At four o’clock in the morning, when Louis de Bernières has lines of poetry repeating in his head which won’t stop gnawing away, he writes them down. ‘I think of poetry as my original vocation,’ he tells me. ‘Novel writing somehow grew out of it.’ De Bernières did not become a published writer until he was thirty-five, but, he declares: ‘I always knew I was going to be a writer from a very early age, the way someone knows they are going to a doctor or a priest.’ Since being named a Granta Best of Young British Novelist in 1993, de Bernières’s books have included the bestselling Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994) and Birds Without Wings (2004), his sixth novel and the one he is most proud of. A new short story collection, Notwithstanding: Stories of Village Life, will be published in October by Harvill Secker.
At the Oxfam Bookfest, an inaugural literary festival launched to celebrate the fact that Oxfam, England’s largest retailer of secondhand books, has through booksales raised millions of pounds to help fight poverty, I interviewed de Bernières and he gave an enchanting reading of his poetry – he is preparing three poetry collections for publication, as he returns to that original vocation.
‘I don’t want to be cool and metropolitan and cynical,’ he declares. ‘I want to express my feelings and hope that the reader feels those feelings too.’ He admires poetry that comes from a state of high emotion, such as the war poetry of Wilfred Owen. Until he was around thirty-five, he only read Latin Americans novelists. ‘My contemporaries were all reading Martin Amis, which is what I characterize as that cool metropolitan style of writing; people often just being nasty to each other.’ De Bernières applies the rules of poetry to prose, suffusing his novels with a deliberate lyricism, such as Pelagia lamenting her father’s death in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and the passage at the end of Birds Without Wings mourning things that have passed away.
Poetry runs in the family – his father would quote passages of Shakespeare at the dinner table and wrote his own ‘old-fashioned but good’ poetry in the style of Georgian poets, until ‘his whole life was pushed off course’ when the war broke out. His mother’s greatest love was the work of Rupert Brooke. Once upon a time, however, young Louis was on track for a military career. When Louis was fifteen, his father couldn’t afford the fees of his Berkshire public school and suggested his son apply instead for an army scholarship. ‘But by the time I was eighteen I just wanted to be Bob Dylan. This was when youngsters were growing their hair long, falling in love at rock festivals. I no longer had the right personality to be a soldier. I wanted to play the guitar. I didn’t want to be told what to do by anyone. I didn’t want to tell anyone what to do. At that time I thought I was a pacifist. Now I want to kill everybody. There are lots of people I’d like to see strung up on lampposts.’ He managed only a few months in the army, before a sergeant major advised him: ‘What we do is break people down and rebuild them. It’s like hypnotism; it only works on people who want it, but we haven’t been able to break you down or change you because that’s not what you want so I think it’s better if you go.’ This caused huge familial difficulties as he was expected to go into his father’s regiment and his parents were ‘very upset and even ashamed’. He then worked for about six months as a stone mason living at home, but ‘in the end it became unbearable’.
Aged nineteen, he escaped to Colombia. ‘When I came back I didn’t feel British again for absolutely years.’ Advice from some fabulous English teachers has also shaped the wide, global scope of his fictional settings, with one teacher telling him: ‘You must never, ever think that the only good writers are writing in English. You can’t be literate if you haven’t read Tolstoy or Balzac.’ This international outlook is deepened by de Bernières’s own heritage: ‘Being of French origin makes a difference,’ he muses. ‘It makes you feel almost as if you have a right to be anywhere. After I spent a year in Colombia living in the middle of nowhere, I did feel as if I could be from anywhere. One of the great pains of my life is that I can’t be everywhere. You have to live somewhere.’ But when he is writing, does he imaginatively inhabit these other worlds? ‘Imaginatively, I mostly live in Greece and Turkey. My car and body are in East Anglia. But my head is in Anatolia.’
After the globe-trotting of his previous works, his fascinating new book, Notwithstanding: Stories of Village Life, sees a return to settings much closer to home; a compelling collection of stories based on what he remembers of growing up in a village in the South of England. ‘It came about because I had failed to see my country in a proper way,’ he explains. The stories were inspired during a visit to the South of France where he met a gentleman who provided insight into England. ‘He said to me, “I love England!” And I said “why?” and he said “because it’s so exotic” and I said “come on, what on earth do you mean?” And he said “well, I go to France or Belgium or Germany or Holland, and to me they all seem the same but when I go to England it is a huge lunatic asylum.” When I thought about this, I realised he was right.’
De Bernières enumerates anecdotes of some of the lunacy: in the village where he grew up there was an old lady who spent her retirement dressed as a man shooting squirrels. There was another lady next door whose house was a ‘stinking menagerie’, and who drove a car dating back to 1927 with the dashboard hanging off and ‘always had a goat loose on the backseat’. Yet another neighbour stayed in the bath for two days once, just topping it up with hot water. There was a spiritualist convinced she could see the ghost of their husband, would go for walks with him and once paid two fares on the bus. Thus, de Bernières realised what an ‘extraordinarily mad place’ England was, indeed quite like something from a Marquez novel. Although he draws at times on people that he knew, he stresses ‘the most dangerous thing that can happen to a novelist is that you get too addicted to the truth. After a while [the characters] take on their own life anyway and start dictating to you what they can and can’t do. That’s happened to me over and over again’.
‘If you separate off cultures in a society the culture seems to disintegrate. One of the things I love about Greece is that everybody has the same culture. Little children can dance with their grandfather. In this country it’s fragmented. All over the continent right down into Turkey you have the evening walk which everyone goes on. I think we’ve lost the plot in England; children don’t learn folk dances; they don’t learn traditional songs; they don’t learn the old customs; we’re losing our regional dialects. It’s all very depressing. It’s all so diluted.’
‘One of the odd things about being British,’ muses de Bernières, ‘is that you are not allowed to be really good at more than one thing. So a novelist who writes really good poetry like Kingsley Amis isn’t going to get remembered for the poetry. In my case, I’m also a musician but I know I won’t be remembered for that.’
De Bernières has just been playing in Ireland with his band The Antonius Players. What, I wonder, is the relationship between his twin passions for poetry and music? ‘One of the reasons I stopped writing poetry for a long time was that I no longer knew what a poem was,’ he explains. ‘There was once a time when we all knew what a poem was and could tell whether it was good or bad in two ways, whether it was technically good, and whether it made any kind of impact on you. But then at the beginning of the twentieth century the standards started to change. People like T.S. Eliot made it much more confusing and we didn’t know what a poem was. Since I’ve been working as a professional musician I’ve thought the English idea of stress might be just too damn simple. In music you get brevs, minutes, crotchets, quavers, hemi-demi quavers, etc. I feel poetry ought to aspire to that sort of sophistication when it comes to metre. Wouldn’t it be nice to write poetry the way a musician writes music? I aspire to that.’ Music is very physical but also very stressful, he says, so sometimes his right hand clenches so tightly that it’s really very painful but he keeps playing, all the way through.
After a hiatus, mainly due to a crisis of confidence, the poetical inspiration has returned to de Bernières: ‘I’ve been writing a lot of poems as I’ve been having the most terrible time domestically. One of the strange beneficial side effects was that tonnes of poetry came out that had nothing to do with my domestic crisis at all.’
Three separate poetry collections are ready for publication, grouped around the themes of ‘love and sex, general purpose poems, and those in honour of Constantine Cavafy’, the Greek Alexandrian poet with whom de Bernières shares a fascination with the Ancient Hellenic world.
De Bernières reads poems both poignant and comic, about a ‘night time heavy with…promise’; about lovers who ‘ignored the sea and stars’; about wandering through a graveyard and seeing the words ‘love is stronger than death’ (’the cynical agnostic that I am thought, “if only that were true”’; a humorous poem about a fierce dog; another about an ex-girlfriend in Ipswich (a place he associates with heartbreak, and the most stressful job he ever had working in a school). His versatility as a writer – and reader – juxtaposing wry insights with longer, mournful reflections never fails to surprise and delight the audience.
He becomes philosophical when musing on how far he has come since the Granta Best of Young British Novelist nomination in 1993, and on getting older. ‘I’m middle-aged now. When you get older you develop a complex that younger people don’t see you as an equal. It’s a throwback to my generation because that’s how we thought of our parents; they were just a bunch of old boring fascists who didn’t know anything. Of course it isn’t until they get till their eighties [that] you see them as an irreplaceable archive’. The best thing about the Granta nomination was that he got to know writers of his generation, some with whom he has remained permanent friends. ‘I couldn’t live without Esther [Freud] even though I hardly ever see her’. As for his work: ‘I sometimes have this horrible fear that because Birds Without Wings was the best thing I’ll ever do in a sense my career is over, as I don’t think I can do anything better. So why not write poetry? Why not go and play concerts instead?’
However, he affirms: ‘I know I’ve got two or three novels left in me yet. I want to write a book based on the life of my great-grandfather, who was condemned to wander all his life because his wife wouldn’t divorce him because she was so religious. So he never could start again. He ended up in a tiny green shack in the rocky mountains. But it needs a plot.’
He also wants to write a book about a charismatic eco-fascist who thinks we should all go back to nature. ‘ If there’s one thing humans aren’t suited to it’s going back to nature. It would be my version of Lord of the Flies. I thought of setting it in East Anglia because that’s where I live. At the time I want to set the novel, Norwich was full of lunatics.’
Louis de Bernières’s eschewal for rules, evident in his disdain for the army, also emerges in his writing habits, often writing what he wants, when he wants. These days, however, he is more disciplined. ‘There was a time when I would wait for inspiration but then I found that if I sat down and worked, the inspiration came anyway.’ He finds it important to maintain activities aside from the writing: ‘I do a lot of gardening, carpentry, and throwing children around a lot is a great hobby. I always felt that if you live too much in your own head you go mad and disconnected. It’s very important to stay connected with the earth and with things and with people.’
Photograph by Chris Boland