A Desperate Sadness and an Unapologetic Levity: On Jonathan Coe’s “Mr Wilder and Me”

October 7, 2021   •   By Alex Harvey

Mr Wilder and Me

Jonathan Coe

IN THE SUMMER of 1972, a young boy on holiday in Cornwall spotted a sleazy-looking paperback for sale. Its lurid cover featured a semi-naked woman framed by Sherlock Holmes’s famous deerstalker. To Jonathan Coe, already at 11 a strong admirer of Conan Doyle’s fiction, the book seemed an act of desecration, a silly, throwaway account of erotic adventures about his detective hero. But far from being a cheap rip-off, it turned out to be an expert novelization of Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes: it was, Coe realized, “a beautifully judged pastiche of the Conan Doyle style.” Three years later, watching Wilder’s movie on BBC Television one Sunday evening, the young Coe experienced a kind of epiphany. “There was something about the film which haunts me,” he wrote in his 2005 collection of essays, 9th and 13th. “Something about the bachelor Holmes apartment (sets designed by Alexander Traüner) and the melancholy of the Scottish countryside (photographed by Christopher Challis), which I can’t get out of my head. Perhaps it is the music.”


Late 19th-century Romantic music was an early passion for Coe, as he wrote in his notes for French Impressions, a 2007 selection of the music of Ravel, Satie, and Debussy: “The hallmark of these composers was a generalized nostalgia, tempered with wit and irony,” which “managed to pierce the heart of one Birmingham schoolboy. No other music, before or since, has spoken to me so directly.” The strange allure of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes lay in the fine soundtrack created by Miklós Rózsa, the prolific Hungarian American composer who collaborated with Billy Wilder on several films, including Five Graves to Cairo (1943), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Lost Weekend (1945). Coe was responding to the way Wilder allowed “an aching, desperate sadness and nostalgia to the love theme” to cut across “the lightheartedness and brittle humor, which characterize the first hour or so.” Coe later realized that the unexplained dislocations of plot and tonal shifts were created by the cuts that the Hollywood studio, United Artists, forced Wilder to make. In its original form, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes would have been Wilder’s longest, most layered and personal film. But once its duration was reduced by a third, the film became broken-backed, its odd shape hinting at omitted scenes, a palimpsest of its former self.


Recording the soundtrack of Wilder’s film directly from the TV, Coe would lie awake, listening on his Walkman until “the rhythm to his dialogue […] seeped into my subconscious.” His early attraction to this flawed film, which moved Coe “more deeply and directly than any other film,” led to 50 years of research into Wilder’s life and cinematic art. Coe’s outstanding new novel, Mr Wilder and Me, is the result of this obsession. In it, Coe succeeds in bringing life to the complex, charismatic Wilder. He surrounds Wilder with perfectly achieved portraits of the phlegmatic I. A. L. Diamond, his writing partner for 30 years, and their wives, Audrey and Barbara, resigned to how their husbands’ main relationship is with each other:


“They spend every day in each other’s company. They’re together from nine in the morning to six at night. They see more of each other than Barbara and I see of them. They are far more devoted to each other than they are to their wives. […]” Barbara said, “Wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing if they could be married to each other and not us. I don’t know about you, Audrey, but sometimes I feel so guilty, coming between them the way I do.”


There are cameos from a confident Rózsa, balancing Hollywood’s dictates with his own artistic vision, and a muffled Al Pacino, who “talks the way that he acts, you know? You could give him Hamlet’s speech, ‘To be or not to be’, and still you wouldn’t be able to understand a word of it.” Coe even finds space for iconic figures from Wilder’s Berlin days, such as actor Peter Lorre and writer Emeric Pressburger.


In a sense, Mr Wilder and Me is the novel toward which Coe’s fiction has always been heading. From the outset of his career, Coe has examined the relative merits of cinema and fiction, looking to find ways to interweave or combine their respective forms. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (2010) was an attempt at a literary road movie (the book was adapted into a French film). Expo 58 (2013) has a protagonist who resembles Dirk Bogarde and a subplot based on Hitchcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, another of Coe’s favorites. The House of Sleep (1997), Coe’s clever, intricate fifth novel, features a film reviewer called Terry, who is similarly obsessed with certain movies and absurdly dogmatic in his criticism (he dismisses Wilder as a “middlebrow talent”). The novel directly references The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; the book’s Gothic mansion is named Ashdown, Holmes’s alias when he pretends to be married; the café where the characters meet is called Valadon, the name of the female spy with whom Holmes falls in love. It also satirizes vapid academic film journals by including a rambling speech edited with footnotes by Terry. Unfortunately (for Terry), his footnotes are renumbered and attached to the wrong citations. A series of inspirational films recommended by Pope Paul VI, we discover, includes such titles as Wet Knickers, Pussy Talk, and Cream on My Face.


What a Carve Up! (1994), Coe’s acclaimed satire on Thatcherism, even shares its title with a lewd 1961 comedy film starring Kenneth Connor and Sid James. Michael Owen, the novel’s narrator, is an emotionally autistic novelist who retreats to his London flat and obsessively watches old British movies on videotape. He uses films as an escape from his unsatisfactory existence but increasingly finds his life imitating art as the novel develops. What a Carve Up! manages the high-wire act of balancing literary and cinematic genres. It’s a pastiche of the literary Gothic novel — Winshaw Towers, with its Gormenghast-like turrets, drunken butlers, and twisted family secrets, is a dysfunctional microcosm of class-ridden British society. It also starts to resemble a saucy comic film in which sex-obsessed characters look but never touch. In the US, the novel was renamed The Winshaw Legacy, a title that loses the extent to which Coe uses the early ’60s movie as a kind of metafiction. When the vicious, predatory Winshaws, who are responsible for stealing and privatizing much of Britain’s wealth, try to work out what movie they’re in (as potential murder victims), the answer is What a Carve Up!


For an epigraph to What a Carve Up! Coe chose a quotation from Orphée, Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film about poetic vision and representation: “If you sleep, if you dream, you must accept your dreams. It’s the role of the dreamer.” Film as a medium encourages us to incorporate our own dream of it. It is cinema’s phantom alterity, its evanescent quality, that Coe, as a novelist, responds to and loves.


Of all Coe’s novels, The Rain Before It Falls (2007) is the one most clearly structured around a compulsion to search for something unreachable, a melancholic attempt to recapture lost time. The book is a fragmentary autobiography, the taped monologues of an old woman, Rosamond, who describes a series of 20 photographs for Imogen, a blind, younger woman. The novel, as it scans the past, explores the uneasy relationship between language and visual representation; “everybody smiles for photographs — that’s one reason why you should never trust them,” Rosamond herself warns us. She recalls a summer’s day in 1949 when she and her teenage cousin, Beatrix, acted as extras in Gone to Earth (1950), a Powell and Pressburger film set in late 19th-century Shropshire. Coe makes Rosamond describe how they appear in the bottom left-hand corner of a street scene. She wears a large, wide-brimmed straw hat and a red checked pinafore over a white high-necked dress, while Beatrix is dressed in a blue sailor suit and straw boater and holds a length of skipping rope. There is a scene in Gone to Earth with two teenage girls wearing the exact same costume. Coe grounds a fictionalized memory (written in 2007) of an actual film shot in 1949 that uses actors or extras to play Victorian children (set in 1897). It’s a subtle attempt to exploit cinema’s extraordinary, paradoxical ability to record and fight against time’s evanescence at the same time.


This is the key to Coe’s method and ambition in Mr Wilder and Me; much of the novel is supported by hidden allusions, images, and movie scenes both “real” and imagined. The “me” of the novel is another older woman, Calista, who is also reviewing her life. She is “a composer of film scores who is perched on the edge of an empty nest.” Her 18-year-old twin daughters, Ariane (named after Audrey Hepburn’s character in Wilder’s 1957 film, Love in the Afternoon) and Fran (named after Shirley MacLaine’s character in Wilder’s 1960 classic, The Apartment), are about to depart: one to live in Australia and the other to study at Oxford. Fran finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, and Calista feels that neither of her two talents (musical composition and motherhood), “the two things which give me a reason to go on living […] are required anymore.” She is thinking, however, of composing “a little suite for chamber orchestra called Billy,” an homage to the great director. Calista, who is Greek in origin, a shy and solitary girl, met Wilder while traveling in America when she was 18. (Coe also made a trip to the States before college, searching in New York for a recording of Rózsa’s violin concerto, which he based on his score for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.)


The novel develops in successive flashbacks to Los Angeles, Greece, Munich, and Paris in 1976–’77, framed by two chapters set in contemporary London. It is imbued with the atmosphere of looking back in nostalgia, the same structure Wilder used in his films Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Fedora (1978), both stories about movie stars who have outlived their own stardom. Coe chooses “one of [the] most melancholy moments” of the director’s life, when “his star is on the wane and he is trying to find a gracious way of becoming an elder statesman.” By focusing on Wilder’s autumnal period of decline, the novel becomes a meditation on age and creativity, on the arc of an artistic career (as much Coe’s as Wilder’s). After the failure of his Holmes movie, Wilder, Coe suggests, “nursed a deep, private, unassuageable disappointment. What he had to give, no one wanted any longer.”


The 70-year-old director’s new script for Fedora (a movie that even admirers like Coe describe as “flawed and bonkers”), is ignored by Hollywood, the studios all well aware that it’s been 15 years since Wilder won his last Oscar. At the dinner in Los Angeles that Wilder hosts for Calista and Gill, her traveling girlfriend, a fan comes up to pester him, raving about The Apartment and its effect on his life. Wilder gently points out that “Mr. Diamond and I have written seven pictures since The Apartment.” Coe, who is now 60, has mentioned how people only ever seem to want to talk to him about What a Carve Up!, a novel published when he was 33.


At this dinner, Calista, who knows nothing of cinema or Wilder before meeting him (she subsequently memorizes Halliwell’s Film Guide, trotting out its dated, crusty opinions as if they were her own), is something of a hit. A year later, Wilder asks her to be a translator in Greece where he is filming Fedora (he refers to his own film by joking about a Sherlock story called “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”). On location, Calista sees how “Wilder looks about ten years younger than he had in LA the previous year. His eyes sparkled and he looked lighter on his feet.” Calista keeps the mordant Diamond company and becomes so popular that she continues to accompany the shoot when it moves to Munich. She discovers why Fedora has become a German film: “[I]t is not that the people in Hollywood liked or disliked the idea of Fedora. That was irrelevant. They decided they were never going to make a profit.” The Germans providing the finance were “in the tax shelter business.”


At another fateful dinner in Munich, Calista sits with Fedora’s leading actors and its composer, Rózsa (an encounter which will spark her subsequent career). The conversation grows awkward when the topic turns to the curious “vanishing” of all Nazis in postwar West Germany. Wilder’s response is to tell a story. At this point, Coe breaks his own narrative to let Calista record Billy’s story of his early life in the form of a screenplay. “What he didn’t tell us, or what I can’t remember, I shall try to imagine,” she says, describing Coe’s own process as he merges fact and fiction to create a 50-page imaginary Wilder screenplay at the heart of Mr Wilder and Me.


The fictitious film script recalls Billy’s relationship with his lover, Hella, in Berlin, their flight from Nazi Germany in the ’30s, and the ennui he feels while stuck in Paris (Billy’s frequent visits to prostitutes pay homage to his 1963 movie Irma La Douce). Skipping his early Hollywood years, the screenplay finds Billy back in London at the end of World War II, now as a colonel in the US army who has been ordered to find footage in the British archives that can be shown to the Germans to educate them about the atrocities. It’s an example of Coe’s love of patterns or “closed circles” of coincidence: Thomas Foley, the British official who briefs Wilder, is the protagonist of Expo 58 and the father of Gill, the girl who travels with Calista to Los Angeles in 1976 and the reason she meets Wilder in the first place. Gill is also the mature woman who listens and, ultimately, fails to understand Rosamond’s dictated tapes in The Rain Before It Falls.


Coe partly bases his fictitious autobiographical film on Death Mills, a short documentary Wilder made about the Holocaust for the US Department of War in 1945. Like the imagined script, it shows “an entire field, a whole landscape of corpses. And next to one of the corpses sat a dying man. He is the only one moving in this totality of death and he glances apathetically into the camera.” In the imaginary film script, Billy — via Calista, via Coe — confesses the reason he is obsessively scanning the archive images of the concentration camps: he is searching for his family. “My mother, and my grandmother and my stepfather had vanished. Nobody could say what had become of them, I was looking at the bodies. […] And all the time I was thinking […] Was it her? Could one of them be her?” Thirty years later, Wilder rebukes the young German who asserts that the numbers of concentration camp deaths have been greatly exaggerated by asking “a very simple question. […] If there is no Holocaust, where is my mother?”


The screenplay that Coe creates for Wilder is a tour de force; placed at the novel’s center, the script colors everything around it. A subtle homage to Wilder’s own comic writing, it obeys his dictates of elegance and economy, which Wilder always claimed he had learned from Ernst Lubitsch, the great German-born film director. In Ninotchka (1939), Lubitsch famously solved the problem of how to show the transformation of Greta Garbo’s character from a zealous Soviet official to a warm and witty woman by the recurrent use of a hat. When Garbo first spots the extravagant hat in a Park Avenue shop window, she denounces it as an example of capitalist decadence. When the hat is seen the final time, Garbo is wearing it with pride.


Coe pays tribute to the school of Lubitsch in his Wilder screenplay, showing the entire trajectory of Hella’s relationship with Billy (here spelled Billie) via “one of his little trademark hats.” The first time the hat is pictured, Billie is on a train to Paris with Hella, fleeing Berlin after the Reichstag fire. “He runs his finger nervously around the inside of the rim. There were 1000 marks sown into the lining.” Billie’s hat is next mentioned when, a year later, Hella calls him back to hand it to him: “[T]hey kiss passionately […] and then they break apart.” Billie is abandoning her in Paris, having sold a screenplay to Hollywood and bought a one-way ticket to America. En route, his hat “feels a bit strange. He takes it off […] and looks inside. There is something stitched into the lining. He slides a finger inside and pulls out a sheaf of franc notes — hundreds of them. There is also a note, which reads: Billie take care of yourself — H x.” The last time the hat is cited, Billie is visiting Paris after the war and meets a married Hella, who has survived the camps. There is no easy or warm reunion. Billie offers to repay her generosity. She tells him “to spend the money on a trip to Vienna. Don’t give up on your mother, Billie. Do everything to find her.”


In interviews, Coe has often stated that Wilder has been “a far more influential figure on the way that I write than any novelist.” Mr Wilder and Me records the size of that debt by showing how Calista’s fictional encounters with Wilder give her not only an understanding of film but also an éducation sentimentale. On the Fedora shoot, Calista embarks on her first real love affair with a crew member, Matthew; an aspiring director, he worships at the cinematic altar of Scorsese (one of “the kids with beards,” as Wilder calls the new Hollywood generation), whereas Calista prefers The Shop Around the Corner, a 1940 film produced and directed by Wilder’s mentor, Lubitsch. In the novel’s final section, the middle-aged Calista composes Billy, a musical tribute to the figure who had so shaped her sense of the world. She creates a work, similar to Coe’s novel, that celebrates Wilder’s humanity and humor, the way his films permit “a desperate sadness” to coexist with a “quite unapologetic levity.”


Despite his teenage discovery of Wilder, however, Coe was influenced by a very different modernist aesthetic at the start of his literary career. In an introduction to Like a Fiery Elephant (2004), his biography of experimental British novelist B. S. Johnson, Coe writes about emerging from studying English at Cambridge “with a thriving unshakeable contempt for anyone who had the temerity to attempt the writing of literature in the last seventy years.” Coe developed an early passion for Johnson and shared his uncompromising modernist credo — namely that the contemporary novel needed to continue Joyce’s and Beckett’s revolution in form:


Present day reality is changing rapidly. It always has done, but for each generation it seems to be speeding up. Novelists must evolve (by inventing, borrowing, stealing or cobbling from other media) forms which will more or less satisfactorily contain an ever-changing reality, their reality, not Dickens’s reality or Hardy’s or James Joyce’s reality.


Coe’s second novel, A Touch of Love (1989), with its open declaration of the limits of conventional realism in fiction, shows Johnson’s influence. Robin, a depressed graduate student, writes stories about a depressed graduate student who has difficulty forming lasting relationships with women. Coe allows his protagonist a sense of comic absurdity, but his stories have a self-hating quality that Robin’s friends are quick to point out. The novel shares Johnson’s fondness for directly addressing the reader about needing to break through to a more truthful mode of fiction. (In his 1964 novel Albert Angelo, Johnson abruptly breaks out with “OH FUCK ALL THIS LYING” — a typical moment of self-dramatizing exasperation with the deceitfulness of literary representation.)


In What a Carve Up!, Coe mocks his more strident earlier self by allowing an irritating student to dismiss the fiction of the novel’s protagonist-writer, Michael Owen (whose second novel is called The Loving Touch), with an offhand arrogance:


Oh sure, there are a few people still doing interesting things with the form — Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman crowd — but any serious modern artist who wants to use narrative, should be working in film. […] I mean it’s all just a lot of pissing about within the limits set down by bourgeois morality, as far as I can see. There’s no radicalism.


What a Carve Up! shows Coe also channeling his other father figure, Billy Wilder, and drawing on “the energies of popular music, film and television […] rediscovering the pleasures of humor, story-telling, demotic and so on.” Coe’s stated ambition was to “write something intensely political which didn’t make readers feel as if they were being harangued. To combine anger with warmth and humanity.” The novel asserts that the “appropriate response” to the gross political injustices of the world “lies not merely in sorrow and anger but in mad, incredulous laughter.” Coe learns the need to avoid being too preachy or too dogmatic in his political focus, in order to achieve a satisfying balance within his fiction. In the decade after What a Carve Up!, Coe moved further away from his early modernist ambitions with his “state of nation” trilogy — The Rotters’ Club (2001), The Closed Circle (2004), and Middle England (2018) — finding a wide audience by operating mainly within a social-realist mode. But in Mr Wilder and Me, he has been able to recapture the witty juggling of genres that was the hallmark of What a Carve Up!, creating a new hybrid form melding fiction, memoir, screenplay, and criticism while still embracing the pleasure of narrative.


One reason Coe has embraced more formal experimentation and self-reflexivity may be due to the contemporary challenges that confront a satirical novelist. In a piece for The Guardian in 2013, he commented on the difficulties of continuing to write within the comic novel tradition of Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, and Michael Frayn, given the political complexities and sensitivities over the cruelty of comedy. His work has often explored its limits, as a character in A Touch of Love points out: “What people call irony in literature is usually called pain and misunderstanding and misfortune in real life.” Coe understands how the best comic moments are nearly always about people’s inability to understand each other; they rely on a sense of human solitariness. There’s a great moment in Mr Wilder and Me where Coe plays with the idea of comedy’s cruelty only to redeem it. Diamond tells Calista about how Billy had wanted to make a film based on the life of Nijinsky:


A Hollywood producer he was talking to said: “Are you serious? You want to make a movie about a Ukrainian ballet dancer who ends up going crazy and spending 30 years in a mental hospital thinking he’s a horse.” Wilder replied “Ah yes. In our version of the story we give it a happy ending. He ends up winning the Kentucky Derby.”


In a 1999 review of a biography of Jacques Tati, Coe quotes and endorses the author’s summing up of the great comic auteur’s central purpose: “Tati was not out to change the world, but to help us look at it with less horror”; he was “a sentimental celebrant of its potential for beauty and joy.” Like a Billy Wilder film, Playtime, Tati’s 1967 masterpiece, was targeted at a popular audience and made with “loving, manic perfectionism.” Coe finds it “a work of fathomless invention, which sets itself the task of finding humour, beauty and humanity in the most brutal and sterile of environments.”


Wilder created his masterpieces Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960) only a few years after his family was wiped out in the Holocaust; he asserts a comic vision despite being haunted by the nightmare of history. Mr Wilder and Me succeeds in mirroring the balance of Wilder’s tone, his comedic reveling in absurdity alongside his sense of the rewards of le monde sensuel. En route to the shoot location for Fedora, Wilder makes an impromptu stop in Normandy (to taste a rare Brie de Meaux), where he gives advice to the 18-year-old Calista: “Whatever else it throws at you, life will always have pleasures to offer. And we should take them.” It turns out to be her final encounter with Billy, and a lesson the 57-year-old Calista still warmly recalls.


Coe expertly weaves together the different strands of the novel when it concludes back in contemporary London. Now an aging woman and mother, Calista rewatches Fedora, believing it shows Wilder’s compassion for the elderly who, like herself, are “struggling to find a role in the world which is interested only in youth and novelty.” But Wilder also emphasizes how the film star’s desperate bid to extend her career as a leading actress turns her into a monster: she denies her own humanity by forcing her daughter to become a facsimile with no life of her own. Wilder exploits the bitter irony of Fedora’s success in cheating time thanks to her daughter’s suicide. Thousands of fans visit the girl’s corpse as it lies in state in Paris, believing the daughter to be her mother. Unlike Calista’s singular misreading of the film Fedora, Coe shares Wilder’s characteristic duality by giving Calista a maturity of perspective in her own life: she ends the novel accepting her twin daughters’ need to choose their own paths, the complete opposite of Fedora’s narcissistic egomania.


At times, though, Calista becomes something of an attenuated narrator, created merely to intersect with aspects of Wilder’s late career. The title Mr Wilder and Me contains a willed ambiguity: in this strongly personal novel, the real “me” is Coe himself. His long intellectual and emotional engagement with Wilder’s art is the real, animating force.


When Billy Wilder was 94, Coe wrote to him, wanting to let the great director know how much his work, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in particular, had meant to him: the film had become “bound up with ideas of loss: lost time, lost opportunities, the rapidity with which events recede into the past and can never be recaptured.” Despite having to dictate a response from his sick bed, Wilder immediately replied: “[Although] ‘Holmes’ was not a success, it is wonderful to see that for somebody it has become an obsession.” Wilder died a few months later.


Mr Wilder and Me is Coe’s warm rejoinder to the finality of such a letter. The novel summons up and reclaims the director’s “lost” presence; the endnotes reveal that many of the dialogues reproduce his words verbatim. Coe’s novel continues his conversation with Billy. By bringing back the great director’s wit and humanity, Coe delivers the full fruits of his obsession to us.


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British director and writer Alex Harvey has made over 20 documentaries and dramas, working in both film and television. His latest film is Road Music (2020), a feature documentary on the legacy of the Delta Blues.