Mr Wilder & Me: Tricksy tribute to the film world

Book review: Jonathan Coe’s usual cohort of fans may be bemused by the inconsistent style and tone

 Actor Marthe Keller and director Billy Wilder during the filming of  Fedora in Cherbourg, France in 1977. Photograph:  Michel Lambert/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Actor Marthe Keller and director Billy Wilder during the filming of Fedora in Cherbourg, France in 1977. Photograph: Michel Lambert/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

In a 2002 feature piece for the Observer Magazine, British writer Jonathan Coe revealed that his biggest influence wasn’t a fellow novelist, but film director Billy Wilder. It was the combination of “desperate sadness” and “unapologetic levity”, the “lurch from comedy to pathos”, that shaped Coe’s own artistic consciousness, he wrote. His seminal experience with Wilder’s work was The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) , an affectionate send-up of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective.

This is significant information for anyone approaching Mr Wilder & Me, whose subtitle might well be The Adventures of a Greek Interpreter, one of Conan Doyle’s favourite Holmes stories. Late in his novel, Coe drops the title into a conversation between Wilder and the book’s narrator, Calista, an aimless Greek student with musical flair who finds herself drawn into the film world when she is employed as an interpreter to the director and assistant to his collaborator, IAL Diamond, on the set of Wilder’s penultimate film, Fedora (1978).

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