One of the inhabitants of Middle England, the title and the setting of Jonathan Coe’s last novel, part of a location that is also called ‘merrie’, ‘deep’ and ‘old’, thinks that she and others ‘might be living cheek-by-jowl in the same country, but they also lived in different universes’. The language in which these universes fail to communicate is politics, and one of the great insights of the novel is that politics is so often just that: a language and not a topic. At one point in Middle England (2018), a marriage comes apart over Brexit, and a counsellor asks both members of the couple about the reasons for their anger over the other’s choice in the referendum. The Remainer says: ‘I suppose because it made me think that, as a person, he’s not as open as I thought he was. That his basic model for relationships comes down to antagonism and competition, not co-operation.’ The Leaver says: ‘It makes me think that she’s very naive, that she lives in a bubble and can’t see how other people around her might have a different opinion to hers. And this gives her a certain attitude. An attitude of moral superiority.’ The counsellor listens and offers: ‘What’s interesting about both of those answers is that neither of you mentioned politics,’ she says. ‘As if the referendum wasn’t about Europe at all.’ She suggests that this means the marriage is in even worse shape than they had imagined, but we could reach another conclusion. The referendum wasn’t about Europe. It was about fears and fantasies. It was about attributing attitudes and models for relationships to other people and choosing the real world as the stage for these harsh games.
Other novels by Coe offer a complementary suggestion. We can inhabit different times and places and also live in the same universe, and the theatre of fantasy sometimes has a spot in real history. In The Rain before It Falls (2007), an elderly woman about to commit suicide ‘sits surrounded by ghosts and photographs’ and tells her story to a tape recorder. The story itself evokes grim echoes of domestic violence in different generations, and a woman listening to it finds a strange psychic parallel to an experience of her own. The novel ends with her trying and failing to make sense of this connection, but perhaps sense isn’t what she needs. It’s worth noting that the lady who told the original story comes to think that accepting that ‘contradictory ideas’ can both be true is a sign of ‘starting to grow up’.
Mr Wilder and Me brings these perspectives together in interesting ways. The frame story is told by Calista, a Greek composer who now lives in London. One of her grown-up daughters is about to leave for Australia, the other is considering an abortion. Her English husband is, as husbands often are in Coe’s novels, a perfectly decent, rather unhelpful guy, and Calista feels that neither of her ‘two talents … two things that give me a reason to go on living … is required any more’. The two things are ‘writing music and bringing up children’. This is a little melodramatic, but she knows this. At one point she imagines it may be her ‘destiny … to be always alone’, yet she also sees this as a ‘tragic, self-dramatising thought’. She finds ‘a kind of comfort’ in it. This is fast work: self-pity aware of how stagey it is, but all the more employable for that reason. Another voice in Calista’s head says more modestly that it ‘seemed, at that moment, to be my essential nature’. But she has all kinds of other moments and by the end of the novel has found new uses for both of her talents.
Between the present-day London of the first and last chapters we find ourselves in the Los Angeles, Greece, Munich and Paris of 1976-77. Twenty-one-year-old Calista makes a trip to America, where she meets an English girl (who has not yet become the woman who will listen to the tape in The Rain before It Falls) whose father had a wartime connection with Billy Wilder. When the girls get to Los Angeles, they are invited to dinner at a posh restaurant in Beverly Hills, and Calista charms everyone with her total ignorance of the film world and much else. She meets Wilder’s wife, Audrey, and the scriptwriter I.A.L. Diamond and his wife, Barbara. Diamond, who worked with Wilder on many films, including Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and Fedora (1978), is in many ways the conscience of this novel, and Coe has borrowed and invented many wonderful conversations for him. Diamond is more sorrowful, less theatrical than Wilder and Calista, but his wit is always a form of comprehension. He also, later in the plot, gets to tell Calista what is surely the funniest story (among many) in the book. It is taken, as Coe’s note indicates, from Maurice Zolotow’s 1977 biography of Wilder. Billy wanted to make a movie based on the life of Nijinsky. The 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 thirty years in a mental hospital, thinking he’s a horse?’ Wilder replied: ‘Ah, but in our version of the story, we give it a happy ending. He ends up winning the Kentucky Derby.’
Back in Greece, Calista works on her music, and finds out all she can about Wilder, who she now realises is ‘not just famous but extremely famous’. Then out of the blue she gets an invitation to work as an interpreter on Fedora, which will be the director’s last film but one, and takes off for Corfu. She thinks Wilder looks ‘about ten years younger than he had looked in Beverly Hills the previous year. His eyes sparkled and he was lighter on his feet.’
He is working, he is ‘required’, and Calista’s narration finds itself identifying with this impulse. Her earlier self learns some practical things about movie-making: ‘Ninety-five per cent of being on a film set … consists of standing around, waiting for something to happen.’ She starts her conversations with Diamond, and almost has a fling with an Englishman whose mother works in the make-up department. In the course of all this she becomes a Jill-of-all-trades, and is invited to the next stage of filming in Munich. She also learns why this is a German movie: no one in Hollywood wants it. Diamond explains it’s not that people in Hollywood didn’t like the idea of Fedora. Liking or disliking it was irrelevant. ‘They … decided there was no way they were ever going to turn a profit with this property.’ Diamond also corrects Calista’s idea about the funders of the work. ‘They’re not really a film company. They’re in the tax shelter business.’
The Munich chapter contains the novel’s tour de force (in two senses, since both Calista and Coe need to get some credit). Calista is invited to a dinner at the Bayerischer Hof. The guests include the composer Miklós Rózsa, two leading actors from Fedora (Marthe Keller and William Holden), and Al Pacino, who is visiting Keller, his girlfriend. The conversation turns to the curious absence of Nazis in postwar Germany, and one of the German guests remembers a line from Wilder’s film One, Two, Three. Asked what he did in the war, a man says he was in the underground. The inquirer says: ‘You mean the Resistance,’ and the man replies: ‘No, no, I was working in the metro, I was underground the whole time.’ The conversation gets darker when the question of Holocaust denial comes up, and Billy tells a story. Or rather Calista, the young woman who once knew nothing about movies, presents us with a dazzling mock-up of a screenplay that presents the story.
‘int. café. day’, it begins. ‘A caption reads “Berlin, 1933”.’ ‘I’ll remember what I can,’ Calista promises. ‘And what he didn’t tell us, or what I can’t remember, I shall try to imagine.’ What follows are a series of closely focused scenes with lots of voiceover. Wilder, then called Billie, is in a relationship with a woman called Hella. They are on holiday in Switzerland when they hear the news that Adolf Hitler has been made chancellor:
EXT. MOUNTAIN. DAY
A ski run in Davos, Switzerland. BILLIE and HELLA are skiing down the mountain. The scene is shot in the artificial style of the time, with obvious back-projection. We see them exchange loving smiles as the ski run unfolds behind them …
INT. SKI LODGE. DAY
The chalet is full of skiers stopping off for hot drinks and food. BILLIE and HELLA sit at a wooden table eating sausages and hot potato salad and drinking mulled wine. There is a superb view of the mountains through the window behind them.
Next to the table is a wireless set which is broadcasting the latest news from Germany …
It has been announced today that Reichspräsident von Hindenberg has appointed Herrn Hitler as the new Reichskanzler …
Hella, darling, I think we are going to have to get out of here as soon as possible.
Really? But the view from here is so lovely.
Soon they leave Berlin for Paris. Billie’s affair with Hella fades into boredom, and he starts to hang out with sex workers. Then he gets an offer of a job in Hollywood. He doesn’t think of taking Hella with him – he later learns she was interned in a camp but survived – and doesn’t tell her until the last minute that he’s leaving. ‘I was a jerk back in those days,’ the Wilder of 1977 says in the hypothetical voiceover. Quickly overcoming her shock, Hella fills Billie’s hat with banknotes.
Billie stays in London for a few days, and we see him walking up Queen’s Gate. ‘The camera rests a while on the outline of the boarding house.’ Then a title says ‘Eleven Years Later’, and we see ‘a huge pile of rubble’ where the house used to be. Wilder (or Calista) is thinking, we may guess (and our guess is confirmed a few pages later), of the extraordinary imagery of Wilder’s 1948 film A Foreign Affair, which at times seems to be all about ruins, in this case those of Berlin, miles of roofless, jagged-edged buildings seen again and again from the air. He is Billy now, and a colonel in the American army. His job is to find some film footage in the British archives that can be shown to the Germans in order to educate them about their own past. It is here that he meets – and has dinner and lots of drinks with – Thomas Foley, who works for the Ministry of Information. Foley is also the father of the English girl Calista met in America, and the main character of Expo ’58, Coe’s novel from 2013.
Billy makes a film called Death Mills and shows it to a test audience in Würzburg. There is no reaction, and the American Army of Occupation doesn’t pursue this part of the educational project. We also learn that, when looking at the images of concentration camps, Billy is looking for his mother. ‘I haven’t heard from her in three years. My mother, my grandmother and my stepfather, to be absolutely precise.’
The last scenes of Fedora were shot in and near Paris, and Coe here manages an effect that is both darker and lighter than that in the scenes we have been watching. Calista’s narrative involves the filming of a suicide that takes place in Fedora and a lovingly detailed account of her stop with Wilder on their way to the film location, at Meaux, the home of ‘the best Brie in France’. They try several samples of the cheese, and drink more than a bottle of the recommended Pinot Noir. The farmer, for good measure, is a movie fan who confuses Billy Wilder with William Wyler, repeating ‘over and over again that Ben-Hur was his favourite film’. Wilder is late for the shoot – ‘this has never happened to me before,’ he says – but they both have had a good time.
We don’t hear a lot about the contents of the film Fedora in the novel. It is often seen as a failed and belated rehash of Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), the story of a movie actress who has outlived her stardom, and Calista certainly seems to have taken the earlier film’s most famous line to heart. Asked if she was once big in pictures, Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond says: ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’ In Calista’s view, Wilder himself is thinking something like this throughout the novel. But Fedora is really about something else. The actress in Fedora (called Fedora) does outlive her stardom, but only after she has extended it twice by unannounced means: by endless surgery and other medical interventions, until the whole thing goes horribly wrong; and by having her daughter, Antonia, pretend to be her in her late films, an actress playing an actress playing a part. It is Antonia who commits suicide when she realises she is to be allowed no life except that of the incarnation of her mother’s magical conquest of time, and it is Antonia who lies in state in Paris, while thousands of fans troop past to say goodbye to the wrong person.
Towards the end of Mr Wilder and Me, Calista decides she needs to watch Fedora again. She sees its defects, and she is distracted by her association of suicide with Brie de Meaux. But she thinks it’s a film full of compassion ‘for its ageing characters, in particular … struggling to find a role for themselves in a world which is interested only in youth and novelty’. Taking it personally, as you can see. Calista writes twice of her sense of Wilder’s ‘unassuageable disappointment’ as he thinks that ‘what he had to give, nobody really wanted any more.’ But her remarks elsewhere, and the novel as a whole, suggest another view of the film, and of Wilder. She writes of the way great jokes, like the one about Nijinsky and the Kentucky Derby, bring ‘strange joy and clarity to the world’, and the premise of Fedora is surely a terrible, all too human longing: we’d accept any torture in the world, steal anyone else’s life, even that of our own child, if we could just freeze time at our moment of glory. This is not compassion for ageing, unless we run it through a whole series of inversions and inferences. Up front, it’s a grotesquely comic denial of the very idea.