I read My Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe whilst staying in Plymouth on a walking holiday in Devon this summer, having really enjoyed reading Middle England pre-pandemic (see my blog). It’s story is set around the real-life film producer Billy Wilder, who I knew nothing about, and his fictional assistant Calista, who meets Mr Wilder by accident one summer when travelling in Los Angeles aged 21 with a friend called Gill that she met on a greyhound bus. Gill is English and her parents have arranged for her to meet an old friend of her father’s from the war, who turns out to be Billy Wilder. When Calista and Gill turn up scruffy to the Beverley Hills restaurant for the evening Calista is left feeling out-of-place and out of her depth, even more so when Gill scarpers mid-meal to go a meet her boyfriend, leaving Calista with the two middle aged couples – Billy and his wife and his friend and creative collaborator Iz Diamond and his wife.
This chance encounter shapes Calista’s life. When she returns home to a boring summer in Athens with her parents she cannot believe it when she gets a call inviting her to be the translator on the set of Wilder’s film Fedora, which is shooting in Greece that summer. Calista jumps at the chance and has the adventure of a lifetime in Corfu and then in Munich and Paris, where she joins the glamorous film set, learns how films are made and becomes friends with Iz. This sparks her interest in film music, and she goes on to be a film composer.
This is really a story of looking back on past achievements. Calista as narrator is looking back at her youth in the 1970s, pondering her stalled career, as her own daughters Ariane and Francesca start out on their own, and very different, life adventures. 1970s Billy also knows he is past his greatest achievements – films like Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot and the Seven Year Itch. And the main character of the film they are shooting, Wilder’s penultimate film, Fedora, is also at the end of an illustrious career. These are all bittersweet meditations on the theme of lost youth, summed up in a poignant moment near the end of the book: ‘Well, I don’t suppose you’d understand. You’re too young. As you get older, the hopes get smaller and the regrets get bigger. The challenge is to fight it. To stop the regrets from taking over. Right?’. There is another such moment in France, which leads to Calista’s amusing life-long obsession with brie, when Billy tells a young Calista that they have both been reminded of something important on a magical night in the French countryside – that whatever else life throws at you, life will always have pleasures to offer and we should always take them.
As Calista says of the film Fedora, this book itself shows such compassion for its ageing characters, ‘struggling to find a role for themselves in a world which is interested only in youth and novelty’. It is a refreshing and rather beautiful read and its last line is one of the cleverest I have read for a long time.