Jonathan Coe: “It’s not easy to realise you’ve probably had your day”

In new novel Mr Wilder & Me, the author artfully navigates questions of time and the nature of creativity raised by director Billy Wilder’s last great film.

Jonathan Coe, 2020. Photo: Penguin Books UK
Photo: Penguin Books UK

Jonathan Coe’s last novel couldn’t have been more timely. Impelled by the Brexit referendum and written in the midst of national and international upheaval, Middle England’s late 2018 publication tapped incisively into the zeitgeist with its satirical yet astute untangling of the complex social and political issues of the day. The novel, aptly deemed “a comedy for our times” by the The Guardian, won the 2019 Costa Novel Award.

Yet it almost didn’t happen that way. The British author’s new novel, Mr Wilder & Me, was initially planned to be written first. “Actually,” he explains over a Zoom call from his home, “this was meant to be the novel before Middle England; I wanted to start it right after Number 11, but Brexit and the referendum intervened.”

It’s arguable that, at least on a personal level, his 13th novel is even timelier. Coe, a lifelong devotee of the films of American director Billy Wilder (the mastermind behind films like Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment) has been planning this novel for years, but the circumstances for him to produce it had to be just right.

Wilder, he says, “is probably my greatest hero in the medium of storytelling, and I always wanted to write something about him. I assumed I would write a non-fiction book, an essay or biography, something like that; the idea of writing a novel about him only really began to concretise about five or six years ago. Luckily, when I came back to it last year, the idea still had life.”

Mixing fiction and reality, Mr Wilder & Me is narrated in the present day by protagonist Calista, now in her 50s but whose chance encounter, at 21 years old, with the famed Hollywood director led to employment as an assistant on the 1977 set of his penultimate film, Fedora. Calista’s life details are fictional, but the bulk of the story follows a very real part of Wilder’s life, in which he attempts to direct a final masterpiece against all odds: his age; a lack of finances, due in part to his waning relevance and popularity; and increasingly difficult personal and professional relationships. The result is an artful meditation on time, the nature of creativity, and finding meaning in a changing world.

But first, Coe had to figure out how to write it.

That his Wilder book would be fictional came to him when a friend directed Coe to Ravel, a novel about French composer Maurice Ravel by Jean Echenoz: “It was really the first novel I’d read about a historical figure I knew well myself, where I felt the author had really given me some access to this figure which I would never have gotten through a piece of non-fiction.”

That experience combined with what he’d learned writing 2004 biography Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson. Coe tried to make the biography “as conscious and advertising of its status as fiction as I could, [but] even there, I still felt there was a kind of dishonesty about the intimacy I was achieving with him. I almost finished the Johnson biography with the feeling that I should have written a novel about him instead. So with Wilder I thought, ‘I’m not going to make that mistake again.’ I wanted to do justice to him, and my experience with the Johnson biography made me feel like that could only be done through fiction.”

"Fedora is not my favourite Billy Wilder film, but it was the right moment to find him. It’s such a crisis moment in his career, and crises are what the novel is all about.”

When Coe found a Blu-ray release of Wilder's Fedora, it included a feature-length documentary about its making that he says “crystallised the idea that this was the Wilder film I should write about, because of the issues around him and his career. Fedora itself is not my favourite Billy Wilder film, but for the purpose of this novel, of writing about him, it was the right moment to find him. It’s such a crisis moment in his career, and crises are what the novel is all about.”

With muse, format, and themes all in place, Mr Wilder & Me poured out of Coe in just a year. Known perhaps best for his satirical novels – among them 1994’s What a Carve Up! and 2001’s The Rotters’ Club, both prize winners – it feels like a slight step away from his more comic impulses. But then, Coe doesn’t quite see himself as a comic writer.

“I think I’m quite an earnest writer, really – and I don’t mean that necessarily in a good way. I think I’m maybe an overly earnest writer in some ways, but people tend not to notice it because I put funny scenes in my books. What’s going on around those scenes in my books is quite solemn really, a lot of the time.”

In Mr Wilder, he says, “I didn’t have to try to be funny, because Wilder himself is such a great repository of one-liners, and I included as many of those as I could in the book and credited them to him at the back of the book so that people didn’t think I was trying to pass them off as my own. But the book does capture him at a melancholy moment in his career, really – it’s not easy to realise you’ve probably had your day and it’s time to move over for the next generation. And that’s really what the book is about, for me: how you navigate that moment where you have to move out of the limelight or find a new role for yourself other than the one that’s been bringing you fame or happiness for the last 20 or 30 years. How gracefully do we negotiate that?”

"This is a story I want to tell, so somehow I have to do it."

It’s tempting to ask whether, at this point in Coe’s career, he’s considered the question himself.

“Yes, I think about it all the time. When I was a literary journalist, when I was starting out in the late 80s, one of the first authors I interviewed was Anthony Burgess, and he was into his 70s by then, I guess. It made a strong impression on me when he said he didn’t feel he could write a novel about contemporary Britain anymore. He didn’t know how young people in Britain spoke anymore, and didn’t think he could pull it off with any authenticity. That comment stayed with me, and ever since then I’ve been thinking, ‘That will happen to me one day.’ I hope it hasn’t quite happened yet, but Wilder was 70 when he made Fedora; I was 58 when I wrote this book, and 58 is precisely the moment at which, really, Wilder’s career started to falter and he started to lose his touch.”

But then, says Coe, wondering about his career trajectory and contextualising it isn’t for him to do. Much of the novel is concerned with questions of aesthetic judgement and reflect a wariness when it comes to creative self-analysis.

“It’s like walking a tightrope; you don’t really want to look down in case that throws you off balance completely. I’m in the very early stages of writing a new state of the nation piece, and it’s partly set in 2020, with the pandemic in the background and so on – if I look down while on that tightrope, I might say to myself, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ But, there’s a kind of unconscious impulse that’s stronger than that, which is to get across the tightrope, to write the novel. This is a story I want to tell, so somehow I have to do it. I would never compare myself to Billy Wilder as a storyteller but there are, in many ways, parallels between the situation he finds himself in with Fedora and what a British novelist in his late 50s finds when trying to make sense of the world and write about the world in 2020.”

"There are parallels between the situation [Wilder] finds himself in with Fedora and what a British novelist in his late 50s finds in 2020.”

Certainly, Mr Wilder & Me demonstrates that Coe still has the ability to wow readers, whether it’s via the novel’s quippy, effervescent telling (“to entertain is always very high on my list of priorities when I sit down to write something,” he says) or, perhaps more tellingly, his ability to describe moments of emotional heft with the necessary nuance and delicacy. There’s a passage in the book in which Iz Diamond, Wilder’s real-life writing partner and a darkly funny melancholic (with whom Coe says he identifies as much as Wilder), recounts to Calista a joke that Wilder once told him, and the telling of it – narrated by Calista as a “transient but lovely” moment in which life makes “a rare kind of sense” – is jaw-dropping.

It’s a paragraph Coe says is central not just to his portrait of Diamond but to the book and, really, a writing style that has taken Coe a lifetime to perfect: at once serious-as-your-life and uproarious.

“Of course it’s a cliché that comedians and comic writers are melancholics, but like so many clichés, there’s a strong element of truth there, I think. There’s a huge vein of melancholy and despair at the unwieldiness and unmanageableness of life in their writing – and they alchemise it; you alchemise it. You turn it into humour, and when you can do that, then it’s like a kind of miracle. And for that brief moment of laughter, everything is okay, everything is right with the world. Iz Diamond was definitely a melancholic, and my conviction is that he needed these moments, he needed jokes and gags, because it’s light in the darkness – and I guess I’m the same.”

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