England, 2020: satire is dead and England’s literary satirist-in-residence, Jonathan Coe, has quite reasonably decided to take a break from addressing the state of the nation. For his latest novel he’s returned to his other chief obsessions of film and music. Well, I thought, lulled by the cheerful cover art and undemanding opening, if he’s decided to write a lighter, more lyrical work about the golden age of movies in response to current apocalyptic times, that’s totally understandable and fine by me. Who can blame him?
Mr Wilder and me is narrated by an older woman, Calista – Coe writes women really well, one of the many reasons I love him – looking back on her youth when she inadvertently became part of Billy Wilder’s filming entourage, employed initially as a translator during a shoot in her native Greece. It starts gently enough, with a middle-class London family doing their middle-class thing, albeit with a potentially traumatic event lurking in the background. Then on with Calista’s reminiscences of her earlier life in Athens, her developing interest in music, a US road trip, first romance and general coming-of-age stuff, all with the gently bittersweet nostalgia that he does so evocatively.
If some authors are painterly, Jonathan Coe is composerly. The flow of his narratives have a composer’s sensibility (and he is indeed a composer of music) and his immersion in music shines in his pacing and dynamic. In compositional terms, Mr Wilder and me starts with some pleasant slightly wistful melody, but some ominous minor chords quietly appear here and there, which then become increasingly dissonant until the dark crescendo erupts and we are suddenly staring into the abyss. This novel, like many of his previous works, blends fiction with real lives and real events, and in terms of real events, without giving away any of the plot, it really is the abyss. And although he doesn’t make a big thing about it, these are historical events that have a very immediate relevance now, as we sleepwalk into totalitarianism and glorify dictators. It’s not an overtly polemical novel but it’s certainly not apolitical.
It’s also about the need to create – Calista and her music, Mr Wilder and his films, even the anonymous French farmer and his memorable brie: ‘the urge to create, to keep giving something to the world – a fundamentally generous impulse’ on which hope-filled note the novel closes, resolving into a quietly optimistic major key. Whatever horrors befall, the human impulse to touch and inspire people though art and music remains, and the novel ends with a immense act of generosity and an anticipation of new beginnings. Which I was glad of, personally.
I love Jonathan Coe. I’ve read all his novels (this is his twelfth), most of them more than once; I’ve seen him do several events, and I’ve gone idiotically fangirly red and stammery when he’s signed a book for me. So I was all primed to enjoy this one – and I did, very much. It’s not up there with the scathing satire and brilliant literary theory games of What a carve-up or the incisive social commentary of The Rotter’s Club and sequels; it’s much more akin to The house of sleep or The rain before it falls, less overtly clever and zeitgeisty, with a more muted reflective feel, and real emotional depth.
Advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley