairing after being treated badly by her man) bunk off from production to eat Brie and drink wine on a farm outside Paris. Wilder offers sympathy. It's one of those unplanned, stolen occasions which are long remembered: soon after we meet Calista, we learn she's a great lover of Brie, indeed it seems to be her comfort food, one she's resorting to in the midst of that family crisis in London at the beginning of the book. ('Other people drink to forget, I eat Brie'). Her reminiscences of Wilder (and some music she's writing, suggested by those memories) allow her to escape that crisis (it is a very low key, middle-class family crisis) and to turn over what's important to her in life and puzzle out a potential solution.

This book is, as I've said, delightful, full of thoughts and contrasts about art and life: Wilder is seen towards the end of his creative career, giving his view of the new up-and-coming generation of filmmakers, the Spielbergs and De Niros (punctilious in his middle-European manners, he always attaches "Mr" to their names - hence the title of the book). 

Calista is, in 1977, at the start of hers: she will later become a composer of some note (though, as Coe makes clear, not a household name - her central critique of Fedora is that it's supposed to be about a film star, but how can there be a famous film star - or a famous composer - you haven't heard of?)

But as we reach the end of the book, Calista's nearing the end of what she has taken meaning from - bringing up her daughters, something which she gladly allowed to edge our her composing. Reflecting, then, on what she learned from "Mr Wilder" seems appropriate. How did he deal with losing the thing that had driven him, or perhaps, the means by which he'd expressed himself, influenced the world? ('the realisation that what we had to give, nobody really wanted any more.') That leads to an analysis of Fedora itself - not one of Wilder's greatest films, and reflecting some poor creative decisions, Calista nevertheless think she perceives what Wilder was trying to do and say. 

I just loved Mr Wilder and Me, as you may have gathered. It's a little different from Coe's last couple of books, Number 11 and Middle England in not being about England and its society and politics. Yes there are a few barbs - Calista assumes that a washed up director she encounters in the BAFTA coffee bar 'came from a family who had plenty of money going back generations and were skilled at keeping it to themselves'. Or a tart 'England's not Europe'. Or, in more sinister vein, a former German acquaintance of Wilder's attempting to excuse his having had '...legitimate concerns about the influence of the Jews', that weasel phrase. But really this is I think a book about growing up, when young; about, perhaps, growing young again, later; about giving what you can and knowing when to stop - or possibly, not stopping and not caring if the world has moved on. It has its moments of tragedy and grief but is at heart a sunny and happy book - and an intensely readable one.

I'd strongly recommend it. 

For more information about Mr Wilder and Me, see the publisher's website here.

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