The renaissance of Jonathan Coe has been one of the more cheering literary stories of recent years. He’s a writer whose career can be usefully arranged in decades. There was the apprenticeship of his 20s; then in his 30s a run of unforgettable, name-making novels – What a Carve Up!, The House of Sleep, The Rotters’ Club. Then it felt as if Coe went off the boil a little, with the books of his 40s and 50s – The Rain Before It Falls, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim and Expo 58 in particular – all lacking the verve and humour of his earlier work. Coe at his best was that rare thing: a writer of page-turners that are full of postmodern flourishes, jeux d’esprit that also engage profoundly with important subjects. In the Costa prize-winning and bestselling Middle England, he seemed to recapture the warmth and sharpness of his mid-career masterpieces.
Following up a success is never easy and yet the life and light that flooded Middle England is preserved and multiplied in Mr Wilder & Me. This is a book that looks back to Coe’s brilliant early period, engaging, like What a Carve Up!, with cinema in a formal as well as a thematic way, delivering the reader a satisfyingly sweeping novel that still manages to push the form in new directions. It hinges on 60 pages in the middle of the book when the narrative morphs suddenly into an approximation of a Billy Wilder script – but this is a film in which Wilder himself is the star. We meet “Billie” as a young man, in the war, when he betrayed a lover and made a film that in some way compensated for this betrayal. The script colours all the story around it and is one of the most strangely moving pieces of writing I’ve read in years. Coe’s best novels always sounded tricksier in summary than they were when you read them. The same can be said here.
Calista is a composer of film scores perched on the cusp of an empty nest. Her twins, Ariane and Francesca, are both themselves at crossroads. Ariane is leaving for Australia, while Francesca has discovered that she is pregnant and is trying to decide whether to keep the baby. Calista is 57, has a career behind her in which she achieved some success but is now feeling forgotten, and is composing “a little suite, for chamber orchestra”, called Billy. The Billy in question is Wilder, the great director, whom she met when travelling in America as a teenager, and whose fate has been inextricably linked with her own ever since. The novel looks back on her sentimental and cinematic education with Wilder.
Calista was brought up in Greece, a shy and studious girl, “introverted, melancholy and solitary”. After meeting Wilder and his writing partner, Iz Diamond (the two are “married for life”, their wives say), Calista immerses herself in cinema, learning Halliwell’s by heart. Soon, she is contacted by Wilder to help in the production of one of his last works, Fedora, “about an ageing film producer, trying to make a film that was entirely out of step with the times”. Calista is initially a translator for the scenes shot in Greece, but then follows the film to Munich and Paris. On set in Corfu, she meets a young man, Matthew, who has ambitions of his own. The story of their love is beautiful, clear-eyed, perfectly judged.
In 1945, Billy Wilder made a film called Death Mills about the Holocaust. In it he showed “an entire field, a whole landscape of corpses”. He went on to make Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. While Mr Wilder & Me is ostensibly an airy Künstlerroman about a young woman discovering her love of film, music and young men, it is also about the way that a generation of film-makers responded to the great cataclysm of the second world war and the seriousness with which they viewed entertainment, particularly comedy, as an escape from nightmarish reality. It’s hard not to feel that this is also a book about the shape of careers, from a novelist moving confidently into his seventh decade. Wilder never managed to regain the majesty of his mid-period masterpieces, but in Mr Wilder & Me, Coe has done more than that. This is as good as anything he’s written – a novel to cherish.
• Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe is published by Viking (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply