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Jonathan Coe is not a cinematic novelist in the sense that the description is generally meant – dialogue-heavy scenes in camera-ready settings – but movies underpin much of his fiction. What a Carve Up! shares a title and narrative framework with a 1961 British film comedy. That book’s 2015 sequel, Number 11, more tangentially draws on horror flicks; Expo 58 has a subplot modelled on Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes; while Coe described The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim as his attempt at a literary road movie.
Coe’s latest novel, however, is his most passionate marriage of screen and page. In 1977, Calista Frangopolou, a young Athenian woman, is backpacking across California with Gill Foley, a Brummie teenager she befriended at a Greyhound station. Gill is invited to dinner in Los Angeles with an old business contact of her dad’s, who turns out to be Billy Wilder, septuagenarian Austrian émigré director of films including Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard. Through contrived but amusing plotting, the ingenue from Greece is hired to provide local know-how during the shooting in Corfu of Fedora, the 1978 late-career movie by Wilder and co-writer IAL Diamond, another dinner guest.
As always, Coe buries cross-references to earlier works by himself (the Foley clan have been recurring characters) and others, not impeding the progress or pleasure of readers who miss them, but adding another level for those in the know. Among Wilder’s movies was The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; he jokes to Calista about the Holmes story “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”, with which Coe also has other fun. There are allusions to Wilder’s films The Apartment and Ace in the Hole, and, as both Sunset Boulevard and Fedora feature forgotten cinematic superstars, the novel is affectingly underscored by the apprehension of Wilder and Diamond that a new type of Hollywood represented by “that shark film” (Steven Spielberg’s Jaws) may mean the end for them in the way that the talkies finished the protagonist of Sunset Boulevard.
While shooting Fedora, Wilder’s desire to move from comedies to more serious drama causes tension with Diamond, who wanted to keep up the gag count. Coe is well placed to animate both sides of this debate, as his novels have been an exploration of the limits of comedy. In a 2013 Guardian essay, he described the greater difficulty of writing in the English comic tradition of Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, David Lodge and Michael Frayn (his initial literary models) in a world of increasing political complexity and sensitivities over the inherent cruelty of humour.
Coe’s to-and-fro over jokes continues in Mr Wilder & Me. It may seem strange that a short novel spends five pages on a narratively redundant encounter between the adult Gill (whose later family life interleaves the 1970s action) and a producer who has spent a quarter of a century trying to finance a movie based on a Kingsley Amis novel. But that impossible project can be seen to represent the broader, more farcical side of Coe’s work, as found in What a Carve Up! and The Rotters’ Club in opposition to the straighter strain of The Rain Before It Falls and The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.
Coe’s previous novel, the anti-Brexit Middle England, which won both the Costa novel of the year prize and the Prix du livre européen in France, occupied a mezzanine between laughter and darker tones, which the new novel also walks. There’s a neat running gag involving Calista’s cinematic knowledge being crammed from reference books, and a fine comedic set-piece in which she translates earnest interview questions to Wilder.
A darker mood intrudes with the Nazi ghosts of Wilder’s homeland. The presentation of that material in the form of a 50-page fantasy screenplay makes this generally light and simple novel the most formally experimental of Coe’s later books. Stylistically, though, the prose is unusually relaxed about word repetitions. It also feels unlikely that, as a young single woman on a 70s movie set, Calista suffers no unwanted sexual attention. Coe may have been restricted here by using largely real-life characters, whose vivid plausibility is a great achievement. Wilder, charismatically wise-cracking but haunted by history, and Diamond, agonised by the lengthy complexity of turning words into pictures, give the book the feel of a real movie memoir.
Although set mainly in Greece, Los Angeles and Paris, the novel also obliquely extends Coe’s long commentary on Englishness. Diamond, after a long residency while shooting the Sherlock Holmes film, has concluded: “I know that technically England is part of Europe, but … England is its own thing, you know?” Calista agrees that, visiting London, her Greek family had a sense of “visiting not just a different country but a different continent”.
But such national analysis has second billing in this fiction to Coe’s other career-long obsession, cinema. An afterword acknowledges that many of Wilder’s best lines in the book are taken verbatim from interviews and biographies; impressively, a final footnote reveals that a startling detail of Wilder’s response to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was discovered by Coe during his research interview with the director Volker Schlöndorff. As cineastes say, it’s always worth reading to the end of the credits.
• Mr Wilder & Me is published by Viking (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
Source: The Guardian
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