Jonathan Coe's latest novel takes us on a bittersweet foray into the world of 1970s Hollywood with Mr Wilder & Me

  • Mr Wilder & Me, by Jonathan Coe. Viking. $32.99.

Revisiting movie sets is becoming an inspiration for British authors.

After William Boyd's Trio and Rupert Everett's To the End of the World: Travels with Oscar Wilde, comes Jonathan Coe's Mr Wilder and Me.

Coe's last novel was the award-winning, anti-Brexit Middle England, (2018), but in Mr Wilder & Me, Coe eschews politics for a coming-of- (old) age scenario played out against Billy Wilder's making of his penultimate film, Fedora (1978).

In 1977, Wilder, the maker of such famous films as Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity and The Apartment, had fallen out of favour with Hollywood, who preferred a new generation of filmmakers, "the kids with beards", Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg.

Fedora ultimately relied on German financing.

Coe has said, "I think it is more interesting to approach an artist through one of their flawed films, because a masterpiece speaks for itself.

"Whereas you watch Fedora and you think: 'How did this film come to be? It is so peculiar, there must be a story there."

The "me" of the title, is the narrator, a Greek woman, Calista Frangopolou.

At the beginning of the novel, Calista is a 57-year-old film composer, living in London, her compositions no longer fashionable, as indeed were Wilder's films in 1977.

Calista's recollection of her interaction with Wilder, after being hired in 1977 as a 22-year-old interpreter for the film production, allows Coe to weave a Fedorian narrative of fact and fiction, using many of Wilder's own words.

Wilder said of Fedora, "With this picture I really cannot lose. If it's a huge success, it's my revenge on Hollywood.

"If it's a flop, it's my revenge for Auschwitz".

Wilder, a Jew, fled Berlin to escape Nazi persecution but never saw his mother again.

Coe includes an imagined 50-page Wilder screenplay in the middle of the novel, in part covering Wilder's unsuccessful search for his mother.

The screenplay underpins Coe's overall meditation in Mr Wilder on life and how, "you negotiate those moments of transition, whether they are in your creative life or your personal life".

Calista observes Wilder's compassion for the film's ageing characters, "struggling to find a role for themselves in a world which is interested only in youth and novelty".

Wilder tells Calista that people go to the movies to "give your life some little spark".

Coe's bittersweet novel provides considerable fictional spark, with empathetic characters and narrative wit, to lighten the generational angst.

This story Quaint travels on a movie set a relief from angst first appeared on The Canberra Times.