Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe

I remember seeing the film Some Like It Hot on TV when I was seven or eight.  It was a Sunday afternoon and I was sprawled on the rug in front of the fire reading a book.  I don’t remember much about the film apart from Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon dressed as women, and finding it funny when (as women) they shared a room with Marilyn Monroe. Four decades later, I saw The Apartment at Hoylake Cinema Club, another film starring Jack Lemmon this time with Shirley MacClain providing the love interest. What I didn’t realise until recently, is that both films were directed by Billy Wilder, the titular “Mr Wilder” of Coe’s novel.

The “Me” of the title is Calista, the narrator. Aged twenty-one she meets Billy Wilder in Los Angeles on a gap-year trip – her first time away from her family in Greece – and he offers her a job as interpreter on a film called Fedora that he’s shooting in Corfu. It is 1977. Billy realises his box-office-bankable days are probably behind him, that the public no longer want the films he makes, that he doesn’t want to make the films they want, that he’s completely out of step with the times.

The “Mr Wilder” story is framed by Calista’s present, around 40 years later. She is a film composer, married, with twin daughters on the cusp of independence, one about to fly to Australia to attend Sydney Conservatorium, the other about to terminate an unplanned pregnancy before taking up a place at Oxford.

Mr Wilder & Me is a slim novel by today’s standards – less than 250 pages – yet within that Coe manages to encompass five cities / major towns (London, Los Angeles, Corfu Town, Munich and Paris), 40 years, the end of a career and the horrors of Auschwitz – all with a lightness of touch that almost defies belief. He even finds room to experiment with form: a story Billy tells to the film crew in a restaurant is rendered as a film script.

I first heard Mr Wilder & Me on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. I was charmed, which is why I decided to read the book. I’m so glad I did.

Rating: *** Highly recommended

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