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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mr. Wilder and Me

Jonathan Coe

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To purchase Mr. Wilder and Me

Title: Mr. Wilder and Me
Author: Jonathan Coe
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020
Length: 243 pages
Availability: Mr. Wilder and Me - US
Mr Wilder & Me - UK
Mr Wilder & Me - Canada
Billy Wilder et moi - France
Mr. Wilder und ich - Deutschland
Io e Mr Wilder - Italia
El señor Wilder y yo - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • A film version, Billy Wilder & Me, is in development, to be directed by Stephen Frears, with a screenplay by Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton and starring Christoph Waltz

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing film-making and coming-of-(various-)ages fiction, if a bit oddly put together

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 11/11/2020 .
Financial Times B 12/11/2020 Baya Simons
The Guardian . 5/11/2020 Mark Lawson
Literary Review B+ 11/2020 John Maier
London Rev. of Books . 4/3/2021 Michael Wood
Le Monde . 14/4/2021 Raphaëlle Leyris
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/10/2022 Benjamin Markovits
The Observer A 26/10/2020 Alex Preston
The Spectator A- 31/10/2020 Francesca Steele
The Telegraph . 1/11/2020 Jake Kerridge
The Times . 22/10/2020 Dominic Maxwell
TLS . 6/11/2020 Kate Webb

  Review Consensus:

  Nicely done portrait of Wilder and the changing (movie) world; the narrator-figure a bit weak

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Jonathan Coe’s mischievous and inventive re-enactment, this film about a reclusive, fading star is, at heart, as much about the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age as the ephemeral nature of youth and fame (...) Fedora flopped on its release in 1978 (.....) In his finely tuned novel Mr Coe has done it, and its director, justice." - The Economist

  • "The satirist -- a descriptor often attached to Coe -- is generally more fond of caricature than of subtlety. It's a style that served Coe well in the case of What a Carve Up ! , the 1994 Thatcherite satire and his most widely acclaimed novel. There, the caricatures are bang on their target. But without the biting political commentary, Coe's caricature of youth veers towards cliché. (...) Coe recently described his novel as “a close-up portrait of the artist late in life”, and it sometimes feels like Calista is little more than a conduit for this project. When Coe allows Wilder to narrate his own story by telling his dinner guests how he came from Europe to America, a 50-page section which takes the form of a screenplay, the result is the most compelling piece of writing in the book. (...) With Wilder absent from the end of the novel, and Calista left to carry the story through to a satisfying ending, the novel's energy dissipates." - Baya Simons, Financial Times

  • "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." - Mark Lawson, The Guardian

  • "The novel is nostalgic in its very structure, then, the overriding tone one of gentle poignancy. (...) Although the marriage of biography and fiction is largely successful, it does render the fictional Calista a rather impotent presence in the book -- a perennially unquestioning wallflower, whose shrinking character is calibrated so as not to disrupt the flow of historical event. Nonetheless Mr Wilder and Me has considerable charm and a Wilder-like slightness and levity of spirit." - John Maier, Literary Review

  • "All of these games allow for a certain amount of meta-reflection on the nature of art -- writing and filmmaking -- and the way that even great artists have to come to terms with their diminishing relevance. (...) In its own quiet way, the novel is as odd as the movie it describes: part Hollywood biopic, part Holocaust memoir, part middle-class domestic drama. What holds it together is the hard kernel of historical fact at its core." - Benjamin Markovits, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is a book that looks back to Coe's brilliant early period, engaging, like What a Carve Up !, with cinema in a formal as well as a thematic way, delivering the reader a satisfyingly sweeping novel that still manages to push the form in new directions. It hinges on 60 pages in the middle of the book when the narrative morphs suddenly into an approximation of a Billy Wilder script -- but this is a film in which Wilder himself is the star. (...) It's hard not to feel that this is also a book about the shape of careers, from a novelist moving confidently into his seventh decade. Wilder never managed to regain the majesty of his mid-period masterpieces, but in Mr Wilder & Me, Coe has done more than that. This is as good as anything he's written -- a novel to cherish." - Alex Preston, The Observer

  • "Mr Wilder & Me is not in any way a state-of-the-nation novel (.....) Coe funnels his own wry humour through Wilder's dialogue. (...) Calista, though, is not traumatised, and her equivocal, reminiscing tone sometimes leaves her a little bland. Her own middle-aged story frames the book, but she always felt to me a conduit for Billy's tale. Still, the book's easy affection for Wilder is a lovely thing. (...) This is a charming, bittersweet book, and a perfect reminder of art's value in stark times." - Francesca Steele, The Spectator

  • "Coe seems to be slightly on autopilot when writing about Calista's tribulations, either in youth or middle age. But at its best, Coe's close-up on Wilder doesn't just celebrate the man but embodies his glorious ability to say sad things in a funny way, and vice versa." - Jake Kerridge, The Telegraph

  • "The film’s melancholy infects Coe’s novel, which is more subdued than some of his earlier fiction, particularly in its examination of late style. (...) The Wilder that Coe gives us is painfully aware that his Mitteleuropean light comedy, with its touches of elegance and ennui, is now seen as old-fashioned compared with the mean streets and dangerous spectacles offered by Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola" - Kate Webb, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mr. Wilder and Me is narrated by Calista Frangopoulou, a sometime composer of film scores and mother of two who reflects on finding herself at something of a crossroad when, in 2013, one of her twin daughters was flying off to Australia while the other faced a choice between preparing for university or bringing her pregnancy to term and becoming a mother herself. As Calista complained to her husband:

I have two talents. Two things that give me a reason to go on living. I'm a good composer, and I'm a good mother. Writing music, and bringing up children. That's what I do. And now I'm basically being told that neither of these skills is required any more. On both fronts, I'm finished. Kaput. And I'm only fifty-seven ! Fifty-seven, that's all.
       The one daughter leaving for the other side of the world leads her also to reflect on an adventure of her own, in 1976, when she was twenty-one and went backpacking through the United States for three weeks. She meets a British girl, Gill, and they travel together for a while -- and Gill takes her along to a dinner she's been invited to in Beverly Hills, to meet a friend of her father's. This turns out to be film director Billy Wilder. It's a comic fish-out-of-water meeting and mix-up, not least because neither of the girls have any idea who Wilder is and they're unfamiliar with his films. Gill even bails halfway through, preferring to spend her time with Stephen, another Brit, whom she had fallen for. (Coe-readers will realize that this is the budding romance of two characters familiar as a married couple from The Rain before it Falls.)
       Calista does make an impression -- enough that, when Wilder came to Greece (where Calista and her family lived) the next spring to film Fedora, he had his office get in touch with her and hired her to act as an interpreter. Here, too, she seems to make enough of an impression so that she's kept on -- as assistant to Wilder's good friend and screenwriter I.A.L. 'Iz' Diamond (who had also been at that Beverly Hills dinner) -- when the filming moves to Germany.
       Mr. Wilder and Me basically revolves around Fedora, already in the works when Calista first met Wilder, an ill-fated late-career venture that was beset by problems (and, despite a star-studded cast, complete with Henry Fonda cameo, was not a success), but Coe's novel is only in part a fictionalized making-of account. There are only a few scenes actually involving the filming, and, while covering most of the main points, Coe deals rather casually with much that went wrong among the actors and then in post-production. (A lot did go and was done wrong, not least the voicing-over of the two female leads' dialogue by Inga Bunsch: "the complete vocal performances of Marthe Keller and Hildegard Knef -- were junked and replaced by Ms. Bunsch's flat, monotonous loops".) Coe's novel extends beyond just this, a more general look at the radical change in movie-making in the 1970s, and old-timer Wilder trying to find his way and place in a new world that he doesn't quite have a handle on, as well as the story of a young woman learning what the world offers and figuring out what she wants from life.
       The novel is an affectionate portrait of Wilder -- and long-time collaborator Diamond --, with Coe weaving some actual Wilder quotes and anecdotes into the story. Ingénue Calista is narratively useful in this regard, presenting herself in her full youthful ignorance and learning about film and Wilder as she goes along -- not least, by memorizing much from two fat Halliwell's film guides and then regurgitating the opinions from these.
       This is a time when a new guard of Hollywood directors, like Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola -- "Mr. Diamond calls them 'the kids with beards'" --, are taking over on a playing field that has shifted completely. As Calista's would-be beau observes, after Fedora is completed and he has taken her to see Taxi Driver:
     "I mean, when you see a film like that, can you not see how silly, how pointless it is to make something like Fedora in this day and age ?"
     "But Billy's from a different era, a different generation."
     "Well, now another generation has taken over. Mine. Ours."
       With Calista, Coe means to show, of course, that many aren't quite that eager to indulge in radical upheaval just for the sake of change; she still and always values the old(-fashioned). (She admits early on to living in something of a bubble -- and points out, for example, that: "When the students at Athens Polytechnic rioted in 1973, I took no part in it".) Wilder's attitude, too, is at odds with the times; though he's not blindly unaware of that. Among the funniest of the novel's scenes has Gill and Calista enthuse about Jaws, and Wilder complaining about: "this picture with the shark" -- including noting that: "I'm more of a human-being kind of director".
       Hollywood wouldn't finance Fedora, so Wilder got the money for it in Germany -- from a group that's: "not really a film company. They're in the tax-shelter business" -- and some of the filming is then also done In Germany, allowing Coe to explore Wilder's past and his losses in the Holocaust. Calista describes an encounter with a Holocaust-denying young German, and for once shifts away from reminiscence, presenting the scene in screenplay-form; it is a powerful and effective episode, presenting also Wilder's experiences after World War II in Germany and his involvement with the making of the film Death Mills (Wilder noting: "It should be screened in every cinema in Germany, and they should be made to watch it", even as he is told: "Billy, it's too soon"). The screenplay set-piece is then all the more effective in returning to the regular narrative to conclude the episode, with Wilder's crushing final question for the young German.
       Mr. Wilder and Me ranges easily and comfortably across a great deal, from Coe getting in his usual point of English other-ness ("England is not Europe. I know that technically England is part of Europe, but ... England is its own thing, you know ?" he has Diamond say) to a good deal about both the craft and the business of movie-making; both the figures of Diamond (who wishes Wilder didn't want the movie to be so deadly serious and would lighten things up) and Calista (learning all the while -- if much, at first, literally by the book (Halliwell's)) are particularly well-utilized in this regard.
       Calista is a somewhat odd narrator -- for one, in standing at some crossroads of her (and her family's) own in the framing story which would seem to demand more of her (and the reader's) attention, with much of this rather quickly then resolved in the end. Coe does try to fill her out as a character in her own right but Wilder and Diamond, and her experiences with them cast too large a shadow for her to really meaningfully emerge from underneath. Of course, this is a novel about Wilder, but that balance between 'Mr. Wilder and me' remains a somewhat awkward one.
       Mr. Wilder and Me does make for a good read -- though, like any fiction closely based on a real-life figure, fact and fiction can be in some tension; so also here, for example, some of the familiar Wilder anecdotage can feel forced. There's a lot here that is very good, from insights into Wilder and his background to depicting the changing world (and films) of the 1970s, but like Fedora itself, with the: "creaking melodrama and implausibility of some of the scenes" Mr. Wilder and Me (intentionally ?) has a similarly awkward feel. But at least Coe embraces the comic potential fully and doesn't get all serious, which certainly helps.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 September 2022

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Mr. Wilder and Me: Reviews: Billy Wilder and Me: Other books by Jonathan Coe under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Born in 1961, Jonathan Coe attended Cambridge and Warwick universities. He is the author of several novels.

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