Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, a Personal Biography ,
by Charlotte Chandler ( Simon & Schuster, New York, 352 pp, £20 hardback)
There are certain rare artistic prodigies who manage not only to cross successfully from one culture to another but then proceed to do their finest work in a language other than the one they'd grown up speaking. In literature Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov are examples of this. The film-director and scriptwriter Billy Wilder was another.
Wilder was born in 1905 in Sucha in Galicia, now part of Poland but in those days within the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, which in a few years was to disappear for ever - just as, only a little later, were many of its former citizens. Most of Wilder's family were eventually to perish in Auschwitz, but he himself, thanks to a typically astute assessment of the dangers in Germany in the early 1930s, escaped ahead of the executioner.
Wilder had received writing credit for thirteen films before Hitler came to power as Chancellor, but this most worldly-wise of men had no illusions that there was any future for him in his beloved adopted city of Berlin. He sold everything he owned and fled to Paris with a girl-friend. There he met other refugee film-makers, including Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre, and directed a film in French starring the youthful Danielle Darrieux.
But the situation in Europe continued to worsen, and in 1934 Wilder left for the U.S. Aside from the year in Paris, he'd spent the first twenty-eight years of his life speaking and writing in German. Now, with hardly a word of English, he was hoping to make his living as a scriptwriter in Hollywood.
The rest, as they say, is cinema history. . .
The contribution to Twentieth Century American life and culture made by "old Europe" (as an American political figure has recently referred to it with disparagement) has been immense, and nowhere moreso that in cinema, most numerically popular of the arts. This was particularly true in the troubled years prior to and after World War II, when refugee directors like Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann and Otto Preminger were making their reputation – and new types of cinema – in a Hollywood film industry athirst for talent.
Over the next four decades Wilder's own highly characteristic contribution to his adopted nation lay not only in a string of brilliant and often successful films (which attracted numerous citations for Oscars and a great many actual awards). It lay also in certain qualities his films possessed: a dimension of wordliness and savoir-vivre, a streetwise wit which can be savage and a philosophical candour which can look and sound like cynicism but for its radicalising freshness. To the political idealism, the self-willed moral naivety of the cinema of the New World during this period, what Wilder brings from "old Europe" is a breadth of life-experience, an unsentimental truthfulness which finds expression in particularly mordant forms of humour. Yet it's not just a question of the number of good jokes in the script, or the hard edge his plots have – though these are among the lasting delights of any Billy Wilder film. Wilder consistently made films in America which no American director would have dared make – from the cross-dressing exploits of two male stars in the incomparable Some Like It Hot to the depiction of alcoholism in The Lost Weekend or of one-night stand adultery as an aid to marriage in Kiss Me, Stupid. And no one could ridicule both communism and capitalism with the freedom and sharpness of touch Wilder shows in One, Two ,Three – or in his script for Lubitsch's Ninotchka.
This splendidly readable biography gives a retrospective not only of Wilder's life but of all his films from the director's own point of view, together with that of many of the stars who played in them – who without exception seem to have remained grateful for the privilege. Charlotte Chandler has also chosen the happy format for a biographer of giving her subject free rein for reminiscence with the tape-recorder left on – which is to say that she uses as many of his own words as possible.
Billy Wilder spoke a unique and vivid form of exile's English that seems perfectly adapted to express his native drollness of vision and quickness of thought. Many of the impromptu remarks he made in ordinary conversation retain the freshness and snap of the brilliant one-liners he and his favourite co-authors Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond wrote for film. He was also evidently a man of wide culture and great personal charm. Oscar Wilde – another famous wit – once complained that he had put his genius into his life and only his talent into his books. Billy Wilder seems to have had the gift of putting his genius into his films and his conversation alike. He "comes off the page" right through this biography – and one senses that his timing and delivery of a line was probably as good as that of the famous actors who so memorably performed his scripts to camera.
First published in THE LONDON MAGAZINE
Monsieur Proust , by Céleste Albaret, translated from the French by Barbara Bray
( New York Review Books, 2003, £9.99).
Céleste Gineste was born in the village of Auxillac in the Lozère in 1891. In 1913 she married Odilon Albaret, a young man who spent holidays with her family, then went with her new husband to live in Paris, where he drove a taxi. One of his most valued clients was a certain Monsieur Proust, who sometimes required chauffeuring services at unusual hours but who was a kindly and generous customer – he even sent a telegram of congratulations to Odilon on his wedding-day.
Céleste had never left her village before, and was soon homesick. On learning of this, Odilon's client once again showed his kindness by suggesting that Céleste might occupy her time by performing some services for him. She began her employment by personally delivering to his friends copies of Monsieur Proust's book Du côté de chez Swann, recently published.
Thus began a relationship which eventually led to Céleste becoming Proust's housekeeper, a position of central importance in the life of this solitary and reclusive invalid, and one which lasted until his death nine years later at the age of fifty-one. In those years, working in bed, mostly at night, and rarely leaving his bedroom (let alone his flat), he was to complete the succeeding volumes of his extended novel A la recherche du temps perdu.
The domestic lives of great writers often exercise a fascination, and for Proust during these years the domestic life and the writing was almost all there was. Overall, few biographies contain as little significant action or change of scene as Proust's. He never had a paid job; he travelled little - and always with a genuine or a hypochondriac's sense of risk to his health in doing so; and his friendships, passions, or amorous experiences remain ambiguous or uncertain to the most searching biographer.
Even Proust's daily régime, though strict in its attention to detail, was curiously minimal. Thus, although there's much in Proust's fiction to interest a gourmand, Céleste rarely knew him to eat anything beyond a croissant (sometimes two) which he took with his breakfast coffee (which, given his nocturnal working habits, was served at four or five p.m.). He seemed to subsist almost exclusively on this coffee - or, like a new-born baby, on the milk in it (sometimes imbibing nearly a litre a day). The milk came fresh each morning from a neighbouring dairy, and the coffee had to be prepared to an exacting set of rules. Only the Corcellet brand was used, and it had to be bought in a shop in the 17 th arrondissement where it was freshly roasted. Even the filter, and the tray on which the coffee was served, came from Corcellet .
Cooking was rarely done on the premises, because smells excited Proust's asthma. But sometimes Céleste would order in a dish of a certain ragoût from Larue's, and Monsieur would eat two or three mouthfuls, as if for the memory of eating it at other times. On rare occasions he would relish a fried sole, which had to be bought at Potin's fishmongers' in the place Saint-Augustin. Mullet, however, had to be from Marseille and bought at Prunier's near la Madeleine.
Proust went out only briefly, and allowed few visitors, and only then apparently under extreme social or professional duress. Among his callers, Celeste lists – and gives her own opinion on - Count Montesquiou (the model for Baron de Charlus in the novel) and the Countess Greffulhe (on whom the Duchesse de Guermantes was based). And she faithfully reports her master's dislike of his publisher Gaston Gallimard and the increasingly sycophantic André Gide – who had turned down Proust's novel when first offered to him for publication.
But in this last period of his life – during and after World War I - Proust's biography is pre-eminently one of literary labour, often to the point of exhaustion. Obsessed by a vanished past he could recover only in the pages of his novel, his work was simultaneously haunted by the pressing knowledge of his own mortality. As his links to the outside world became fewer – and his fame there grew - his reliance on Céleste became absolute. She had long ceased to be merely his housekeeper. She was now the jealous guardian of his privacy, and his most intimate confidante. Their relationship, always punctiliously professional, had deepened into mutual respect and a kind of love: "There were moments," Céleste wrote, "when I felt I was his mother, and others when I felt I was his child."
Céleste's knowledge of Proust's daily life during all this time was of an unparalleled intimacy, though it was many years later that she came to write about it – and only then, as she explains, so as to correct the many distortions and ignorances of other biographers.
Originally published in France in 1973, this is a welcome reissue, in an excellent English translation, of a unique account of a great writer's last years and a fascinating background to the composition of a vast work of autobiographical reconstruction many think the greatest novel of the Twentieth century.
First published in THE LONDON MAGAZINE