One Sunday evening in 1975 in a leafy suburb of Birmingham, 14-year-old Jonathan Coe put off his school dread by switching on the telly. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was on BBC One, the beginning of the author’s lifelong fascination with director Billy Wilder, who was to become “a far more influential figure on the way that I write than any novelist,” he says, 45 years later. Such was the impact on the young Coe that he started recording the soundtracks of his favourite films from the TV so he could lie in bed listening to Wilder on his Walkman until “the rhythm to his dialogue kind of seeped into my subconscious”. That screening “set a lot of ripples in motion,” he says (young film buffs Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat also watched it that evening, leading to the hit TV series Sherlock). Coe’s latest novel, Mr Wilder & Me, has been “growing” in his head ever since.
When we meet, Coe, who talks with the unassuming solemnity of the off-duty comic, is without the beard of recent author photos. “I only grew it so people would take me more seriously and start giving me prizes,” he jokes. A few months later he won the Prix du livre européen and the 2019 Costa novel award for his last novel Middle England. So, going against lockdown trends, in March he “decided it had served its purpose and shaved it off”. He was already well into the new novel by the time the restrictions struck, which “really took my mind off the horror that was going on around me,” he says in the socially distanced autumnal sunshine of a cafe garden in Earl’s Court, west London, where he has lived for many years.
More than any other contemporary novelist perhaps, Coe has set himself the task of chronicling recent British history, probing the national psyche with his characteristic mix of humour and humanity (his debt to Wilder) ever since his savage 80s satire What a Carve Up! in 1994. From Thatcherism to Brexit, there have been few public milestones that haven’t proved rich pickings for Coe’s unique brand of nostalgic comedy. After completing his autobiographical trilogy – The Rotters’ Club (2001), based on his Birmingham grammar school in the 1970s, The Closed Circle (2004) serving up the New Labour years and Middle England, which unfolds from the opening of the 2012 Olympics ceremony in London to the EU referendum and its aftermath – Coe was understandably “a bit exhausted on the state-of-the-nation front”. He needed to come up for air and see where 25 years of writing had taken him. He wanted “to smuggle in a book about being at a certain point in your creative cycle, when things don’t maybe come as easily to you as they used to and your sense of contact and understanding of the world around you starts to shift and falter a little bit.”
The result is Mr Wilder & Me, a homage to his great hero and an elegant, quietly devastating meditation on age, creativity and failure, set in the dying days of fame, the unglamorous period that usually comes after the final page or the credits have started rolling. “I suppose it’s typical of me that I zoom in on Billy Wilder in one of the most melancholy moments of his life, just when his star is on the wane and he’s trying to find a gracious way of becoming an elder statesman,” Coe says of his decision to focus, not on one of Wilder’s signature films such as The Apartment (1960, “perhaps the greatest of all”) or Some Like It Hot (1959, “a joyous experience”), but on the largely forgotten late film Fedora (1978). “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.’”
I don’t look back and think: ‘I wasn’t longlisted for the Booker.' I think: 'I’ve paid the mortgage from fiction'
The “crazy story” of an ageing actor and a washed-up Hollywood producer, Fedora was a poignant choice for Wilder and his writing partner IAL (Iz) Diamond at a point when their best work was behind them and a new generation of film-makers – Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg – were snapping their clapperboards at their heels. The film’s closing lines say it all: Hollywood “is a whole different business now. The kids with beards have taken over”. “The book is really about how you negotiate those moments of transition, whether they are in your creative life or your personal life,” Coe reflects. His novel is narrated by Calista, a Greek-born film-score composer now in her late 50s living in London but looking back on the summer of 1977 when she landed a job as a translator on the set of Fedora in Corfu. With her children on the brink of leaving home and worrying about the next stage of her career, she asks: “What’s to become of me?” – a refrain of disappointment and regret that runs throughout the novel. “I’m at exactly the same moment,” Coe says. “My daughters are 19 and 23. It’s the point in your life at which you start asking yourself, what next?” Fatherhood, he says, has been “an adventurous journey in ways that I wasn’t expecting. It has taken me to places emotionally that I wouldn’t have gone to.”
Coe, who will be 60 next year, is himself entering his elder statesman years, particularly tricky, perhaps, for a writer who made his name as a satirist. Following a decade after the writers who dominated the 80s – Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes et al – Coe has always seemed the least clubby of authors. But he is aware that the prevailing publishing establishment, of which he has been “a beneficiary”, is coming to an end, undoubtedly “a good thing”. Writers like Coe – “white Oxbridge-educated male” – are being asked “to let go of some of our privilege,” he says. “That’s fine. I don’t want to translate that into statements like, ‘The novel as we know it is dying’, because clearly there’s an incredible energy and excitement in publishing around young writers at the moment.”
In a brief exchange early in the novel, the narrator bumps into an old acquaintance, a screenwriter who, in the forlorn tradition of Coe characters (remember poor Benjamin Trotter “the best unpublished writer in the country”), has been trying to get a Kingsley Amis adaptation off the ground for the last 30 years, “a minor novel by someone who was now so out of fashion that you might as well try and get an adaptation of the Yellow Pages on to the screen”. It was “a little unfair” to single Amis Sr out as “a striking example of the old guard,” Coe says mischievously, but his point was that “there’s always a changing of the guard, this is how cultural cycles work and it is inevitable and the challenge is to deal with it graciously”. He thinks Wilder achieved this. “He had a stab at making Fedora and one more movie, and then he sort of bowed and handed the baton over.”
In another scene in the novel, a fan comes up to Wilder in a restaurant to rave about The Apartment. “Mr Diamond and I have written seven pictures since The Apartment. Seven,” poor Wilder exclaims, sentiments Coe has jokingly echoed about What a Carve Up! (“a preachy novel,” he later reflected). Does he feel that book is his The Apartment? “It’s a bit churlish to moan that people only ever talk about one of your books,” he says now. And he is thrilled that there is finally going to be a theatre adaptation of the novel, with a starry cast including Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi and Tamzin Outhwaite, which will be live-streamed next month. (The Rotters’ Club has been adapted for TV, radio and stage.)
Despite his distinguished reputation and loyal readership, not just in the UK but on the continent (where his English humour is regarded as “exotic,” he says), remarkably, Coe has never been even longlisted for the Booker prize: he takes his revenge by giving that distinction to his alter ego Benjamin Trotter in Middle England. (The prize has long seemed a little sniffy about comic fiction, although as Coe reminds me, Howard Jacobson won it for The Finkler Question “so there’s always an exception”.) “I’m not sure I’ve ever written a beautiful sentence in my life,” he says modestly of the much-noted fluency of his prose, one of the reasons his writing works so well in translation, he thinks. Instead, he aims for “a kind of lucidity, a sort of clear glass that readers can see through to the characters and the story”, which may also be part of his enduring appeal: his novels are fun to read (Wilder’s influence again). “I don’t look back in bitterness and think, ‘I wasn’t longlisted for the Booker’,” he says. “I look back and think, ‘I’ve paid the mortgage and put food on the table for the last 30 years from fiction and that’s something I never thought I’d be able to do.’”
Growing up in Bromsgrove, he was “your classic 1970s shy, introverted, suburban male,” he says, “with a very stable family life in the background”. Although his parents read, the books were “what would now be called middlebrow fiction, Agatha Christie, Arthur Hailey”, and it was his grandfather who put him on to Sherlock Holmes. “My imagination had to work overtime just to entertain myself.” It was 70s TV, in particular comedy – Porridge, Monty Python, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin – that shaped the young Coe as a writer. His teenage bookshelves were groaning under the novelisations of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and The Good Life – and Billy Wilder films. He still considers himself to be a 70s writer. “The best writing from that era has had a longevity,” he says. “So maybe I learned from the right people in the end.”
Then there is the issue of writing about Hollywood in the 70s from a post #MeToo perspective. While Wilder clearly “wasn’t exactly a saint” in his personal life, Coe feels his “gaze was less obsessively male” than that of other directors of the time, such as Alfred Hitchcock. “He did write quite strong, interesting women with a lot of sympathy,” like the lovely Shirley MacLaine character in The Apartment. But although “he scores reasonably well on sexual politics,” as Coe points out, The Fortune Cookie in 1966 was the first Wilder film to include a central black character in Ron Rich’s footballer Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson.
Middle England glances at cancel culture when academic Sophie is suspended after a misunderstanding over comments to a transgender student. “I wanted to write about the speed and ferocity with which these things blow up in the social media age,” Coe says now, of which the recent controversy sparked by JK Rowling’s tweets on the issue “is a classic instance”. His response to the two subsequent open letters, one defending Rowling “against hate” and one in support for transgender and non-binary people signed by leading writers on both sides of the debate, was largely “one of confusion and one of sadness that we allowed ourselves to become polarised in this way,” he says. “To me the only certainty is that the truth lies somewhere in the grey areas in between, and those seem to be exactly the areas that the current climate doesn’t allow us to explore in any depth or at any leisure because it goes from zero to 80 so quickly.” Coe is a genial presence on Twitter, where he tries to limit his use to friendly discussions about books, music and film, “although even those can get bitter and divisive if you are not careful”. And you might catch the occasional exasperated tweet about Brexit.
Coe has always been an outspoken remainer. The UK’s European dilemma runs throughout his recent fiction, from his 2013 novel Expo 58, set during the 1958 world fair in Brussels, and sneaking into Mr Wilder & Me: “I know that technically England is part of Europe,” Diamond reflects at one point. “But … England is its own thing, you know?” Now he is torn between trying “to step back from the unfolding shitshow because it’s too upsetting” and his unflagging fascination with the “questions that Brexit has thrown up about the nature of Englishness”. His mood is one of “glum resignation”.
I’d be failing my readers if I put reality down on the page in a way that gives no spark of hope or joy
Boris Johnson, who pops up in Middle England “with his bumbling Etonian manner and ironic smirk”, was “comic right up until he became prime minister,” Coe says. “The clown shtick worked for him very well because if there’s one thing the English want from their politics it’s entertainment. Politics is theatre in this country.” The rise of populism and the far right has been a dark undercurrent in the Rotters’ Club sequence. “I don’t want to use the word prescient,” he says, “but writing fiction about the nation made me see something that was maybe happening in the English psyche that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise, or wouldn’t have tackled.”
Fans will be relieved to know that he has no intention of giving up on current affairs. “A few years ago the complaint about British novelists seemed to be that they were always writing about the past. The complaint now seems to be that we have a kind of reflex reaction to events, which doesn’t allow us perspective. You can’t win.” And he can see that there are many narrative possibilities in the current crisis. “Why would you not write a novel set during the pandemic?” he asks.
Just after lockdown restrictions were eased earlier this year, Coe visited his mother, who still lived in their house in Bromsgrove. It was a beautiful day, and they sat in the garden and talked about stories from her childhood, as possible material for his next novel. Shortly after he got back to London that evening she died, not from coronavirus. “We did have quite a retrospective conversation which was nice, but I didn’t say to her the things that I would have said to her had I known this was the last time,” he reflects. “It’s been a difficult year for everybody.”
For all Coe’s anxieties about his place in a fracturing literary culture, he will not be following Wilder’s example and bowing out. With ideas for at least three or four books, he has enough to last him through his 60s, he says. “I’m only really happy when I’m writing.” The new novel is “very political and state of the nation”. It won’t involve the Rotters’ Club characters, but he’s not done with them yet. “My winter novel about Benjamin Trotter in his old age can’t be far away,” he says.
Wilder’s “absolute commitment to entertainment” remains Coe’s guiding principle. “I would be failing in my duty to my readers if I just put reality down on the page in such a way that would give the reader no spark of hope or joy,” he says. And, because “everything comes back to Wilder”, he ends with a true anecdote the film director liked to tell about the famously depressing movies by one of those new generation of directors: “a wonderful story about a German guy who comes home after a hard day at the office and everything in his family life is terrible, and his neighbour says: ‘Never mind, let’s go and see Fassbinder’s Despair.’” He laughs. “We have a moral responsibility not to make our readers despair.”
• Mr Wilder & Me is published by Viking (£16.99) on 5 November. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. Jonathan Coe will be in conversation with Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw for a Penguin Live digital book launch on 3 November, tickets available here.